Great life lessons come in many forms. When I was in school one of my favorite English teachers was incredibly pragmatic about success. Her lessons weren’t particularly creative, or fun, but they were purposeful and clear and she taught us everything we needed to know to pass final exams. That year my progress in English was linear, predictable and safe.
The next year, however, I had a different teacher with a totally different philosophy. Preparing us for exams didn't seem like a priority; in fact, they seemed about as valuable as a winter coat on a summer’s day. What he cared about, however, was the extent to which we engaged with the texts he assigned us to read. He cared about the passion with which we debated characters, plot and style. He cared about the depth of feeling the words provoked in us. His lessons were outlandish, unpredictable and sometimes incredibly frustrating. When you simply want to know the right answer, being told there wasn’t one was infuriating.
It was only years later that I truly understood the value of his teaching philosophy. He taught me to ask questions, to critically analyze and to defend my arguments. I learned that there was no one right answer, and that sometimes even when you think you understand something, someone can throw you a curve ball that shatters your assumptions.
What brought this lesson home for me was my yoga practice because the greatest insights from my yoga mat have been akin to this teacher’s lessons. I'm the type of person that likes to set goals and a plan. I feel most comfortable when I know where I'm going and how to get there. I enjoy strategy and seeing progress. But yoga isn’t always like that and, in the bigger picture, neither is life. (Learn about The Freedom in Letting Go.)
In my approach to yoga, I’ve been just as goal-driven. I set out to achieve a particular asana. One in particular that has eluded me since my days as a ballet dancer has been hanumanasana, or full splits. It's been particularly frustrating because I feel like after all this practice, it’s something I should be able to do. But my body wouldn’t comply.
I practiced relentlessly every day for six months. Annoyed by my lack of progress and despite my better judgment, I even tried forcing it. It didn’t work. All I did was make my hamstrings painful and tight for days afterward. I ended up feeling less flexible, not more.
A breakthrough came when I started reading up on the anatomy of hanumanasana. If the limitation I was feeling was caused by bone compression and a lack of space in my hip joints, rather than right muscles or connective tissue, I’d probably never get into the idealized image I had of the full pose. I learned I may never be able to do full splits.
There’s a saying that yoga gives you what you need, not what you want. This was the greatest lesson for me. At that point in my practice, all I wanted to be able to do was get into full splits. I thought that once I mastered it, I’d be happy. Just like when I was at school I believed that once I got the right answer, or the A grade, everything would be great. In actuality, that wasn't what I needed, not really. So I continued to practice hanumanasana, but this time without any attachment to the outcome. Learning that I may never get into the full expression of the pose has taught me far more than if I would have been able to effortlessly slide into full splits. I was able instead to acknowledge my tendency to over-value outcomes, to try to control things and to apply force when things aren't going the way I want. Yoga has taught me to let go of attachment, to accept that I can't control everything, and to find surrender in the moment instead. (Read more in The Wisdom of Non-Attachment.)
Growth, for me, doesn’t happen inside my comfort zone. The most powerful, transformative lessons, have been those that have felt somewhat uncomfortable. They are the lessons that challenge me, that show me something new about myself, and that made me think about things in a different way.
This is what yoga is supposed to do. It’s not about powering through a hard pose. It’s about realizing that when you can’t do something yet, the best course of action is to make peace with it. Sometimes it’s about learning to be still when you really want to move, or surrendering when you really want to fight. My practice on my yoga mat has taught me that although I may not be able to control the challenges life brings, each situation will have something to teach me.
Yes, I can still set intentions, and goals for my yoga practice. But a big part of my yoga journey has become learning to surrender to the process of letting go of my expectations, and accepting that I’ll get what I need, not what I think I want. (Read on in What Yoga Teaches Me About Life