The practice of Aqua yoga has opened my mind, heart and body in ways I hadn’t ever imagined. Like many people, I started practicing yoga on land, in a studio. I was fortunate to be exposed to yogic philosophy as well as asana regularly in these classes and at my teacher training. However, it wasn’t until I sustained a crippling back injury that I started to understand the true worth of yogic philosophy. In particular, the yamas, or commitments, in the first "limb" of yoga.
In early January of 2010, weeks away from completing my first 200-hour yoga training, I ruptured three discs in my low back while in urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow pose). This was actually the third time in a 10-year span that I ruptured the same discs. Each time, it took a year or two to heal to the point where I could just go back to moving through my life. At the time, I believed these injuries occurred because I just had a bad back. After the deeper study and application of The Eight Limbs of Yoga in my life and asana practice, I came to understand just how and why I kept getting injured. (Learn more about The 8 Limbs of Yoga.)
Yama #1: Non-Violence (Ahimsa)
Ahimsa means to protect life and not cause harm; to be supportive and be supported.
Water is a life-giving element. The human body is made up of 60 percent water. When the body is submerged in water, it is supported. It creates space in the joints and lightens the load.
Because of my previous injuries, depending on the day, I might feel comfortable and flexible in my body or full of inflammation, tightness and pain. As I find myself cycling through a full spectrum of body-states, I rejoice in knowing that I can always retreat to the water. Practicing yoga in water reduces inflammation and allows me to continue to increase mobility even on days when participating in a gentle “land yoga” class feels unsupported and unhealthy for my body. (Learn more in Ahimsa: A Self-Practice.)
Yama #2: Truth (Satya)
I find the truth of where I am and breathe from there, this is the principle of satya.
Being in warm water helps me to slow down. Slowing down assists me in finding the mindfulness needed to notice the truth of what my body is feeling in the present moment. The resistance of water not only tones muscles but also slows movements down, giving ample opportunity for that moment-to-moment awareness. Water helps me remain true to a steady, slow breath. Due to the hydro-static water pressure in water, erratic breathing patterns cause erratic changes in buoyancy which can result in a loss of balance in poses like half moon. Aqua yogis are encouraged to keep the breath moving and keep it steady, just like on land. (Read more on satya in 5 Yoga Virtues That Create Success.)
Yama #3: Non-Stealing (Asteya)
Applying the yogic principle of asteya, I ask myself, "How can I stop stealing from myself?"
Since this form of yoga is so different, I feel less competitive. I find it is easier for me to drop into my body and be curious, exploring rather than looking to achieve a certain pose or shape. After each back injury, I would use denial, rejection and distraction as ways to avoid evolving my practice until I tried Aqua yoga. It was through continuous exploration of yoga in the water, that I was able to stop stealing from myself the chance to be present with my body, regardless of how it was feeling. Aqua yoga gave me the gift of space to humbly accept my body as it is.
Yama #4: Energy Efficiency (Brahmacharya)
Though there are various interpretations of Brahmacharya, to me it’s all about the efficient use of life force energy.
Through the practice of Aqua yoga, I have learned how to more effectively navigate excess energy and calm my nervous system. Like many people, I've struggled with anxiety most of my life. I used to go swimming and push through intense yoga classes to make myself too exhausted to worry or feel whatever I didn’t want to feel. Intense exercise was great for working with my anxiety until the back injury took the “burn-stress-off” method away, leaving me just a bundle of painful inflamed nerves.
While I was praying for my injury to heal quickly so I could go back to my regular anxiety exorcisms, I learned about the correlation between high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and slower healing. It then became my goal to really learn how to slow down and relax. This learning to relax was, and still is, super edgy for me. Recognizing how important it was to relax for the sake of my healing process, my type-A personality set its sights on being an excellent “relaxer,” and when I couldn't stop being anxious due to the nerve pain, I became frustrated. This frustration was something extra and burned up a lot of my energy.
In the forgiving water, I experimented with not being able to relax, like relaxing around the need to relax on command. Some days just being okay with feeling like an inflamed bag of nerves was all I could do, and that was huge. The playful nature of buoyancy and ever shifting water made it more difficult to take myself so seriously and gently invited a sense of ease into my practice.
Yama #5: Non-Grasping (Aparigraha)
Practicing aparigraha means walking the line of ease and effort, unattached to outcomes.
Aqua yoga illuminated this for me in the subtle ways I was grasping for control throughout my practice. In balancing poses on land, I could get away with gripping my feet, holding my breath and hardening my body until balance was achieved. In the water, gripping and hardening is a sure way to float out of balancing poses. Aqua yoga requires a subtle limb-integrated core engagement. Steady, even breathing and allowing the body to stay relaxed just enough to gently sway with the small movements of the water is the name of the game.
I had to let go of my previous ideas of what a yoga practice looks like. Once I stopped grasping to how I thought my body should perform based on my age and previous preferences, I was able to tap into a practice that allows me to authentically meet my body in its present circumstances. (Read more on The Freedom in Letting Go.)
I eventually became committed to asking myself the following questions each time I practiced: Does this practice support me (ahimsa) in the truth where I am this moment (satya) physically/emotionally/spiritually? Is this an efficient use of my energy (Brahmacharya)? Is my contentment or happiness dependent on a particular outcome of this practice (aparigraha)?
Each day I came back to the water to practice and explore what my present body could do - all through the discomfort, embarrassment and, at times, the hopelessness I was feeling. It was through my commitment to practice and reflection that I was able to transcend some of my more rigid belief systems.
And Listen With Love
Aqua yoga and the yamas helped me discover new ways of approaching my yoga practice and life. It has led to my current ability to continue practicing yoga as well as teaching others. By embracing Aqua yoga, I was able to let go of my fixed ideas about what yoga looks like and who can practice it. I hope my story inspires you to listen to your own body with compassion and love.