By Luyi Zhang
In the pursuit of improvement, we constantly set goals and try to reach them—it is only human nature to strive higher and try to improve ourselves. Within the yoga room, in the individual postures, we desire progress—more depth, more definition, more endurance. Although striving for improvement encourages us to be determined and put forth more effort, sometimes it helps to put our goals aside and truly appreciate what is there, in the moment.
The other night, I was moving deeper into Standing Bow pose with the intention of kicking back strongly while charging forward with determination. All was well... until I fell out of the pose, my palms hitting the top of my towel, leaving perfect handprints of sweat. I felt disappointed with myself, wishing I could have balanced in the pose for a little longer. Does this process sound familiar? We've all had moments of progressing into postures with the intention of executing it strongly, only to fall out of it and feel unsatisfied. We wish we could have kept kicking or stretching for just a few more seconds, and from there, it's so easy to feel a little frustrated: why wasn't I strong enough? Why did my strength and determination fall short? We've all been there; we've all experienced the negative spiral of emotions that sometimes ensues in the yoga room.
What causes these series of negative emotions? Our desire to achieve, to improve. Our goals can help us and hinder us at the same time: on the one hand, they inspire us to accomplish more; on the other hand, they can easily cause us to become frustrated with ourselves and our practice when we don't meet our own expectations. When we have clear goals in mind, it is understandable to become results-oriented—but then, if we don't attain a desired result or if we don't feel like we are improving quickly enough within a posture, etc, it is only natural for negative self-talk to happen. In our yoga practice, it is, of course, good to execute postures with effort and determination, but does it really serve us to become disappointed or frustrated with what we don't accomplish?
Plutarch (A.D. 46-120), a Greek personal essayist esteemed for his sympathy and sensitivity, once wrote,
"We must never consider a small good as a large evil, nor be ungrateful for what fortune has given us because it has not filled the measure as full as we expected."
In class, I thought of Plutarch's thoughtful words as I attempted second set of Standing Bow. This time, instead of doing the posture with the intention of achieving a certain depth, I decided to throw attachment of results to the wind. I chose to be truly grateful and appreciative of my progress—my progress itself, whatever it may be. This time, when I fell out of the pose, I didn't let it initiate a series of negativity and self-judgment. Instead of criticizing myself for only staying in the pose for half the time and becoming frustrated because I fell out, I chose to appreciate the fact that I stayed in the pose for half the time, acknowledging the strength and balance that carried me through those few seconds. This time, I evaded the clutches of the self-criticism demon: by choosing to be appreciative, I felt a lot better about myself and my abilities.
It's amazing how freeing it can be to let go of our attachment to outcomes. Rather than defining your practice by what you want it to be in the future (goals and expectations), instead, appreciate your practice for what it is right now, in the moment. Instead of using what you can't do to judge or criticize yourself, appreciate what you can do. Be grateful for your efforts. Our bodies are fascinating and incredible—some 75-100 trillion cells working together in harmony—so be thankful for your body and what it is capable of, both in class and beyond. Take a look at yourself and your practice—what are you proud of right now? Maybe it's a posture that makes you feel fabulous? Or maybe your overall perseverance and resilience? Take some time to appreciate where you are right now, at this stage in your practice.
In the yoga room, we spend so much of our energy striving for improvement—but take some time to define for yourself, what does improvement really mean to you? Improvement doesn't necessarily have to be a physical effect, even though the general approach is to judge our progress by what is visible. We tend to feel satisfied after a class where we felt strong, achieved a certain degree of depth in the postures, etc. But these are only our self-imposed standards. How our bodies will react to each class can greatly vary and is often unpredictable. The yoga in its purest form is so beneficial—everything you do in the room, as long as it is done the right way with positive intention—will serve you in some way. And ultimately, how you feel about each of your classes is entirely your choice, so why not choose to feel good about it? Perhaps, improvement could mean being more open and accepting of your process in the yoga room, regardless of outcome. Perhaps, improvement could mean occasionally loosening your grip on your goals and expectations—don't hold on so tight; appreciate all you have, in the moment.
Perhaps, improvement could mean satisfaction.
Luyi practices in New Haven, CT, and never fails to be amazed by the immense potential and power of the Bikram series. She strives to approach this 101-day challenge with patience and acceptance, while breathing with joy. She chronicles her explorations, revelations, and appreciation for this practice on her blog at 101 Days of Lampposts.