You know the feeling: you are pumped about this yoga class.
You’ve got your mat, a frosty Nalgene at your side and your laundry-fresh workout duds.You even got to class a few minutes early to nab your favorite spot in the room–near the front and a little off to the side. You rocked Truffle Butter on the way here so you are READY. Your teacher bops into the room–bless his heart–asking about everyone’s energy level and the temperature in the room. While you’re ready to bust out some chaturangas at 95 degrees, a few people are working with injuries and some are still on their backs, offering the instructor a tilt of the head and half-open eyes to indicate they’re listening.
“Guess we’ll be taking it easy today,” he might chuckle.
And now, with all your energy to burn, Nicki still bumping in your head, you want to get up and leave.
When I first started practicing, I used my asana practice in lieu of going to the gym. As someone with a history of minimal physical activity, this was fine. I saw a change in my body–muscles began to surface and I lost a bit of weight. The physicality of the practice gave me the confidence and motivation to take up running, and while I didn’t see much change in my body when I added running to my regimen, I felt amazing. But then everything plateaued. Heart-wrenchingly, mind-bogglingly plateaued. At one very sad, horrible point, I was going to 3 hot classes a day in addition to running 3 miles 5 times a week, but my body refused to budge. But it still took me a while to come to the realization that I was using my precious yoga practice to punish myself.
Don’t get me wrong: I love asana as a form of movement. It’s exquisite to undulate through a few Sun Salutes, and yes, it’ll improve your overall physical and emotional wellbeing. But to sculpt a “yoga butt?” NO! As my teacher has said, there are so many quicker, more effective ways of exercising. Sun salutes, while amazing, will not sculpt a chiseled behind as effectively as, say, squats. Squats will change your booty so quickly.
Suddenly, it dawned on me that in order to maintain the devotional quality my practice had developed, I needed to separate working out and my asana. My yoga has evolved into something sacred and spiritual to me, something that I come home to where I can accept my beautifully flawed self. My asana practice serves as a place to pay attention to my body and get curious, get playful, and feel. This means giving myself the freedom to assess if I want a vigorous practice or to simply surrender in child’s pose for a half hour.
When I use my asana as exercise, I’m more concerned about working out than connecting with my inner Divinity. I’ll crank out a few more chaturangas, pick up the pace through sun salutes, hold poses for longer instead of turning in. Getting my heart rate up or fatiguing my muscles becomes primary instead of feeling if my body even wants to do that today.
So I stopped. Instead, I started doing squat and plank challenges. I started using free weights and experimenting with HIIT a few times a week. This has allowed me immense freedom: I feel strong and unstoppable, and bodyweight exercises have informed more advanced asanas I play with, like inversions and arm balances. My hips and hamstrings are slightly less flexible, but my practice feels so integrated and stable.
After all, sthira sukham asanam, right?