Holy handstands Batman, if I had a peanut-butter cup for every time I’ve heard that I’d be a very well-padded yogini indeed! It’s up there with ‘I’d like to try yoga but I’m not flexible’ as one of things I hear most often. I hear it when a student comes to me for the first time, with a note of apology in their voice. But whilst I have my standard answers for the not-flexible thing (‘That’s why we practise yoga…. Saying you’re too stiff for yoga is like saying you’re too dirty for a bath…. If it were just about the postures then 12-year-old gymnasts would be the greatest yogis who ever lived…. If you can breathe you can practise yoga’), I have yet to come up with a concise response to the ‘I’m not very good’ thing, other than to say ‘let’s chat after class, because that’s really not what it’s about’.
It’s really not, you know.
Yoga is a journey, not a destination. A practice, not a competition. An enquiry, not an answer.
The postures alone are not yoga. Without steady, synchronised breath, without intention and concentration and attention, without drawing on yogic philosophy, the postures are no more than glorified gymnastics and stretches with fancy names.
When we practise a physical sequence with all these things, then our efforts become part of something much larger. In this way, we learn to withdraw the senses from the outside world and go inward. Our motions become a moving meditation, and our mat becomes a microcosm of the world we live in. We become our own laboratory, witnessing our reactions to challenge and aversion; how we cling to that which we like and resist that which we find distasteful; how we judge ourselves and others and how to learn to surrender to that which we cannot change (ultimately saving ourselves a whole heap of aggro!)
But even with all of that, yoga doesn’t stop once we step off the mat. When we venture out into the world, that’s where the real practice begins! There’s a whole system of philosophy, 2000 years old and as fresh as the day it was committed to the page. (BKS Iyengar’s introduction in his book ‘Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ is an outstanding synopsis of this timeless wisdom, should you wish to delve into it.) Whatever life throws at me, there’s always something in yogic philosophy I can draw on to guide me through with a great deal more grace than I would otherwise muster! There’s also a huge wealth of practical tools in yoga such as breathing and concentration techniques, methods of meditation and lines of enquiry, which all add up to the simple fact that yoga just makes life easier!
If there’s any measure of success in yoga at all, I would say that it’s to do with comfort. Comfort in the mind – when we train the brain to become our tool and ally, instead of a tyrannical master, full of alarmist statements and unhelpful chit-chat, it’s a truly liberating experience! Comfort, as you’d expect, in the body – it’s quite something how even a brief but regular spell on the mat can ease and eliminate aches and pains and give us a much more pleasant day-to-day physical experience. And comfort in the spirit/soul/inner self, or whatever you like to call it – helping us to access a sense of self-acceptance, of unity within ourselves and with the world and universe around us…. Because ultimately, we’re all just stardust and consciousness.
So can you be ‘good’ at yoga? No, I don’t believe you can. Yoga gets you back to who you really are, and you can’t be ‘good’ at something which is already your natural state. Yoga simply shows you the way to go home.