So, I’m leading an Ashtanga Yoga class the other day, taking the students through a vinyasa (a flowing sequence of poses), and I look up to see that one of my students, a good friend, is glaring at me. What? I think, questioning her dagger-like gaze with surprise. You have to hold Downward Dog for five breaths, it’s important. It’s good for you.

This got me thinking. What do we want from our practice? Should our practice, whether it’s yoga, fitness, sport, or otherwise, be a mild experience where we feel proficient and strong and capable? Or, should our practice challenge our boundaries, and take us outside our comfort zone? Well, the answer is a resounding…both.

It is one of the greatest challenges to a yogi, or anyone committed to a physical practice, that we strike a balance between determination and intention. It is important -as you make a commitment to lifelong health, wellness, and personal growth- that you enjoy cycles of intensity, combined with cycles of initiation and cycles of support. If we were always just maintaining our current level, we would never grow. Similarly, if we exist in the chaos of transformation all the time, we have a hard time stepping up to a new level as all of our energy is being devoted to dealing with the uncertainty of change.

Often students ask me, ‘it’s a bit warm in here. Can we turn on the air con?’ No, it’s good for you to be warm. ‘I’ve got a bit of a busy day, can I leave before the relaxation?’ No, it’s the most important part. ‘Do we have to hold this pose so long? I’m tired.’ Yes, it’s important to go through tiredness…just to see what’s on the other side.

Something that I remind my students all the time is that Tapasya – to burn – is an essential element in personal development. We need a bit of fire, a bit of challenge, to refine ourselves, to become something more. Gold is burned to refine it, to release the toxins that lower its value, and to improve its quality. A sword is burned to temper it, to strengthen it. The same must happen with the human being to be strengthened, to be tempered, and to be refined.

You see, to grow, to become something more, we have to ask our bodies and our minds for something more. The body doesn’t get any stronger from doing the same exercise at the same intensity for the same duration. The body gets stronger, more flexible, more agile, more balanced, by asking of it something that it isn’t capable of. Then, the body stretches and strengthens and becomes able to perform the exercise. This is the essence of traditional fitness training. If we try to stay within our comfort zone, we will never improve. We must go through the fire of transformation to become something more. Thus, the warm room, the sweat dripping from your forehead, the shaking in your legs.

Having said that, your yoga practice doesn’t always have to be physically challenging. Going to regular classes gives you a great opportunity to test your boundaries and increase your intensity. It is in your home practice when you have the opportunity to develop more fully this new level of practice, and to work with the other kind of intensity – intention. In your home practice you don’t have to push yourself to the limit, but it is a great time to start to visualize yourself beyond that limit. It is a time to dream yourself as something more. And, its a great opportunity to build a foundation around the new postures and levels that you have experienced in class.

A great part of being in a class is all the extra energy and space provided by a teacher to help you overcome fear, anxiety, restlessness, and the perceived limitations and boundaries of the self. However, it is equally important to take that practice home, and make it a habit to provide yourself with the space and the energy to sustain that change. With this foundation of home practice, your classes will become an even greater adventure of exploring how much your body can give you, how much it can release, and how much vitality you can experience in every day life.

Don’t know where to start? Pick your favorite poses and start there. A few sun salutes in the morning to start your day off with a stretch; use your powers of visualization during your cooldown from a run;, or pop in a DVD and let yourself be guided through a series a few times a week. With the foundation of home practice, you may still glare at your teacher in an intense class, but at least you will have a better sense of why, and a base of stamina to hold your arms for two or three more breaths in downward dog!
Namaste, Heather

First Published in the Mind Body Messenger newsletter 2005

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