When I first began practicing yoga in 2011, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I thought of yoga as stretching, and I definitely didn't think of yoga as anything more than exercise. I quickly learned that yoga can be so much more than just stretching, and now, if I wanted to describe yoga as exercise, I would be describing it as exercise for the mind, and maybe not so much for the body.
Over the years, my yoga practice has evolved into many things. I was drawn to the practice of Ashtanga Yoga and have been practicing Ashtanga almost exclusively since 2015. Practicing Ashtanga was the first time that my yoga practice felt mindful and meditative, which was a welcomed surprise, and perhaps the main reason why Ashtanga became my main practice.
I could rave for thousands of pages about why I love yoga, or even more specifically, why I love Ashtanga Yoga. But, what I love most about Ashtanga yoga is how it tames the ego. Ashtanga taught me the very important lesson of: "Yes, but not yet. Keep trying."
In Ashtanga, you can't fake it. You either do the practice or you don't; meaning you either show up or you don't. The practice IS showing up. Your teacher doesn't care what you look like in the practice, as long as you aren't going to hurt yourself. Most teachers will tell you not to look around at other students because it doesn't matter if you look like anyone else in the room. There are ways to modify every single aspect of the yoga practice, making it accessible to every single human body. If you doubt that is true, check out this incredibly inspiring video.
In my yoga practice, there were things that came very easily to me, and other things that took years of dedication to achieve. Patience is an absolute requirement when practicing yoga. There is no urgency, and it's almost worse if you try to rush your progress; the risk of injury can be so much greater. For reference, it took me almost five years to comfortably touch my toes with straight legs in a forward fold. In the early stages of my practice, when my need to progress was completely fueled by my enormous ego, I partially tore my right hamstring, and some days, I can still feel the lingering effects of that injury haunting me in my practice.
I recently began working with a teacher who really challenges my practice. After just one practice with her, it felt like she turned my entire world upside down. On some level, working with her made me feel like a beginner again, which is a welcomed feeling at this stage in my practice. To have fresh eyes on my body and to hear new ways to approach the practice was exciting and fun! She encouraged me to go back to the basics and to turn my focus inwards. I didn't realize how helpful this advice was until I began to implement it.
One of the major things she stressed about improving in my physical yoga practice was my backbends. She said that I had a fairly good foundation and had a reasonable amount of strength and flexibility, but there were several important things missing from my backbends. She said I would likely experience pain in my body if I continued to practice with my current habits -- and I was already experiencing discomfort in certain areas -- so it felt important to implement her suggestions immediately.
After working on these new elements of my practice, I felt sore all the time in areas that hadn't felt sore in a long time -- my quads and abs, specifically. My backbends, as challenging as they feel now, also feel so strong and powerful, not to mention, so much safer. My teacher is encouraging me to work on drop backs which is a huge challenge for me, both physically and emotionally. I've been working on drop backs for about two and a half years and have had success dropping back independently for quite some time now. Standing up from a backbend, however, is an entirely different beast and something that terrifies me to the point of nausea.
This past weekend, I went to practice with my teacher and felt really sluggish. It was my first practice after my period, and I felt slow, tired, and heavy. Poses that normally feel great and easy, didn't go so well, yet other poses which normally feel challenging, came a bit easier. My breath felt inconsistent and so did my concentration.
When I got to the backbends portion of my practice on Sunday, I panicked. My teacher has been encouraging me to be stronger and more fearless, and I didn't think I had it in me to humor her. She challenged me to continue and I didn't quit. I must have done nearly ten backbends when I began to feel nauseas. Backbends can make you feel nauseas and afraid, and for some, they can even make you cry. Teachers will tell you that all of these feelings are normal, and, speaking from experience, I can tell you that they are -- or at least they are normal for me!
Feeling tired, heavy, and now nauseas, I stood on my yoga mat debating whether to continue. Hearing encouraging words from my teacher, I decided to go to for one more. She said, "this is it, Julia. I'm not helping you up. This time you will stand up on your own." Self talk says, "yeah, right."
I dropped back and I waited. I held my backbend, walking my hands in closer to my feet, trying desperately to muster up as much strength in my legs as I could possibly find, and I went for it. I thought, "if I don't stand up, I'll fall, and then I'll just have to try again."
I felt completely detached from the outcome. I knew that it didn't really matter if I stood up from a backbend. I knew that if I didn't stand, I would fall, and I wouldn't get hurt, and perhaps that was the lesson that I needed in that moment.
Nauseas, tired, and heavy, I went for it. I stood up and I didn't fall. Do you have any idea how empowering this experience was for me? Perhaps, the most empowering experience I have had on my yoga mat, ever.
Is it possible that the ability was always there, and confidence was the only piece that was missing for me? Something to ponder, for sure.
Backbends have been weird for me to practice. I've written about them a lot on my blog. I've taken lots of videos and posted them on my youtube channel. I have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours practicing backbends. They are the only thing I have ever practiced in yoga that have made me feel completely afraid, nauseas, and unexplainably sad. I would leave my mat after a practice of deep backbends and sit in my car and cry without obvious reason. I would feel so nauseas that I would be convinced that I was going to throw up on my teacher (note: I never actually threw up). I would feel this overwhelming sense of anxiety, feeling so on edge and unable to shake it for hours.
For some people, they would experience these feelings and run very far from the practice. For me, I knew I had to keep digging. I knew that the only way through was through; I had to keep going. I knew that the state of my mind and body was not permanent. And most of all, I knew that the only way to feel really good about something was to practice it. So, that's what I did. And now, here I am; standing up on the other side of fear.
This video is for any person who ever said, "I can't."
This video is for any person who ever said, "I can't practice yoga because I'm not flexible."
This video is for any person who ever said, "I can't practice yoga because I'm not strong."
This video is for any person who ever said, "I can't practice yoga because I'm too old."
This video is for any person who ever said, "I can't practice yoga because I'm too broken."
This video is for anyone trying to rush the process. For anyone who isn't willing to attempt to fall and get back up. For anyone who isn't willing to commit to themselves. For anyone who is feeling afraid to get to know themselves. For anyone who is feeling afraid to love themselves.
This video is for the voice inside my head repeating the phrase, "you are not good enough."
This video is for me. It's my daily reminder to feel fearless about falling and even more fearless about getting back up to try again.
Thanks for reading and watching, friends.
Be fearless, always.