How to practice yoga when it feels impossible
My motivation to practice yoga sprouted after religion, therapy, and medication failed to release me from what I believed for a long time to be a chronic depression that I carried. After I began a semi-regular yoga practice, I started to unfold my mental habits, which allowed me to see that I was capable of tweaking them into clarity. The physical and spiritual side effects became an added bonus, filling in the gaps that didn’t make sense to me for so long. I know that what works for me isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to a serious mental illness, but in my experience, I’ve accepted that this is the healthiest habit I can cultivate and maintain, as it’s the most effective tool I’ve utilized to manage the ebbs and flows of my unbalanced mind. The seed was planted, now I am in the midst of sowing. This is far from an easy journey.
My desire to practice yoga has never wavered, but I’ve run into a lot of dead ends along the way. Lack of access to a studio, class, or teacher has trapped me in dormancy for long periods. Weariness became common early on in my practice as one or a combination of money, time, energy and accessibility blocked me from participating. I know students who experienced abuse from their teachers and vice-versa, which made it discouraging to find reasons to continue the practice. Another significant aversion stems from a disillusionment with the dominance of white girl yogis with name-brand social media sponsorship's, who are less than inspiring; while on the other hand, serious gurus feel difficult to approach without a serious understanding, commitment, and background to the practice. It feels like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t world for me, and it’s frustrating to try to find where my practice fits in.
Slowly, I’m beginning to realize that the dominant narrative in Western yoga is stuck in this limited context that creates gatekeepers of information, making it seem as if you need the right resources to exchange in order to learn the right method of practicing yoga. I reject that. I believe yoga should be, and is when you know how to look for it, available to everyone — regardless of income, location, history, or ability. Before you assume a practice is unrealistic like I did for a time, I invite you to find different ways to approach the process.
First off: you do not need a mat. The routine of flowing through a set of asanas (poses) within a start and ending time is helpful for warming the muscles and building strength, but it it isn’t necessary. Days or weeks may go by before you can realistically set aside that much time to practice anyway, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. At times, I have locked myself in a bathroom and stretched when I wanted to try a pose without anyone watching me. Use the mundane parts of your day to change the position you’re body is in. Roll your wrists in a circle and pull your fingers forward and back while you watch a movie. Bring the top of your foot behind your hip while you sit at a park. Flow through a cat/cow movement while you’re seated at your desk. There are many subtle stretches and breathing exercises that do not require you to isolate yourself or your time.
Let books, apps, and YouTube videos become your guru. There’s a wealth of information available at libraries and online, and there is no reason you shouldn’t use that to your advantage. Watching videos from the comfort of your home can be a great way for you to become familiar with the poses and terminology without feeling intimidated in a class with other students. Reading different books and about different practices can also help you realize what parts you like, and what parts you want to avoid. Even browsing the yoga section and magazines at a bookstore and jotting down the names of the authors whose books or teachings sound interesting can be a kickstart to online research, if you aren’t sure about purchasing a book to add to your library.
Keep in mind, though, that it is easy to become overwhelmed or confused with conflicting information, especially if you don’t know where to start. I suggest starting with illustrated reference books as these are well researched, organized, and cited, and often list websites or names of teachers for further learning. It may touch a subject that you never knew of that particularly interests you, which will help you narrow your search when you go online. The more you learn, the more you will learn what you want to learn.
Allow the other limbs of yoga to become a part of your method. Asanas (the poses you flow through in what’s usually understood as a yoga class) are only one limb of the eight limbs of yoga. There is a lot of material that could be discussed here, so instead of trying to summarize the intricacies of each, I invite you to look into what yama (ethics), niyama (spiritual self-discipline), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (ecstasy) mean to you, and how they can enrich your day-to-day experiences.
Master your own routine. I typically recommend the sun and moon salutations as a good place to start with your own practice, but you may have more experience and want to come up with your own sequence. The sun salutations are a great foundation for the rest of your practice, and you can perform them alone when you’re short on time. Watch videos, read about the sequence, learn the right alignments, and practice them with a friend until it becomes something you can flow through without consciously thinking about it. Timing the breath with your movement, learning the benefits of the poses, and knowing the right counter-poses is conducive to allow your experience to drift into new possibilities.
Don’t let one style of yoga turn you off to staying engaged. There are so many types of yoga out there that you’ll find something for every level and interest out there, especially once you realize that not all yoga practices are asana-based. Experiment with different types and write notes or contemplate on what you liked or didn’t like about the time you spent practicing a certain style. You may have resistance to bhakti, kundalini, yoga nidra or kirtan, for example, but after trying or revisiting it after avoiding it for awhile you may find that it touched you in an unexpected way. To reiterate and revise what I said earlier: the more you practice, the more you will practice what you want to practice.
If you found a guru you particularly like, reach out to them. Most yoga teachers I know of do not teach at one location only, but spread their resources across multiple venues. They may even have a newsletter, blog, or website you can follow for inspiration or information on special events they are hosting, or they may have recommendations for what they look out for. Tread carefully here: some teachers that used to inspire you may do or say something you disagree with or that makes you feel uncomfortable. Remind yourself that they are on a path just as you are. You’re going to be okay if you split at the fork.
Invite a friend to join you. Sometimes all we need is a little encouragement from someone we know and trust to take us to a class, or to practice with in a park, at the office, or anywhere with enough space. Instead of waiting around for someone else to invite you, be the instigator! Telling someone you want to go with them also makes it a little harder for you to back out of the commitment, since you have someone to be accountable to.
Finally, don’t be so hard on yourself. Some people are naturally more inclined to be militant with their practice through setting goals or counting days practiced off a checklist. Integrating your practice into a daily existence isn’t a discipline, and you don’t want it to become a chore that you will find excuses to avoid. Find joy in the ways you can use your insight to enrich your experience. Be adaptable in your practice and find creative ways to synthesize it with each breath. Most importantly, thank yourself for every effort you make. Sometimes what we feel is insignificant will later become a life-altering wisdom we carry with us.
I’m not a perfect example of what a healthy body, mind, and soul looks or acts like, but the union of those elements that we practice in yoga allows me to continue toward that. It’s important to remember: there is no arrival. There is no bar to reach. You do not suddenly become enlightened and free of all your mental, physical, or spiritual ills. Yoga is a cycle free from the arc of beginning to end, and practicing it allows you to shape your own evolution, with a myriad of ways to flow through it.