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Good at yoga

The other day someone asked me how long it takes to get good at yoga? I really hesitated before answering, and first asked what she meant by being good at yoga. As I expected, being good at yoga to her meant being able to do the “harder” poses, like arm balances and inversions, and being able to do the strong power flow style practices with ease rather than struggle.

I really empathized with this woman, because this was also how I previously measured what it means to be “good at yoga”. I have spent much of my 16+ years of practicing yoga struggling with feeling “not good enough” at yoga because I can’t do the arm balances or inversions, or the fancy binds. I can’t forward fold well, I can’t back bend, and I can’t get deep into poses like Triangle or Side Angle pose.

Thankfully, how I view the very concept of being “good at yoga” has really changed this year. Three crucial experiences have helped with this shift.

The first contributing factor has been observing the students that are drawn to my own classes here in Tasmania. Where I was practicing and teaching in inner-city Melbourne, the demographic was typically young, fit and flexible already, even before they start yoga. Every second teacher was an ex dancer, gymnast or athlete, and physiologically suited to a more athletic style of yoga. So naturally they attracted a similar audience.

Here in Tasmania, I teach a much broader audience. From 17-year-old girls to women and men in their 60s and 70s. From complete yoga beginners to other teachers. And everything in between! And it is from my yoga students that I have learnt so much about what “being good at yoga” means: it means bringing willingness, tenacity, dedication, persistence, humility and humour to the mat.

The second experience that influenced my view this year was training with Paul and Suzee Grilley. Whilst I had heard the expression “not every body is able to do every pose and not every pose is suitable for every body”, this training really brought that realization to the fore. There were physiological reasons that I couldn’t do some poses, and all the practice in a lifetime wasn’t going to improve my ability to do them. (For more on this see my previous blog post).

Finally, I have been doing a course on “Intermediate Asana”. This course has tackled a range of poses that I have either never been able to do, or never tried because I assumed I was unable to. In the past, my tendency was to avoid these poses – partly out of fear, partly because of that inner critic that tells you that you aren’t good enough so why even bother to try?

The greatest thing I have gained from this course is the opportunity to truly live my favourite yoga mantra: “Honour the limitations of your body but challenge the limitations of your mind”. I have attempted all of the poses, indeed challenging my mind and its assumptions. Some poses I have surprised myself with, others I can see that with practice I could improve.

But armed with the intricate knowledge of my body and its capabilities from my Grilley training, I have worked out that some of the poses will just never be suitable for my body. And you know what? I can let them go now. I will not judge my ability to do or teach yoga by whether I can do Astavakrasana:

Maybe not

Yoga is not a sport. It’s not a competition. Yes it can indeed be a form of exercise, but I view it as being more about your overall well-being. There are many different forms and styles of yoga, and there is so much more to yoga than just the poses. Of course yoga means different thing to different people, and people practice for different reasons. But ultimately, we practice yoga to feel good. If I leave my mat feeling good, then I have reached the desired outcome. That is what being good at yoga means to me.

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