Yoga is so much more than physical poses, or asana. In fact, asana barely rates a mention in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the key texts in yoga philosophy. Yoga is everything from a moving meditation to a moral code, a belief system and a way of life. Sure, it can build strength and improve flexibility, but yoga is also a powerful form of personal development.
As a teacher, I see this in my students. Yes, I have seen people become stronger, fitter, with more ease in their joints and fluidity of their movements. But I have also seen people practicing self-acceptance, battling their own limiting self-beliefs, and developing the ability to listen to and honour their own bodies. I have watched students challenge themselves, surprise themselves, and laugh at themselves.
One of the greatest gifts of yoga is learning to become aware of your own inner dialogue. Like the voice-over in a movie, we have a constant narrative going on in our heads. Often this narrative is like a playlist stuck on repeat, yet we aren’t always aware of it. Through yoga and meditation, we learn to observe our thoughts, which allows us to start questioning and reframing that narrative if it’s harming rather than helping us.
For me, the most difficult yoga practice is turning off the inner self-critic. I am a harsh judge of myself, and find it much easier to be compassionate towards others. If you’ve been to my class, you will have heard me close by saying that the words we use to ourselves – and others – should be ones of kindness and truth. I don’t only say that for my students’ benefit, but also as a constant reminder for myself.
When I stay in my comfort zone, the inner critic is quiet. In that safe zone where I feel confident and competent, the critic doesn't have a lot to say. But stepping out of that zone is met first with fear, and then doubt. And followed by judgement of the strictest standard.
Through yoga I have learnt that these thought patterns are driven by negative limiting beliefs. These are beliefs that I was unaware I even had before deepening my yoga practice and training to be a teacher. But now that I am more conscious of the negative thoughts, I can make a deliberate effort to reframe how I perceive things.
This is a practice that we experience on and off the mat. Whilst hiking on Mt Wellington recently, I was tackling terrain that I find particularly difficult – a steep downhill path with a very uneven rocky surface. I had been treating this hike as a moving meditation – very present and aware of my body, how it was moving, whether my alignment was safe for my knees. On the tricky part, I observed what came up: I became acutely aware of my emotions and thought patterns, which ranged from fear of falling, anger at not being “good” at hiking, and doubt about my ability to get through some upcoming multi-day hikes.
Once tears started welling I knew that my negative self-talk needed to be reined in. I used my strengths – logic and reason – to counteract my weaknesses. I told myself that it was ok to be slow and cautious if that’s what got me through, that there was no point rushing to keep up if I slipped and injured myself. I started to relax a little and try to enjoy my beautiful surroundings. It wasn’t easy: a recurring knee issue was causing me pain and every step sent a little stab into it. It can be hard not to let chronic pain, health issues or any other of life’s difficulties drag you back to the negative, critical inner narrative. But it did help.
We all know that changing your perspective or altering your thought patterns is easier said than done. What other tools can we use to reframe? One technique I tried recently was to write myself a letter, from my inner yoga teacher to my inner critic. I found it much easier to address this letter as if I was talking to a friend or one of my students, than I do trying to tell myself to focus on the positives. It doesn’t mean that after one letter that I don’t slip back into critical mode, but that’s why we call it a practice. If we use these tools regularly, over time we can become kinder and more compassionate to ourselves.