They say you can eat a whole elephant simply by taking small bites. Now I don’t wish to advocate eating elephants, but I still think it’s a great metaphor! And yoga is like that: Yoga is the elephant, because it’s huge. Just consider that asana – the physical practice that starts with sun salutations and ends with everybody’s old favourite, savasana – is just one part of the eight-fold path of yoga. And the asanas themselves take many years to master.
Suddenly asana doesn’t seem quite so challenging, right? Right! That’s why I like to think of it as the gateway drug to yoga. As physically demanding as some of it is, it’s easier to start with what you can actually see, namely your body. It is more difficult to quiet and focus the mind than it is to order your own body around.
Of course, any task becomes lighter when you are met along the way by small rewards. And for rewards in your yoga practice, the ashtanga style (especially the six-day-a-week Mysore style) is a recipe for success. Working at your practice six days a week means that you are building, day after day. You will see improved strength, flexibility and focus, and you will keep enjoying it more all the time. Things just become a little easier bit by bit, as if they’re falling into place.
What will your small victories be? For me, my most memorable one was the first time I got myself into a full backbend. I could only hold it for three breaths at a time, so once I could hold for five breaths, that was another victory. And honestly, even though everyone else in class seemed to get into backbend so easily, I never thought I’d get there. I just didn’t have much strength in my arms. But now I’m there, and I love it, even if some days are still more challenging than others.
More reasons to celebrate are noticing how your flexibility has improved. There comes a day when you suddenly just launch forward a good deal more in your forward bends. (I’m very much looking forward to this flexibility boost in marichasana, but I have a hunch it might still be a while.) And here’s another one: improved focus. I can’t say I’m all the way there, by a long shot, but it keeps getting better. And then of course there’s the longer practice. I take about 90 minutes these days, without even thinking about it. And that’s big for me, because not long ago I used to be one of those people who would keep looking at the clock from 15 minutes into the class.
Even just getting to Saturday morning and being able to congratulate yourself on doing so many mornings in a row is a great victory. When you’re practising this regularly, you’re always building, building, and there’s a treasure trove of victories waiting for you.
The other side of the coin is what bad habits will do to you with regular practice! In a forthcoming blog we’ll talk about some good habits to engrain and bad habits to bust.