Is Your Yoga Really Working? ~ Hala Khouri

Via Hala Khouri
on Aug 17, 2013
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photo by Hillary Beasley
photo by Hillary Beasley

You know your yoga practice is working when your life gets better, not when your yoga gets better.

You know who I’m talking about.

Maybe this was you; maybe this is you. The mala bead wearing, namaste talkin’, slightly arrogant, super neurotic, I-never-eat-meat-refined-flour-or-non-organic-food, type.

The person who looks down on anyone who doesn’t do yoga, isn’t vegan, has “negative energy” or has a corporate job.

I know this person because this person was me.

When I lived in New York City, I would pause when I walked by a McDonald’s and pray for the people inside. I prayed that they would find enlightenment and stop eating such low quality food made with tortured animals and additives.

Then I would walk off, feeling better than everyone and very satisfied with myself.

You see, yogis don’t overtly judge—we cover it up in spiritual guise.

I practiced yoga religiously, I was a vegetarian, I had mantras memorized, I’d been to India and could get both feet behind my head. Meanwhile, I was stuck in a codependent relationship, addicted to sugar and in a constant battle with a core belief that I wasn’t enough.

For me, yoga is a tool for self-awareness. When we are self-aware, we can cultivate compassion.

Compassion for ourselves is where it starts; if we don’t have that, we’re destined to idealize or demonize others. Yoga teaches me to remain grounded in the moments when I want to be reactive.

My yoga practice has forced me to face my inner critic and start to let go of my perfectionist (who believes that I only deserve love if I’m perfect). If I think that I need to be perfect to be worthy of happiness, then I will subconsciously be thrilled when I see others being imperfect (like the folks eating Mc-y- D’s, or someone doing an improper chatturanga), for this gives my flailing self-esteem a fleeting boost.

Back when I used yoga as a whip with which to beat myself, I was drawn to more punitive teachers who made me feel worthless and want to strive for their approval. I wanted to master the inner spiral, and the rooting of the big toe while doing perfect Ujayi breathing and staring at a drishti.

As I started to get wiser and see that perfectionism is a dead end road, I started making different choices. My practice turned into an opportunity to love and accept myself exactly as I was in that moment (that concept would have made me throw up in my mouth previously).

Today I know this: the purpose of discipline is to create more freedom. If your discipline just leads to more discipline, it ain’t workin’ baby! I knew my sugar addiction was cured, not when I stopped eating sugar, but when I could have one or two pieces of chocolate without inhaling the entire bar and then going for another one while drowning in my own shame.

If you are like I was, and you’re imprisoned by a quest to be the perfect yogi, ask yourself this question,”What am I afraid would happen if I let go a little? What am I trying so hard to control?”

I am not suggesting that discipline is bad; in fact, it’s necessary.

As a step towards freedom.

I don’t look back on my years of discipline and think I did the wrong thing; I just see now that I was mistaking the boat for the shore. I know my yoga is working because I’m happier. My relationships are healthy, I don’t have a voice in my head all the time telling me that I’m worthless.

I can’t get my feet behind my head anymore, I don’t do full splits or balance in handstand, and I have a slightly pudgy belly. And I’m happy! Not perfect—I have a lot more to learn and I’m okay with that.

Next time you’re on your mat, ask yourself this question, “Who am I being right now?”

Many years ago I was in a very packed, sweaty, vinyasa flow class filled with overachievers. At one point the teacher said to us, “So you can do all this fancy yoga, but does anyone want to hang out with you?”

Do they?

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Ed: Bryonie Wise


About Hala Khouri

Hala Khouri, M.A. E-RYT is a somatic counselor and yoga teacher.  She leads a 200hr Yoga Teacher Training called Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind, and is co-founder of Off the Mat, Into the World®. To find out more, please visit her website.


16 Responses to “Is Your Yoga Really Working? ~ Hala Khouri”

  1. Barb says:

    Your article is real. On the bar. Even if I don't do Yoga, my goal is to change the way I treat people.

  2. datnaga says:


  3. Mimm says:

    I so enjoyed this, Hala. Thank you.

  4. For me yoga really works, creates a state of peace, good traversing a zest for life, day by day ..

  5. Claudia Oranday says:

    Thank you for your honest words

  6. P.J. Murphy says:

    my wife is the regular practicing yogi in the family – and while she's wonderful all the time, I definitely notice a difference in her peaceful disposition when she's been on a regular practicing streak. Subtle differences to be sure, but definitely things I pick up on.

  7. Stephen says:

    Thank you for this… it seems to fit me in some aspects. I've got some thinking to do

  8. Lizlojo says:

    Hala – you hit this essay out of the ballpark! There's so much surrendering to do within ourselves to just be ourselves but be conscious of what we might be doing that is harmful or ego driven. Love!

  9. Jen says:

    I used to really love going to those packed, competitive style yoga classes too. I felt accomplished and proud mastering asanas and hanging tough with the super-fit yogis I the class. I wanted those expensive yoga clothes they had and I even considered doing my hair & makeup before class, so I wuld also look good doing yoga. Since having children, I’ve been “forced” into doing yoga at home, for free, before they wake up each morning. I feel like I’m starting to understand yoga as a healthy relationship with myself, rather than an ego and envy based relationship with other people. I can’t imagine craving those old yoga sessions where I compared myself to others, no tha k you. I’ll cherish my quiet mornings with myself and yoga.

  10. bil says:

    For 14 years I've been practicing at packed, sweaty power vinyasa studios chock-full of super-fit, fashionable, pretty people who press into handstand from crow then return to earth sticking running man prior to inhaling into up-dog, then exhaling to down dog. I used to really like practicing amid this throng. Then I learned to love it! The lessons, insights, and awareness discovered on my mat amongst this crowd over the years is simply grace. I walked away from a high status career to teach yoga full time these last 6 years, to live and grow and laugh and cry with this group of "overachievers". I don't know a thing about fashion, I'm 50, a stiff dude, Gumby I am not! But I love the flowing energy, the ability to show up however I show up, the connected community, the freedom to explore asana for what feels good, and being inspired by the unique strengths of others. I love that some of us need to take rest a lot, while some of us need to spend half the practice in binds or inversions just to feel something. I love celebrating our differences. I love that our yin classes are growing along with our vinyasa classes. I wander what better place there could be to learn self-acceptance, non-judgement, how to be gentle and kind and compassionate than in a loud crowded studio? Where better to practice placing attention where you want it, to strengthen the habit of being grounded, centered, peaceful, calm, and present than where these qualities are most challenged? The mat is where practicing life happens. There is no separation. Why practice in a vacuum? No one is reactive in an ashram or while alone in their basement. I feel so blessed everyday hearing and witnessing this amazing mix of mixed up suffering loving yogis, just like you and me, breathing together, finding our way.

  11. amphibi1yogini says:

    If it works, you still have the energy – for you as a 50 year old – to live your own life before and after class. To do your own chores, to fix your own meals, to study your own texts … may be a warped proletarian value system … but that is my gold standard by which I judge – are you living the LIFE? Or is the life living you?

    The rest? Suffice to call that illusion ….

  12. Josefo says:

    " I just see now that I was mistaking the boat for the shore. " Loved the phrase… God bless 🙂

  13. Rebecca says:

    Simple, raw, real . Namaste 🙂

  14. seamarket says:

    I LOVE "…the purpose of discipline is to create more freedom". goosebumps. beautiful article x

  15. Roberta says:

    Dear Hala,

    I studied with you at YWNY a couple of years ago. I loved your class and I absolutely love this article. It’s honest and inspiring! I’ve shared it on my FB page yoga by roberta italia if you’d like to check it out. Namaste

  16. Sabrina says:

    What a great share! Right on! The words "the purpose of discipline is to create more freedom" really, really resonated with me. Namaste!