I watched the yoga teacher as she dusted off her hands and walked to the middle of the circle we had formed with our mats.
It was a hot, humid morning, so we had set up our mats in a clearing under some large oak trees. The teacher stepped off her mat and into our circle, looking for a good spot to demonstrate a headstand.
I was quickly learning that one of the biggest challenges of practicing yoga in the park was the uneven surface of the earth. Beneath my mat was a landscape of roots, divots, and tufts of grass that teased my balance and made me feel like a beginner again.
I first tried yoga nearly 10 years ago, attending classes as it suited me—first at the gym, then at several studios in my neighbourhood. For the most part, the studios felt like a gym with herbal tea and Buddhist artwork. The primary purpose of yoga seemed to be fitness, and the teachers taught accordingly: sun salutations, leg work, ab work, maybe a backbend, and then some stretching before easing into optional savasana.
Advanced yoga poses like headstands were squarely in the category of “things my body cannot do.” I have always been more bookworm than jock, and as I entered adulthood, I embraced the notion that I simply wasn’t athletically inclined. It was easier to believe my body was not built to do things like headstands, than to actually try.
So I stuck to my sun salutations and warrior poses. Sometimes, I would find a pose that felt good: a sweet stretch, a good burn, and I would want to stay there a little longer, but even a few extra seconds would leave me three steps behind the rest of the class and struggling to catch up.
I liked yoga.
I liked that it made me feel strong and lean, that it loosened my legs after long runs, but just like my classmates, I considered it exercise. What I know now is that although I liked yoga, I had not yet learned how to enjoy it, to savour it, to truly practice it.
And then one morning, I attended a Vinyasa class at a cozy studio on a quiet residential street in my new neighbourhood.
I had done hundreds of Vinyasa classes and felt fairly confident I would check this one off as another solid workout. I could not have been more wrong; this class was hard! More than just physically challenging, it was mentally challenging.
The teacher did not follow the “gym class yoga” flow I was familiar with. Yes, there were sun salutations and backbends and stretches, but they were different: she encouraged us to explore, to settle into a pose and feel all it had to offer, to savour both the “sweetness” of the stretch and the “spiciness” of the burn, to challenge ourselves and trust our strength. She shared Buddhist wisdom and personal anecdotes. Most importantly, she made yoga fun. Headstands were no longer something “my body cannot do,” but a physical and mental challenge I would work toward while I played on my mat.
I left that first class exhausted and addicted. My inner child had been awakened.
Over the next several months, I learned what it truly means to practice yoga, as opposed to doing yoga.
Practicing yoga means that the lessons stay with us long after class ends, the physical feats we accomplish on the mat translating into mental and emotional strength off the mat. Yoga strengthens the mind, body, and soul by teaching us to connect to our true selves: the confident inner child we leave behind when we set ourselves on the narrow path of adulthood. The practice of grounding, listening to our bodies, and finding energy in our strength helps us to connect with our inner child and reminds us of what we have always known: that we are capable of anything we set our minds to, but that the mind, body, and soul must travel together for our goals to be accomplished.
Physically, a headstand requires a strong core and shoulders, but mentally, it requires the ability to change perspective: to literally see the world upside down.
In order to achieve my goal of inverting on the mat, I had to first invert my mind. So in every step that brought me closer to a headstand, I sought the courage to challenge my current perspective. In doing so, I learned that my capabilities are not determined by what others—parents, partners, bosses, society—have told me I can do, but by what I believe I can do.
I learned that we are all stronger, more flexible, and more adaptable than we think we are, and that when we believe in ourselves, we are capable of more than we ever thought possible. Every time I conquer a fear or face a challenge on the mat, it reminds me that I have that same strength off the mat: physical strength and courage translate to the mind and soul as well.
A lifetime of social conditioning tells us how we are expected to behave, what we are expected to do, and what we are supposed to feel. However, the limits we create for ourselves in order to fit in are false: we are so much more than the narrow path of adulthood we set ourselves on in order to fit in.
We are as strong, smart, and capable as we believed ourselves to be as children. The practice of yoga gives us time and space to reconnect to our inner child and find that belief.
This is how I found myself trying to conquer my first headstand in my 30s. I got into position, placing first my hands and then my head onto my mat, confidently pressing into the soft ground beneath me. I pushed into the ground, braced my core, and lifted one foot off the ground; I pressed harder, started to lift my other foot…and somersaulted over the grass, landing on my neighbour’s mat.
She looked over and smiled with encouragement, so I tried again.
Author: Ismene Tsaconakos
Image: Pasco Olivier/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Yoli Ramazzina