When I first met her, my yoga student “Dana” was into endurance sports. Each summer she’d take a break from yoga to train for a triathlon. She loved the outdoors and spent her weekends in Vancouver’s surrounding mountains, hiking, kayaking, snowboarding, whatever the season dictated.
A couple of years ago, Dana faced major health issues, including surgery for a pneumothorax (“collapsed lung”) and thyroid surgery that also removed two of her parathyroids. Recovery was grueling, as she dealt with pain, impaired breathing, and life-changing adjustments to thyroid hormone replacement and calcium monitoring.
At first she couldn’t do much more than breathing exercises, walking, and gentle stretching. She initiated a “home practice” of yoga poses during this period. Stretching the tightness around her repaired lung improved her breath volume (and her spirometer measurements proved it).
Dana eventually resumed yoga classes and training for races, first a 10K and then a half marathon. She looks as lean and fit as ever. But her energy level is unpredictable; she can easily hit the wall; she needs more rest and recovery time. She now opts to “fast walk” or to alternate walking and jogging, with no goal other than to finish.
Dana had to reset her goals. She has a new physical reality. But mentally she’s absolutely the same. When she talks a mile a minute about her latest adventure, she is the same motivated and enthusiastic person. She can converse at length about her health—but as if it were a formidable new project, something to research and understand by trial and error (she’s a scientist by profession). She’s neither a quitter nor a complainer.
I’ve always admired Dana’s attitude. I was reminded of it during Chris Saudek‘s workshop, when she mentioned “presence of mind” and what type of mindset we’re developing with yoga.
“Why are you practicing?” she asked the group. “What does yoga mean to you? It can mean different things to different people, whether exercise, therapy, spirituality, and so forth … But try to find something beyond the physicality.”
She added that some students, including teachers, turn away from yoga when—due to aging, illness, or injury—can’t do asana at an advanced level. If they are her own students, she thinks to herself, “Where did I go wrong?”
It seems incredible that a longtime practitioner would give up yoga due to physical decline. But I recall asking my first teacher about a classmate. “Where’s Barbara? I haven’t seen her in ages.”
“Her arthritis is getting worse,” my teacher said, “and she can’t do the same poses. She doesn’t want to do less. She’s stopped coming to class.”
This scenario—a yoga practitioner rejecting yoga—contrasts with Dana’s response to continue her sports regardless of level. She’s carrying on her “practice,” adapted to her current situation. She’s not trying to replicate past results.
In yoga, this adaptation of practice should be even more doable. Yoga comprises much more than asana. If our physical practice is limited, we might focus on the world of pranayama or sitting meditation.
Even more basic are the first two limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas. We work hard to improve our asana abilities, but are we likewise trying to be more honest and content, less greedy and hostile? Let’s compare ourselves today versus five, ten, or twenty years ago. Maybe we can do deeper backbends and hold longer headstands, but are we better human beings?
Being adaptable—in sports, in yoga, in any calling or way of life—requires that we have a practice and are not merely practicing.
Of course, it’s easier to express these thoughts than to live by them. Everything is easy in the abstract. How would I really react to serious challenges? I circle back to Chris’s questions: Why are you practicing? What does yoga mean to you?
Images: mossy forest near Shannon Falls; Stawamus Chief sign; back face of the Chief; hiking shoes on granite