|Paul Klee, Senecio, 1922, Oil on Canvas|
Success in Yoga, as in life, may have more to do with opening our hearts than opening our hips.
It’s late afternoon and one of my longtime students has come to visit. After a few minutes of chitchat, Sarah relates how inadequate she felt at the Yoga workshop she attended over the weekend. Just about everyone could do the advanced postures except her, and she left feeling that her practice was inferior. I asked Sarah what her life was like when she began practicing Yoga and whether she had noticed any changes since then. After a brief pause, all kinds of insights began to pour forth as she recollected how difficult and confused so many areas of her life had been and how so many of those rough patches had been smoothed out.
Since that meeting, I’ve been struggling with the question of how we measure success in Yoga practice--our's and other's. I’ve begun to question the gauges we use to draw our conclusions. In particular, I’ve noticed--in myself and in others whose Yoga practice focuses on the physical postures--how deceptive the outward indicators of so-called achievement can be, and how some of the most remarkable changes can go unnoticed and unacknowledged. How do we measure a movement toward greater kindness and respect for others? How do we gauge the strengthening of presence and awareness?
Many of us entered the world of Yoga through the door marked ‘physical.’ In measuring our success, it is too easy to make direct correlations between our physical adeptness (or lack thereof) and the state of our souls. We must begin to reevaluate our measuring devices so that our sense of satisfaction with ourselves and others is not identified with physical form. If we measure ourselves on the ruler of the back bends we can do, the arm balances we have mastered, and the flexibility of our hips, we will find ourselves cast adrift the moment any of these attributes is taken from us. Life gives and life takes. Through injuries, aging, life changes, and sheer economics, we may find that what we could do yesterday we cannot do today. Will we then pronounce ourselves failures?
My partner tells me the purpose of Yoga practice is very simple: To open the heart. I can think of no better definition. When students query me about ‘the right way’ and ‘doing things correctly', I ask them to reframe their questions. I ask them to measure their success in their postures not by how far they went but by how aware they were in each moment. I ask them to judge the correctness of their positions not by what they look like but by what makes them feel most alive, most present, most whole. Instead of, “How many hours did I spend on the mat today?” we can ask, “How did I live my practice in every moment of the day?” I fear that something is tragically missing in Hatha Yoga practice when I see someone who, through the most diligent effort, has managed to become a perfect posture instead of a person.
Our society tells us that success has to do with how much money we earn, what kind of car we drive, how we look. We would be foolish to think that just because we practice Yoga we are immune to the dangers of such superficial criteria. Three people show up to our class and we feel like a failure. Thirty people pack the studio and we pronounce that we’ve made it. As long as we measure success using society’s devices, we will be as fraught with fear of failure as any executive scrambling up the corporate ladder.
When we do touch our toes, when we finally accomplish that deep backbend, anyone who has been there could tell you: nothing happens. It hasn’t brought us one iota closer to ourselves or others, unless somewhere along the way it helped us to open our hearts.
Donna Farhi leads intensives, retreats, and teacher training programs internationally. She is the author of four contemporary classics including The Breathing Book; Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit; Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living; and Teaching Yoga: Exploring the Teacher-Student Relationship. Her latest book, Pathways to a Centered Body: Gentle Yoga Therapy for Core Stability, Healing Back Pain and Moving with Ease co-authored with Leila Stuart, was published in 2017. For more information on her intensives, online trainings, videos, and audio recordings visit www.donnafarhi.co.nz.
This article originally appeared in Yoga Journal magazine, March/April 1997. © 2018 by Donna Farhi.
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
° FOLLOW Accessible Yoga on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
° REGISTER here for our next conference.
° DONATE here to help us bring yoga to people who don't have access or have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn't feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.