They say an alcoholic remembers their first-ever drink. Well, I remember my first-ever yoga class 20 years ago. I also clearly remember how my hand used to reach just to the knee in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose). In time, I learned which poses I found challenging and which came more easily to me. Bitten by the yoga bug, I began to dissect my abilities further, and with continued practice became attuned to more specific restrictions: in Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) one hip had a catch in it. My twists went further in one direction than the other. Most annoyingly of all, my left glute was tighter than my right, limiting my ability to bend forwards.
I know I am not alone in becoming acutely sensitised to physical limitations. I’ve had students give me detailed lists of minor body imperfections longer than your weekly grocery list, while others are content to negatively label their body parts; “dodgy” necks, “terrible” backs and “bad” knees, as if, Hollywood blockbuster-style, one knee is opposed by its evil twin.
Within our being, we create a duality of good and bad, and it’s on the bad we tend to dwell about most. Couple that with an obsession about the “perfect” yoga posture and you’ve got a very unhealthy mix.
Over the years, I diligently tried to eradicate my body imperfections and loosen my left glute. Some of my approaches surely violated the yogic precept of ahimsa (that of non-harming to beings, which of course must include yourself). I blasted away with longer, stronger holds on the tight side and tried repeating the tight side twice over. This seemed only to allow me more time to stare my imperfections in the face and squirm. Cursing didn’t work either. I pondered how my stuck left side might reflect my feminine expression in the world. I read up on anatomy, attended workshops and learned every possible adjustment for Pigeon Pose.
And then, a decade-and-a-half after that first yoga class, I had a breakthrough. I realised that after all this effort and enquiry, nothing had substantially changed, and perhaps never would. Although my hand had now for years easily touched the ground in Trikonasana, my left glute was still tighter than my right. Then I asked myself: is my asymmetry really worth worrying about?
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.12 tells us that the mind can reach the state of yoga through practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya). In other words, effort alone isn’t enough: we also need to let go of the things that hold us back. I had thought that it was my left glute holding me back all these years. Instead, it was my mental disquiet over it that inhibited me from truly experiencing the state of yoga.
So, I moved from commando to compassion, embracing ahimsa on the very deep level of whole-body acceptance. So now when I notice an asymmetry, it’s easy to smile at it. And accept it, and yes, love it. How uplifting to be able to sit in Pigeon Pose in the spirit of pure enjoyment. My energy is freed to be able to reflect on other levels of practice. How powerful and freeing it is to truly feel I need not change anything at all.
Christina Brown is the author of The Yoga Bible: The Definitive Guide to Yoga Postures. She teaches yoga in Sydney and runs teacher trainings and corporate classes. www.christinabrown.com