by Kelly McGonigal 6/17/2006
(image to the left is Val between a rock and a hard place, The Baths, BVI)
The word "yoga" brings to mind poses - perhaps downward facing dog - and practices like deep breathing and meditation. But yoga is not defined by the practices that we do in a yoga class. It is more accurately defined as the state of union we experience through a yoga practice. It's easy to forget this when we talk about "doing yoga", as in, "I did yoga this morning, and I feel great". That feeling is closer to "yoga" than the poses that produced the feeling.
When we say we feel great after a yoga practice, mostly we mean we feel relaxed, or content, or energized. We feel focused and centered, strong and able to face whatever the day brings. Although we often think of yoga as creating this kind of balance and "union" within ourselves, true yoga is also the connection between ourselves. Yoga is the union of our small, individual "selves" to something bigger -connection to others, to community, to purpose, to spirit.
One of the greatest hindrances to this experience of connection is a narrow self-focus in your yoga practice. The pursuit of "fixing" yourself is a giant distraction from the experience of yoga. You can "do" yoga all day long and not experience yoga.
When I realized this, my yoga practice transformed from an endless personal self-improvement project to something much deeper, and less tainted by the anxiety that I was not improving fast enough. The desire to "achieve" in the practice lessened, and was replaced by a desire to discover the practices that created a sense of connection.
One way to free ourselves from this preoccupation and self-focus is to offer your practice to something bigger than your own well-being. Dedicate the efforts of your practice to someone or something, at the beginning and the end of your practice.
Some possible dedications:
"May all beings be free of suffering, and may my practice in some way contribute to their happiness." (a traditional yoga dedication, offered at the beginning and end of each practice)
Dedicate your practice to someone or something you are grateful for. A traditional meditation practice is to keep a running list of all people you feel gratitude for - and to extend this list by one person every time you practice.
Dedicate your practice to someone in your life, who is struggling or suffering. Imagine that your own efforts can free up some energy for this person. In particular, you can offer challenges in your practice - and your willingness to face them - to this person, as an act of compassion and connection.
Dedicate your practice to your teachers, including not just your formal yoga teachers, but all the people and experiences in your life that "teach" you every day, by providing you with an opportunity to learn, change, reflect, grow, and practice.
Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. writes about yoga, does yoga research and teaches yoga students and yoga teachers. She is Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.