Your limit is your teacher

I recently came across a social media post by a local hot yoga studio exclaiming that we should have “no limits” when it comes to yoga. To be fair, the quote was “all limits are self-imposed,” and then someone commented that “no limit is the limit,” to which the studio owner replied “yes!”

It got me thinking about this attitude I’ve come across before; one that encourages yoga students to push themselves beyond their limits. I respect your choice to challenge yourself, but when you are teaching others to potentially hurt themselves, it becomes bullying. It goes against the very first moral observance of non-violence, or Ahimsa.

Entitled to my own opinion and interpretation, I believe that the “no limits” attitude in the world of yoga creates an ego-driven and competitive environment where people are encouraged to hurt themselves in the name of self improvement.

My practice includes progressing safely towards a pose

I choose to think of limits as grounding. Setting a boundary can be a form of self-compassion. We are human, after all. My personal yoga practice changes from day to day based on what my body and mind tell me. I don’t come to the mat and push myself in a pose that requires a deep hamstring stretch if I tweaked my hamstring the day before. I can continue to progress in other ways instead, because guess what? I want to do yoga for the rest of my life!

Anyone who has ever had an injury and adapted their yoga practice or exercise routine around it, knows – this is where you learn so much about yourself, your ego. This is where you develop self-compassion and can strive to take better care of yourself to heal and then thrive again with a fresh perspective. The injury is a limitation that teaches you to do something different. You become internally stronger by listening, modifying, and taking the best care of yourself so that you can continue to progress another day.

The pandemic world we are living in right now, where we need masks to go grocery shopping, are distanced from friends and family, and our careers have been put on hold: this is a limit. It’s a container that holds us and teaches us to do something different, to pivot and redirect our progression as human beings – which might include resting for a bit if we need it. 

To the many people who are turning to yoga for the first time, or deepening their yoga practices during this unprecedented age: explore your inner landscape safely. Be grounded by, but not defined by, your limits. And work towards challenging your limits, safely.

Your limit is your teacher.

Finding Stillness in our Stories

Practicing the Foundation Breath

Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.  Jorge Luis Borges

I have practiced hot yoga on the same mat in the same studio for nearly ten years. It’s a little frayed around its edges and is starting to lose some of its no-slip grip. I should have replaced it six months ago but I have to admit I am attached to this mat. We have been through a lot together. Attachments like these seem innocent enough, but there’s something else going on here and I feel I am finally getting to the bottom of it. Every time I roll out this mat and look down on its signs of wear, I tell myself a little story. It’s a story that celebrates my hard work and dedication to my practice through the years. It feels good to keep repeating this story, which is why the mat keeps living to see another day.  The problem is this story has very little to do with my yoga and a lot to do with keeping my ego happy. Without diving too far into the weeds, approval has always been important for me, even when I generate it on my own. This deeper stuff is great to shine some light upon, but will have to wait until a future post for closer examination. What is important here is my attachment and its happy little story 1) take my focus off what I am actually doing on the mat and 2) obscure the fact that I’d be safer on a new one.

When we loosen our hold on something or someone, we stop feeding the stories they inspire and bring greater awareness to whatever we’re doing in the present.

This is how our attachments work…under the radar, but still in plain sight. The new car, the coveted job title, the approval of those close to us (…or not so close). Our attachments play starring roles in all our favorite stories. Of course, the attachments themselves are not the problem…it’s how we cling to them and spin our stories around them that can get us into trouble. After all, I should have replaced my mat six months ago…I have just been getting in my own way. In many Yoga and Buddhist traditions, attachment is viewed as a major source of suffering in our lives. Non-attachment or non-possessiveness (aparigraha) is considered so important, it is held up as one of the five yamas, or ethical principles of yoga that help guide us through our daily interactions and activities. The logic here is straightforward: when we loosen our hold on something or someone, we stop feeding the stories they inspire and bring greater awareness to whatever we’re doing in the present.

And this is where our breath comes in. We hold on to our breath just like anything else we are afraid of losing. When we let go of our breath, we reset our nervous system and loosen the hold of even our strongest attachments and most compelling stories. The Foundation Breathing exercise presented below focuses on the exhalation and that sublime stillness before we take our next breath. Approach it with an open mind. With some practice you will likely find it, as I have, to be a powerful addition to your self-care toolkit.

Foundation Breath Basics

What

  • Our attachments (people-possessions-beliefs-expectations) can be a major source of pain and suffering
  • The Foundation Breath can pull us from repeating story loops and loosen the hold of our attachments
  • Research suggests that diaphragmatic (belly) breathing moderates clinging and controlling behavior by increasing our attention, improving our mood and reducing our stress levels (see references below).

How

  • Breathe in through the nose – Release the breath through the mouth – Pause – Repeat
  • Start with a 2-3 sec. inhalation-exhalation and 1 sec. pause and move up from there.
  • Breathing in through the nose conditions the air for absorption in the lungs.
  • Breathing out through the mouth (vocalization optional) focuses attention on the exhalation.

When

  • Slow down persistent worry over pending medical test results or financial strains.
  • Lessen chronic stress due to workload, a challenging boss or an upcoming performance review.  
  • Let go of the expectations related to your balance in tree pose or your strength in triangle. As one of my teachers puts it: “One percent of the pose done correctly provides 100% benefit.”

Learn More

  • Hafenbrack, A. 2017. Mindfulness Meditation as an On-The-Spot Workplace Intervention. Journal of Business Research. 75, 118-129.
  • Landau, M. (2018). This Breathing Exercise Can Calm You Down in a Few Minutes, Vice Media, Retrieved Feb25, 2020.
  • Ma, X., Yue, Z., Gong, Z, Zhang, H., Duan, N., Shi, Y. Wei, G. & Li, Y. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(72): 1-12.
  • Pattee, E.(2020). The Difference Between Worry, Stress and Anxiety, The New York Times, Retrieved Feb 29, 2020. 
  • Schmalzl, L., Powers, C., and Henje Blom, E. (2015). Neurophysiological and neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the effects of yoga-based practices: towards a comprehensive theoretical framework. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9:235.
  • Sullivan, M., Erb, M., Schmalzl, L., Moonz, S., Taylor, J. & Porges, S., 2018. Yoga Therapy and Polyvagal Theory: The Convergence of Traditional Wisdom and Contemporary Neuroscience for Self-Regulation and Resilience. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12(67), 1-15.