Impressive or challenging poses are fun and give us something tangible to work toward. For a lot of us, the little victories of getting into a pose that we haven't previously been able to is what keeps us coming back to the mat when we first start practicing yoga. Plus, they're fun! I like to practice arm balancing to move through fear and I do shape my asana practice to build strength and trust in myself. However, this is not the purpose of yoga. The word 'yoga' is a sanskrit word for 'union', as in union of mind, body, and soul. For me, the purpose of yoga is embodying my highest self. This is the self that moves, sees and speaks with love.
The constant barrage of photos on social media of perfect yoga bodies in handstands and backbends is inspiring for some but disheartening for others and makes yoga seem like a pretty workout for skinny white vegans. Let's face it- yoga is super trendy right now (that's a victory! whatever get's people to their mat is A-Ok with me) and I'm not saying that it's a bad thing to post yoga selfies and share your commitment to badassness with the world. But what happens to your mind and breath when you're striving over and over for that perfect photo or perfect pose?
Asana was originally practiced to prepare the mind and body for higher states of consciousness by clearing the pathways for the uber transmissions of prana that happen when kundalini starts to rise... We can tone that down a few notches and say simply that yoga can be amazingly healing. Practicing meditation, mindful breath and movement is medicine for all layers of your being, and this self-administered medicine over time fosters deep self-love. When you lose sight of this, you are stealing the healing from yourself.
This brings us to the third yama (ethical guideline) of yoga philosophy, Asteya, which translates to “non-stealing”. The practice of Asteya can be applied in the most literal sense of not stealing material objects, all the way to the subtler practice of observing our minds and behaviors closely for how we detract value from the present moment. I know that when I approach my practice with an attitude of striving such as “I need to stick that handstand like I used to!”, or “I'm gonna really push in my backbends”, I lose the connection to that part of me that moves from love. When I'm striving to achieve, I lose the ability to tune into the subtle sensations in my physical body and my energy body, and my self-talk drowns out the sweet voice of my heart and intrinsic wisdom that sings magically during a good yoga session... so instead of feeling grounded and open after practice I end up feeling unsteady and scattered. This is how we steal from ourselves.
This view of asteya is not to say that your yoga practice should not be challenging. Sitting through discomfort and pushing past fears are some of the most transformative fires of yoga and I'm a big advocate of getting upside down and trying lot's of new things in your practice. However, you might ask yourself what it is that you're striving for and examine your reaction to whether or not you “achieve” your perfect asana. Is your body ready or is that your ego? Your ability to perform yoga poses perfectly says nothing about who you are and I know plenty of assholes who can rock a solid one-armed handstand. When you can't do the pose you did two weeks ago or last year, do you talk down to yourself? Let the striving and achieving hold their place in other parts of your life and let your yoga practice trickle over to them.
Reserve the time on your mat as sacred time for you to breathe, heal, strengthen and open without the need for it to be anything other than what it is so that you can show up for your life with total presence, as your highest self.