As a student and as a yoga instructor, I often hear people say what they “used to be,” as in, “I used to be a gymnast,” or “I used to be a dancer,” or “I used to be a runner.” Reading between the lines, it’s easy to tell that they’re actually saying, “don’t look at me now!” It’s the same kind of insecurity that leads some to state, “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.”
One of the best places to learn to accept ourselves as we are today is on the yoga mat. But it can be a tough lesson to learn, even for those of us who practice regularly. We all seem to be hard-wired for self-criticism and judgement.
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If you find yourself in one of those “I used to be (fill in the blank)” moods, try these simple steps to get yourself focused and away from that critical self.
Sit in a simple cross-legged position like Sukhasana (Easy Pose). If you feel yourself rounding your back or scrunching your abdomen because you’re not used to sitting this way, sit on a folded blanket (or several!) to encourage your pelvis to tilt forward. This will allow you to sit upright and maintain your natural spinal curves. Even if Sukasana is an easy pose for you, treat yourself and sit on a blanket. You’ll be surprised how that little bit of height elevates your whole body and elongates the abdomen making it easier to breathe. Still can’t get comfortable? Sit on a chair. Yes, yoga and chairs go together. Close your eyes.
Set an intention. I’ll admit that this was not always my go-to means of relaxing into my yoga practice. Some instructors see this as goal setting, like setting an intention to get into Bakasana (Crane Pose), or to try another pose we may be scared to attempt. For those of us too focused on our limitations, or for those of us who are too goal oriented, setting an intention can be counterproductive. Instead of being goal-directed, let your intention be a way of turning off the critical mind and allowing yourself to be. For example, “My intention for this practice is to be with this practice.”
Breathe. Seems simple enough, but conscious breathing is a little different. It’s not forced, and sometimes it’s not even fully conscious. To release your critical mind, simply feel into the breath as if you’re floating on it. Let your shoulders relax down away from your ears. Loosen your jaws. Let your tongue move away from the soft palate. Let your eyes sink into their sockets. Pause in the ease of it all.
Quiet your mind. If your mind is still racing with worry about what poses may come next or whether you’ll be able to do them, stop. Come back to the breath. If your mind is especially loud, try reciting a mantras. Keep it simple. Don’t know Sansktrit? It’s not a requirement. A mantra is simply a word or sound or phrase that’s repeated to aid concentration. My go-to mantra: “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out.” I understand it on a conscious level—I know what the words mean—but I can also let go of the literal meaning and just let the words carry the breath.
All of this is just one approach to saying good bye to that “I used to be” self, and most of us will go through this at some point. As my body ages I find that poses that were once more accessible to me, like Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow) and Ustrasana (Camel), now cause pain in my lumbar spine without the use of props. But with each practice, I let go of my ego a little bit more, especially as I connect with my breath and know that I’m supporting my body as it is today.
Don’t be a “used to be.” Just “be.”