I recently encouraged a student to try an arm balance. She was hesitant. When I asked her why, she said, “I’m afraid to try it.” The posture—visvamitrasana—requires stability and openness, and is complex in the type of preparation that is required for even the most advanced practitioner. The student told me, “I am flexible but not very strong.” She had become so attached to these labels of herself that she was limiting her practice. Clinging had created a boundary of fear.
At Yoga Shanti, we are encouraged to practice and teach the concept of any amount, which means listening to one’s body without pushing or forcing ourselves into something. But there is an important distinction between the boundaries that we set out of mindfulness and the boundaries that we set out of clinging to our fears. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken. Sometimes we need to test the ideas that we have about ourselves in order to flex our fearlessness muscles. This is what it means to be truly open. As the brilliant Pema Chodron has written, “Openness doesn’t come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well.”
The cool thing about working with students repeatedly is that eventually I will have observed their practices long enough to recognize their blind spots, allowing me to serve as a mirror. I am not telling them what I think their blind spots are, but rather, holding space for them to test theories, take risks, or try something new. Often times, this means I need to physically assist them. A sense of humor also helps. Most importantly, the encouragement needs to come from a place of warmth and care. Through repeated practices together, there is the potential to build a relationship of trust, and that’s when the real magic happens in a yoga class.
The student eventually did attempt visvamitrasana, albeit a modified version. When I asked her how she felt afterward, she looked at me, smiled, and replied, “I feel great!”
Yoga doesn’t always have to be serious. It can be playful. You can break rules. When we allow ourselves to face our fears on the mat, we are strengthening our courage in our everyday lives. The result could be more openness, confidence and compassion for those around us who push our buttons, because we are better able to recognize our own fears in their behavior. The secret is to keep showing up and, hopefully, get to know your teachers and fellow students.