Sunday, August 28, 2011
Earlier this month I took a class at Sonic Yoga in Manhattan, the studio I joined my first day in the city. Although it is not particularly convenient to where I live or where I work, I had seen the “Sonic Yoga Tango” video on YouTube, and as a lifelong musical theater fan/participant, I could not resist checking them out. Their enticing 3-month introductory special lured me in, along with the lovely yogi working the front desk who loves Sonic more than life itself, so I have been taking classes there for the past two months. It's a great studio, and I have been enjoying their classes (of course, missing Yoga District and Down Dog Yoga in DC very much, but you can't take yoga studios with you when you go...)
So back to the class earlier this month. The teacher was recovering from abdominal surgery, so the theme of the class was “Honoring Your Limits” because this is a concept that she has been working with a lot as she recovers.
This didn't make immediate sense to me. Honoring your limits? Aren't we really trying to break through them? Especially through yoga, isn't this practice about pushing our limits? To overcome our limits? Now we are honoring them? As if limits are somehow a good thing? I couldn't mentally process the concept while the class was going on, so I decided I would have to think about it and figure it out afterward. Which I did. For like a week.
Here is what I came up with: There is an actual limit in every given situation. There is a line. For example, a boat has an actual limit of how much weight it can support before it sinks. Or, this yoga teacher has an actual limit of how much she can physically do with her injury before she just makes it worse.
So I think, in our yoga practice, we are not so much breaking through our limits, as we are figuring out what our limits authentically are. I think the tendency can be to think that our limits are much lower than what they actually are. So with yoga practice we push past the false mental notions of what are limits are, and find the true limit. And by getting to that actual limit, and operating at it with focus, clarity, intention, and power, we strengthen ourselves to the point where we can eventually move past it, and have a new, stronger, deeper, farther, authentic limit.
But how do we know what that limit is? I thought about this for a long time too before realizing that there is a pretty simple indicator: your limit is the line right before the point where, when crossed, you are actually now going backwards. Because you are harming yourself physically. You are causing yourself injury. You are ultimately, in your quest to achieve a place or position of greater strength or power, weakening yourself. So our limit is, the place we push ourselves to, past the point where I minds may tell us we need to stop, but before the place where our bodies are harmed, where pain is indicative of an injury rather than an exertion towards growith. And we can naturally feel the difference between those two types of pain, if we are paying attention to our bodies and honest with ourselves.
Then I started to think about how this applies to non-physical limits. The example that came most immediately to mind was what I am working toward in NYC, building a career in music. What is my limit? How do I make sure that I am doing as much as I can to move forward with my goals? Especially knowing that I am ultimately only accountable to myself, along with the tendency to think that my limit is actually much lower than what it is?
I'm not sure what the answer is, but I thought back to a breakthrough moment in a yoga class I took at Down Dog Yoga with Patty Ivey in DC. As part of the backbending series, we would do wheel pose about eight times in a row. And hold them for what seemed like an eternity. This was after the lion's share of an already-challenging hour and a half heated power vinyasa class. Patty would be mentally pushing us through the very strong inclination to stop. She would say things to the effect of, don't listen to your mind telling you that you have to stop, you can do a lot more than you think. Why did you come here today? You showed up here, did you show up so that you can go halfway, or did you show up so you could really show up for yourself?
Something like that. Patty says it a lot better than I'm re-telling it here. But anyway, this series, while it was burning my arms and putting me through what felt like torment, made me realize something about what I have to do, if I want to make my musical dreams a reality. I have to keep going. I have to keep going past the point where my mind tells me I have to stop. I have to keep going even when I feel like I just want to fall onto the ground and enjoy some respite after the sixth wheel by skipping the last two.
Because afterwards, I always wished that I had stuck them out. And the times I did stick them out, I felt glorious afterwards.
This is finding the authentic limit.
This is also honoring that limit. But you can't honor a limit when it's not the true limit. So this is what we do with yoga practice. We press past the chatter of the mind, to find what we really can do, what we really are capable of, and we show up there. We stay there. And this moves us forward, towards who we really are, and who we want to be. Physically, this manifests itself as a stronger practice, more difficult poses, deeper concentration, heightened experience/awareness of the subtle effects of poses, and so on.
But I don't think this was necessarily what the teacher was thinking of or sharing with us, in the context of recovering from her injury. I think her experience was more around the reality of what you have to hold yourself back from doing, or what you have to accept that you cannot do. Accepting our authentic limit.
Why do we challenge it in the first place? I think with an injury, it's because we get very frustrated with not being able to do the things we could do before. Now we are fighting with our egos, who say, “But it's ME. And I COULD do this. And I SHOULD do this. So forget this pesky injury. I can just make it happen, by the sheer fact of being me. I can be tougher. I am Superwoman/man.” And by allowing ego to triumph accepting reality, we can hurt ourselves more, and wind up taking steps backward, which is the opposite of what we are trying to do—move forward.
Going back to my musical pursuits, I am working on figuring out that authentic limit that I can honor, both by identifying it, and by accepting it. For example, I have to be getting myself “out there,” playing open mics, pursuing opportunities to perform, practicing, creating music, working consistently toward goals. But if I go out to open mics every night and I don't get enough sleep, and I get sick as a result, then I won't be able to move forward at all until I recover. Or, if I sing so much that I lose my voice, I won't be able to move forward. And if I neglect maintaining the important relationships in my life, or the yoga practice which keeps me calm and centered, I won't have the strength and fortitude to persist in the strongest possible way.
So I guess in the end, it's all about balance. Finding your authentic limit, and honoring it, is finding that sweet spot right between doing everything you can, and letting go of anything beyond.