by Laura McCorry
What does it mean to practice yoga when your physical practice is greatly diminished or taken away entirely from illness or injury?
Yoga grew out of a tradition that includes eight limbs (or tenets) for a complete practice. Asana, or the physical postures of yoga, is just one of those eight limbs. The others show up during yoga practice as well and contain the philosophical groundwork of the ancient practice. (You can do your own search to learn more or come to our upcoming 8 Limbs for a Whole Being workshop on May 3rd.)
I’ve experienced long withdrawals from my physical practice due to long-term injury and more recently, a period of several weeks wherein I’ve caught one virus after another. Neither condition is any fun because you’d much rather be well and able to move your body freely.
So what does it mean to be a yogi who cannot practice asana?
I started out feeling very sorry for myself and disconnected from most forms of yoga displayed on the internet. I didn’t want to see photos of handstands on the beach or “inspirational” videos of complicated pose transitions. But this is the showy side of yoga and if you dig deeper, there’s so much more.
Physical limitations give you many opportunities to practice non-attachment, or aparigraha. You must let go of what you used to be able to do. You learn to guard your heart against jealousy when others do what you cannot. There is always a choice in how and whether you respond to any given circumstance. Non-attachment means letting go of feeling bitter and lost and broken.
Yoga becomes a more internal experience. During asana practice, teachers often tell you to listen to your body. Without asana, you must listen to your state of mind. (tweet that) The lessons learned on your mat become even more important when you cannot use the gross tool of your body to process them. The mind is slipperier and harder to control.
I found new ways to measure my yoga practice. I could no longer count the number of sun salutations I did in class, but I could ask myself if I spent some time sitting in silence. Did I make the most loving decisions I could make? How long was I able to forget about myself while being present for another? Sometimes yoga meant doing something just because it brought joy into the world.
If you really practice yoga outside the studio and off your mat, you realize that you always have your breath. I learned to make time just to breathe consciously. This was my practice – to be aware of my breath moving in and out of the body, sustaining my life. To allow myself to be carried away by the sensation of breath until the mind gives up listing its grievances and to-do lists. Then you move beyond the awareness of breathing and for an unknowable space of time, you simply are. This is the good stuff. This is samadhi, or oneness with the universe, that all yoga practice seeks to achieve.
Asana is wonderful. It can help transform both body and mind. But it’s not the only path. If you must take a break from asana, do not mourn it for too long. The real work of becoming who you are meant to be is internal and the other limbs of yoga can reveal the process. Stay connected to yourself and to the experience of each moment. This is how yoga moves with you and carries you through times of adversity.
Yoga and Laura had an on-again-off-again relationship from 2004 until 2009 when they decided to move in together and there’s been no looking back since. Passionate about both yoga and writing, Laura loves to introduce others to the joys and benefits of yoga and healthy living.