If you need a humbling experience, please start practicing yoga.
It will blow your mind.
Not surprisingly, I was fully unprepared for the humility that yoga forced on me.
I’m no stranger to athletics. In fact, among my athletic achievements, I can list quite a few very impressive sounding accomplishments.
I was a three-sport athlete from the age of 8. I was a back-to-back national champion in softball by the age of 14. I was a collegiate national champion in volleyball at age 21.
Oh, and most importantly, I was the winner of the Betty Crocker Award for Best Female Beer Pong Player at the Nicky Cat Tournament in the fall of 2008.
Yes, that’s real.
I still have the t-shirt.
Since college, I’ve played on a ridiculous amount of kickball, softball, volleyball, and all other types of ball-sport teams. I’ve been a Crossfit athlete since that became cool. And, I’ve run or otherwise tried to stay in shape for as long as I can remember.
But, holy crap y’all—yoga knocked me on my ass.
I remember, very vividly, thinking that I’d be fine. Thinking, of course I can do downward-facing dog and stand on one foot—what’s so hard about all of this?
Umm… that would be everything.
Everything is hard.
Focus is hard. Stretching is hard. Balancing is hard.
Letting go of your absurd notions about what you should and shouldn’t be able to do with your physical body… that is really freakin’ hard.
Yoga is hard.
But yoga is also insanely insightful.
Despite utterly destroying my ego and otherwise frustrating the crap out of me, yoga has taught me some amazing lessons over the past year.
I’ve found that sometimes it takes a physical practice to remind us how we should behave emotionally and mentally. Not only how we should behave, but how we should approach our behaviors—namely our mindset about the world and our mindfulness about our lives.
All it took was a few pigeon-pose-induced epiphanies to figure it all out.
So here goes—the top 5 lessons I’ve learned from my short time practicing yoga.
You get them without ever having to break a sweat or say an ohm.
5 Lessons I Learned From One Year of Yoga
1. Showing up is the first and most important step to anything.
When I first started yoga, I remember one of my teachers ending a class by saying,
“Remember to thank this body of yours for showing up on your mat today.”
After I finished giggling and pulled myself together (seriously, who talks like that?), I started thinking. Maybe she had a point.
A few weeks later, at a night class, I had another teacher say,
“You guys could be anywhere right now—on the couch, watching tv, out drinking—but you’re here. That’s a huge accomplishment in and of itself.”
After I finished lamenting missing the first half of Monday Night Football, I started thinking again. He was definitely on to something.
No, not on something—on to something!
Once you’re present somewhere, it’s easy to forget the fact that making the choice to go was the first step in many steps to success. It’s so tempting to beat yourself up on your mat—I didn’t get this pose, I can’t believe I fell down, I thought I was stronger than that—while completely forgetting the fact that you showed up, and without that, you’d have nothing to beat yourself up about in the first place!
You have to start somewhere.
You can’t go anywhere without first showing up, without first taking that bold step into something new, without first challenging your own conceptions of your own capabilities.
Don’t underestimate the power of showing up. Celebrate the fact that you are present, and then start to move forward.
2. Once you get started, every little bit counts.
When I first started yoga, I remember thinking in very black and white terms about the practice.
Either I can get this pose or I can’t. Either I can touch my toes or I can’t. Either I can balance or I can’t.
Then, somewhere along the way, I had an instructor challenge that concept.
We were laying in Savasana which is a very basic “finishing” pose for a yoga practice. All you have to do is lie on your back with your legs and arms on the ground. Then you just relax.
Seriously, that’s it. Your only “work” is to relax.
As you might imagine, I sucked at this.
My mind was in 1,000 different places. I was worried about what had happened before class. I was anxious about what would happen after class. I was basically everywhere but in the present moment.
And to make matters worse, I was beating myself up about it.
I had one job to do, and couldn’t do it.
But then I heard my teacher say,
“Every little bit of letting go matters. Every little bit of letting go is good. Every little bit of letting go counts.”
Here I was thinking I had to be Buddha incarnate for the pose to be working. Turns out you don't have to transcend to some great heights of enlightenment, or whatever they call it. You just have to embrace that every little bit helps.
The reality is, there will only be so much relaxation or “letting go” available to you at any moment.
Nothing is too small not to matter.
3. On that note, forget about perfection—it doesn’t exist.
Right around when I started practicing yoga, I came across several interesting quotes about perfection. Probably a by-product of embracing my inner Buddhist. Many of them were horribly overdone, but one happened to catch my eye. It read:
Perfection comes in aspiration, not attainment.
We live in a world that measures us by our accomplishments—by what we achieve rather than the standards by which we achieve it.
I never realized the error of this until I began the physical practice of yoga.
Take Bird of Paradise Pose, for instance. Bird of Paradise is an advanced twisting pose. You stand upright with your left arm behind your back, your right arm in front of you but looped around underneath your right leg, your right leg in the air pointed toward the ceiling, and your hands clasped behind your back.
Sounds complicated, because it is.
Now, Bird of Paradise is not an advanced pose because it’s all that difficult. It’s advanced because you have to know exactly how to get yourself into and out of it without hurting yourself. You could definitely muscle your way into it early on in your practice, but the chances of you falling down, pulling a muscle, or otherwise injuring yourself are ridiculously high.
Yes, there is a goal in mind, and yes, it would be wonderful if you could look like the person in the magazine or the instructor leading your class.
But even that person could probably get her leg a little straighter. Even that person could probably stand up a little taller. Even that person could probably twist a little deeper.
There is always more room to grow. You will never be perfect. No one will ever be perfect.
The only way you can practice perfectly is by measuring your success in aspiration rather than attainment.
4. The space you’re aspiring to is probably already available to you.
This one totally blew my mind when I first started practicing yoga.
I’ll give you an example.
Let’s say you really want to touch your toes. Let’s also say that touching your toes would be your version of landing on the moon. Now, let’s say that you’re in a yoga class, and your teacher tells you that you can probably already touch your toes, you just don’t realize it yet.
If you just shook your head violently and went, abuhhhhhhh, then congrats friends, because you’re exactly like me.
There I was, in class, and this teacher totally called my bluff.
I was shocked, but mostly dismayed. I knew that I was about to make a fool out of myself in front of a bunch of other (way more bendy) people. But I couldn’t say no, so here’s what happened.
She told me to bend over and try to touch my toes, which I did—try, that is. Despite giving all the effort in my body, my fingers were left dangling just inches above the floor.
She told me to take a deep breath in, lengthen out through my back, then exhale and allow my body to get a little closer to the floor.
No pushing. No straining. And certainly no effort. Just allowing.
So I did, and wouldn’t you know it, my fingers got 2 full inches closer to the floor.
I’m no dummy, so I tried it again to see what would happen. I did it, again. And again. And again. And four breaths into my “space,” much to my astonishment, my fingers met the floor and I, Tracy Timm, touched my toes.
::cue small parade::
While this doesn’t sound like the biggest accomplishment of all time (because it’s not), you have to understand my mindset here. Not five minutes earlier, I was utterly convinced that touching my toes was not in the realm of possibility for me. I knew that I couldn’t do it.
In a matter of five minutes and four deep breaths, I was on the moon.
Know, deeply, that you are more capable than you could ever imagine.
Your space is there for you to claim whenever you’re ready to do so.
5. Once you’re ready, please remember that things take time.
When I first started yoga, I had the rare advantage of total ignorance.
I didn’t know when something was hard or easy—I just knew if I could do it or couldn’t do it.
So, at the beginning, I was fearless. I would pretzel myself into the craziest of poses and not be able to get out. I would go for advanced variations because the people around me could do them. I even tried headstand and almost broke a toe in the process.
I would not recommend that. Those pinky toes are surprisingly important.
I thought, I’m athletic and in fairly good shape—I should be able to do this.
I quickly learned that “should” and “could” were indeed not the same thing.
After much frustration, I had a few instructors drop some truth bombs on me. I had to learn to let go of the labels I had been given as an athlete. I had to adjust the expectations I had for myself which were extremely high. I had to approach my practice as a practice that would take time—probably more time than I preferred.
And most of all, I had to stop should-ing myself to death.
It would be unwise to begin a diet expecting to arrive at your desired weight the following day. It would be foolish to start a romantic relationship expecting a ring tomorrow. It would be ridiculous to take on a new job with the goal of being an expert after one week.
In the same way, it’s absolutely absurd to start practicing yoga and expect Nirvana in a week.
It’s just not gonna happen.
And that’s probably for the best.
Yoga taught me the patience and practice that life had been trying to teach me for years.
And now I realize, in a very real way, that things take the time they need.
Don’t rush—the process matters.
The Big Picture
Yoga has a very unique value proposition—the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t actually know anything.
Life is no different.
So please, do yourself a favor, and stop expecting it to be!
Embrace these realities of life and make them work for you.
Show up every day. Make every little bit count. Strive for perfection while knowing you’ll never be perfect. Realize you’re already stronger than you think. And for goodness sake, take your time.
Do all these things knowing that the realm of possibility is so much larger than you could ever imagine.
Remain humble and you will find your success.
It’s either that or try Destroyer of the Universe Pose.
The choice is yours.
How have you been humbled into learning life’s biggest lessons? Has anyone come along and dropped a truth bomb on you? What was it?
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