Little by Little…

“Little by little the bird builds it’s nest, Little by little the sun goes to rest, little by little the waves in their glee, smooth the rough rocks by the shores of the sea” ~ Poem from my Grandfathers childhood

When I started my daily yoga practice in November of 2012, my single goal was to increase my flexibility. Having participated in multiple triathlons, marathons and cycling tours over a number of years, I had managed to substantially shorten and tighten a lot of my muscle groups. My ham strings had been so significantly shortened that I could barely get my hands past my knees in a forward fold!
Patience was not a virtue that I possessed so I chose to practice Bikram yoga. For those of you unfamiliar with Bikram, it is a brand of yoga practiced in a room at 40 degrees Celsius with 100% humidity. The heat and humidity allows for deeper stretching whilst the practitioner sweats profusely from start to finish. I decided this would be my quickest route to flexibility.

I pushed myself aggressively into every posture during every class. I was dedicated, so much so that I would search for Bikram studios in the cities I was visiting as part of my traveling sales job. I was lucky to have the opportunity to practice in studios in Dubai, Cologne and London. I practiced in my hotel room in other cities when a studio could not be found or time was not permitting.

Within six weeks of starting, I had both hands on the floor in forward fold. Within four months, I had lost eight kilos in weight and was  addicted to my new sport.

Prior to starting, I was happy with my body and my weight. Surprisingly, the changes to my shape which made me look significantly more toned and slim did not make me happier instead having the opposite effect.

I began to examine every sinew of my body through a magnifying lens. I grew less confident and more insecure as the months were passing. My initial improvement in flexibility ground to a halt even though I was practicing aggressively on a daily basis.

One Thursday evening, the class at the studio was Ashtanga instead of Bikram. I really enjoyed trying some new postures and was excited to have the opportunity to try a headstand at the end of class. I failed at the headstand but went home with steadfast determination to conquer this impossible pose.

With the help of a Kino MacGregor video on YouTube, I taught myself how to do a headstand within a week of trying. I cut back on Bikram and started to attend other yoga classes of Ashtanga or Hatha flow.

I repeatedly listened to yoga instructors telling me that I was pushing too hard and that I needed to relax into the posture in order to progress. “Be firm but soft!”… I just assumed these instructors didn’t know what they were talking about. “No pain no gain” – that was my thinking!

My practice was still completely a physical exercise and even though I did feel calmer following my classes, I was missing the real essence of yoga practice.

One of the first yoga sutras refers to non violence. The first person with whom you should practice non violence is with yourself. On the yoga mat, you will face many challenges and every practice gives you opportunity to grow and evolve. When I woke up to the reality that I was being aggressive with myself, it was quite a shock. My yoga practice was a perfect example of self abuse.

Once you wake up to reality, you are presented with a beautiful opportunity to be present and mindful. What happens on the mat tends to reflect what happens off the mat. In practicing to be gentle and compassionate with yourself during your practice, you open the door to being gentle and compassionate with yourself off the mat.

I tried SUP yoga early in the summer. This involves paddling out into deep water on a stand-up paddle board and practicing yoga. On the SUP board, you have no choice but to be gentle with yourself as any forcing into postures results in an unplanned swim!

Following my SUP experience, I began practicing on my mat with a softness I didn’t realise I was capable of. I allowed myself to relax into postures whilst still holding firm in the parts of my body that were supporting me. “Dropping in” to my body gave me a heightened awareness of where I held tension. I began to breathe into the areas where I felt tension whilst being mindful to relax those areas. It was relaxing into postures that allowed me to make it to full split which was quite an achievement as I couldn’t even do splits as a child.

I am still in the very early days of what I hope will be a life long practice. Little by little I am seeing the changes as my hips slowly open and flexibility improves. I am also opening up in other ways, not just physically, like a flower slowly blossoming in the morning sunshine. I am committed to myself and little by little I will learn.

What little things are you doing for yourself today? Can you make some small changes to allow yourself to move closer to your fullest potential?