Journey into Power Where Transformation Begins
Years ago, I was the private yoga teacher for a very wealthy man. He was a billionaire who came from an extremely poor background who had built his fortune from the ground up using nothing but intuition, common sense, and determination. One day I asked him how he had learned to create so much from so little, considering where he came from.
“Technique was only twenty percent of it,” he told me. “The other eighty percent was my worldview.”
Imagine that: Only 20 percent of success is the mechanics of achievement; the other 80 percent comes from your psychology. That idea has stayed with me ever since I heard it, because I can really see how true it is for everything in life. The “how to” element isn’t the problem. It’s how receptive we are to growth that really determines how far we can go. It all comes down to whether we choose to play small or big, whether we become instruments of peace and power or vehicles for pain in this world.
The reason it is so difficult for us to change is that we focus too much on the microcosmic steps, or the “program,” and not enough on changing the perspective that landed us where we are in the first place. Deep and true changes come from the inside out, not the other way around.
We can try all different kinds of techniques to transform ourselves, but unless we address the underlying structure, we are just moving the pieces around. We
haven’t made any lasting changes just by saying affirmations, or going on a diet, or superficially altering our habits. We’ve addressed the symptoms without going to the root.
Affirmations change the thoughts but not the thinker. Diets change the eating patterns but not the eater. Willpower holds the negative actions in check for a little while but does not ultimately change the doer. If you only change what you do,
all you get are temporary alterations to your actions. Shift your inner viewpoint,
though, and your world transforms.
The physical aspect of power yoga will transform your body—of that there is no doubt. And who doesn’t want a more powerful and peaceful body? The real question is do you just want a more powerful and peaceful body, or do you want a more powerful and peaceful life? I will push you, poke you, prod you, challenge you to tap some potential, but ultimately, how far you go is determined by you and your inner viewpoint.
The Western path to “self-improvement” is based on attacking our problems, which we see as the enemy, and ourselves as the victims. We look at the cause, analyze the pattern, and seek out ways to “fix” it.
In the Eastern model, there is no need to improve ourselves, because our real power flows from a force that is in us but not of us. The goal is to simply surrender ourselves and our problems to the highest powers in the universe. The Eastern model tells us not to struggle against our problems but rather to forgive and let go: resist less, struggle less, fight less, and flow more. From birth we are taught to swim upstream, but in yoga practice the goal is to jump into the river of life. Struggle just drains us and fortifies the very thing we want to release.
Surrender is not such a difficult thing once we realize that within us is a brilliance that is already perfect, already wise, already healthy. Problems are just places where we have been separated from our authentic selves. The only solution needed is to become aware of the thoughts and imaginings that are keeping our true selves buried. When you change your focus from limitations to boundless possibilities, from doubt and fear to love and confidence, you open your world in entirely new ways. You stop worrying about fixing what’s wrong with you and start living from all that’s right within you.
When you focus on the problems, you get more of the same. What you focus on you create. You can analyze the problems, react to them, wrestle with them, take them all personally as though something is wrong with you. But that just keeps the negative merry-go-round circling in your head and leads you to again seek out another plan, another program another 20 percent solution. As Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.”
When you make that deep internal shift from your problem-solving mind to your
truth-knowing mind, you don’t need to search for the answers anymore. The search for answers is over and the process of more fully accepting and owning what you already know has begun. All that is not authentically “you” falls away, and you have a new center of being that allows you to see very clearly what is needed to effect change in your life. You stop trying to fix
yourself and start being
It sounds like I’m promising miracles, but this is all entirely possible, and entirely within your reach. Rewiring your mind from within is where it all begins. The actual psychic surgery happens through surrender to a willingness to see things in a new way. It’s time to step out of the mental box we keep ourselves in; to turn our worldview upside down and see from a whole new vantage point. When we relinquish the negative beliefs and thought systems based on fear, fight, and limitation, then we open the door to spontaneous and healing insights fueled by love. The Power of Yoga to Rewire Our Minds
A lot of people think yoga is good for the mind because it reduces stress. But stress management doesn’t interest me. Coping is not what this is all about. That’s just putting a lid on a boiling brew of poison. I’m interested in total life transformation,
in transcending stress altogether. I can’t change the factors that cause the stress—there isn’t much I can do about traffic, or your relationships, or your job, or your kids, or whatever else stresses you out. But I can show you how to remold your mind and your reaction
to and perception
of these things. That is where the stress lies. It’s about rising above your reactions and starting to live your life authentically rather than in reaction to everything. When you learn to make this internal shift, you start living from a deeper, more peaceful place. You wake up to your true nature, and suddenly the whole world opens up to you.
There is a story of the spiritual teacher Osho who lived in India and guided many on their spiritual path. One day, a highranking Indian politician came to Osho complaining that he was unable to sleep. It seemed no matter what this politician tried, he would toss and turn and rarely catch more than a few hours sleep each night. He was exhausted and desperate, so he went to see Osho begging for guidance on how to relax so he could sleep.
“I’m sorry,” Osho told him. “I can’t help you. But there is another spiritual teacher down the road who can. Go to him and tell him I sent you, and that you need to learn ways to fall asleep.”
The politician was overjoyed and headed off down the road to the other spiritual teacher’s home. Several weeks later, he returned to thank Osho.
“Osho, thank you so very much! The teacher taught me how to meditate so I could fall asleep. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“Wonderful,” Osho replied. “I am glad
you learned how to fall asleep. Now, when you want to learn how to wake up, come back and see me.”
This yoga is the ultimate laboratory for awakening. Your yoga mat is a place to invite in stress and meet it head-on, to rewire your mind on a daily basis. All the ingredients you need are there: the challenges, the resistance, the doubts, the frustrations, the fears, the possibilities. You challenge yourself on a physical level, and the mental resistances rush right up to the surface. At those moments, you have a choice: You can either break down
or break through.
Sometimes playing your edge just means taking a leap of faith. You can give in to the limiting beliefs or fears in your mind that hold you back, or you can reframe your consciousness and say “yes!”—’Yes, I can surrender these thoughts, I can let go, I can give up the fight and just be light.” The “yes” moments are the break-throughs, the exhilarating release into transformation. Opportunity at the Edge
So where do these opportunities for transformation lie? At the place I call the “edge.”
The edge is where we come right up against ourselves and what we can do and be. It is the boundary between where we are and where we grow, the place of comfortable discomfort, where all growing and healing happens. The edge is the point in every pose when you are still within your capacities but are challenging yourself to go just a little bit farther. Stepping up to this edge and daring to leap is how you break through and thus break with old ways of being.
We all have an inner comfort zone. Many people keep their thermostat at the same level: they go to the same places, see the same people, eat the same foods, think the same thoughts, have the same reactions. I’ve heard it said that we have something like sixty thousand thoughts a day, and 90 percent are the same thoughts we had the day before. Think about it: Only 10 percent of your thoughts today are new! We get stuck in a mental hypnosis and become so conditioned that we don’t even realize we have put constraints on ourselves.
In India, the way they train baby elephants not to run off is by tying one of their legs to a sturdy tree. The baby elephant will struggle at first, straining against the rope and trying to escape. Eventually, the baby elephant gives up trying, and at that point the owner unties the rope. For the rest of its life, that elephant will never wander farther than the distance of the original captive rope. They don’t ever realize they are free, that they can walk a little farther, or even away from the tree that imprisoned them. It is generally possible for people to get into most of the power yoga poses, but it is only when we are tired and ready to come out of it that the pose really begins for us. You come up against fatigue, resistance, fear—all kinds of head
trips. Your instinct may be to flee, to say, “This hurts. . . I can’t do it. . . I’m out of here . . .” But that is precisely when you have the chance for a breakthrough. That is the edge. That is the moment of truth, when you can transcend your boundaries and grow.
You know you are on your way when you feel resistance, in whatever form it takes, welling up in you. It is so
powerful when you really start to get that and begin to view those moments as opportunities for growth rather than signals to quit. These moments are precisely what develops strength and serenity.
Dissolving the Blocks Within
Every one of us has limiting beliefs in our minds that hold us back, most of which we aren’t even aware of. These beliefs are so germane to who we are that we rarely even formulate them as conscious thoughts. They fester in our deepest unconscious, invisible to the naked eye but powerful enough to run our lives. They are the thoughts that sabotage us right at the moments of greatest opportunity. They whisper, “You can’t. . . Who do you think you are? . . . You don’t have what it takes . . .” How or why we developed these psychic patterns isn’t really important. It’s recognizing and releasing them that matters.
So much of life is about our beliefs (i.e., blocks) about what we can and cannot do, and our subconscious mind brilliantly obliges by manifesting circumstances and conditions that reflect our core beliefs. But when you test and breathe through those boundaries, the blocks start to move and eventually dissolve. Of course, if you choose, you can do a ho-hum practice and steer completely clear of your edge. You might even get a few benefits from that. But if you really want big
results, play your edge in every pose and I guarantee you’ll start to see the changes you want in both your body and your life.
Playing your edge in yoga doesn’t always mean “going for it,” or pushing yourself to do something that overwhelms you. That’s ego stuff and it can lead to injury. We’re talking about peeling
away your layers like the layers of an onion, not ripping them off through force. So many students want to just haul out the machete and slice their onions in half to get to the heart. They want perfection and they want it NOW!
What I’m talking about are subtle shifts—maybe holding a pose for a breath longer than you think you can, or stretching a quarter of an inch farther than you have in the past, or even trying a modified version of a pose that seems challenging. Sometimes your edge is learning to do less, to be more tolerant, more patient, more compassionate toward yourself. Ultimately, your intuition knows what you need. As I’ve said so many times before, your intuition is always, always right and never, ever wrong.
The danger here is that we listen to our ego’s voice that says, “No more . . . I can’t . . . back off,” when in fact our intuitive
voice is saying, “Push to the edge . . . break out of the shell that encloses you . . . cross the threshold.” The Eight Principles for Stepping Up to the Edge, which follow, can help you learn to distinguish between those two voices. In the “Daily Power Yoga” section of the book, I will give you guidelines so that you can safely find your edge in each pose. But again, only you can know at what point you’ve hit it and whether you are willing to go beyond it.
The beautiful thing about this process is that as soon as you move through one edge, a new one is created. There is always a new realm to explore, another edge to play. Each layer is a bundle of old, useless information and energy that needs to be released. Physical, emotional, and spiritual muscles grow and stretch, but then they adapt to a new threshold, and it’s time to move the bar yet again. It’s a continuous lifelong process of constant growth. I have students who come to my studio or Boot-camps who have been doing yoga for fifteen years or more who still have break-throughs on the mat. As one of them said, “It’s not a growth that happens once and then stops. It’s a limitless process of breakthroughs that has no end.”
The edge is as much about your world-view as it is your physical potential. The two are intertwined; the key element of this entire Journey into Power program is simply unrolling your mat, doing the practice, and living the principles. Awakening in one realm feeds the other, and vice versa. You can read and intellectualize the idea of rewiring your mind all you like, but you need to set the process in motion if you want to see results. The Eight Universal Principles for Stepping Up to the Edge
When I teach, I talk my students through the poses and the process. I push them to their edge, helping them tap a new degree of strength and serenity. I speak to their bodies and their minds, taking them through a practice that is meditation in motion. In this process I share the Universal Principles for Stepping Up to the Edge. At moments of difficulty in poses, the principles will do for your mind what a map does when you are lost on a road. They will guide you, empower you, and encourage you to move through boundaries that once seemed impenetrable. They can be the light that illuminates your path.
These Universal Principles may not resonate with you until you are ready. Right now they are just words on a page, and that’s fine. But then suddenly, when you are at the edge, one of these will click. It’s the “aha!” moment when you suddenly understand at a cellular level what I’m talking about. So let these sink into your mind. Then, at the right moment, the one you need will ring in your ears loud and clear, like a penny dropping on a marble floor.
These principles are timeless. They apply whether you are an absolute beginner or someone who has been practicing your
whole life. As you grow and your yoga practice evolves, these principles will strike you in whole new ways, with different meanings. They’re universal—permanent natural laws that never change, like gravity.
Do these Universal and Timeless Principles work? They have worked for me, and I have witnessed miracles in my students. So just open your mind and suspend your skepticism and watch the magic unfold.
Principle I: We Are Either Now Here or Nowhere
“Now here” or “nowhere.” Interesting, isn’t it, how the only difference, really, is a little extra space.
All life happens in the present moment. All we really have is the moment that is right here, right now, in front of us. Any moment that happened in the past is a memory, and any moment that will happen in the future is a fantasy. Memories and fantasies can be very nice, but they lead us nowhere except into the past, which no longer exists, or the future, which doesn’t exist yet. The past and the future are not places. They are, essentially, nowhere. So you see, you are either now here
The psychology of growth is being in the process and taking it one moment at a time. Change doesn’t usually happen in one fell swoop, unless we’re talking about earthquakes or winning the lottery. It happens a little at a time, step by step, breath by breath, moment by moment. A small, steady drip of water can erode a boulder over the course of many years. When you come into the now, you become present to one moment and make a tiny shift, and then the next, and then the next, and before you know it, you have moved your mountain.
Being nowhere as you practice yoga is one of the surest ways to get hurt. In life, accidents happen when someone is not paying attention. You can drive a car at ninety miles an hour and be fine, and you can also drive a car at ten miles an hour and get into an accident—it all depends on your presence. If your energy is scattered all over the place, it’s hard to pay attention to what you’re doing. I’ve seen many injuries happen this way. Just recently a student asked me to guide her into a back-bend from a standing position, which requires some experience. She had the strength and flexibility to do it, but she wouldn’t stop talking. I gently pulled her back up to standing and said, “Your body is ready, but you are not. Your mind is all over the place, and that’s the quickest way to hurt yourself in a backbend.”
Coming into your body and paying attention to your breath is the master key to anchoring your mind in the present moment. Your breath is always right there waiting for you, the steady, patient guide that will always lead you straight out of nowhere into the now.
Whenever you find yourself struggling, you have drifted off into your head, thinking about the past or worrying about the
future—in these moments, re-anchor, remind, and remember to keep your eyes on the prize of the present moment. Simply follow your breath right back to the present moment and let go of all that isn’t happening right here, right now. Tune into the feeling of your breath coming into your body and the feeling of your breath leaving your body. It’s that simple: just breathing and knowing that you are breathing. I don’t mean thinking of your breathing, just simply a bare bones mindfulness of the breath moving in and out of your nostrils.
Principle 2: Be in the Now
and You’ll Know How
The answer to “how” is always “be in the now.” When you tune into the present moment, you rein your focus back in from the distractions happening around you. When you make this directional shift from paying outward attention to paying inward attention, you can really hear what your body is telling you. Your body communicates with you through a language we all understand. It’s called sensation. And as with any good relationship, good listening is needed. Hearing your body’s voice brings you right into the here and now. Are you experiencing pain? Are you having trouble maintaining a steady flow of breath (a sign that you have gone too far and you’ve crossed your edge into overwhelm)? What adjustments do you need in order to make the pose more comfortable for you, to make it work?
When you are in the now, a world of options opens up to you. You have more choices and you can modify, dilute, pull back, or push forward as you need. If you are in the now, you will know exactly how far to go, when to push, and when to surrender. You’ll know what you need simply because you are focusing on the tangible reality of each and every second.
Tracy could not hold her balance while doing a Twisting Triangle (page 121
). She could get her palm to the floor, but every time she spun her upper arm outward and turned her head, she would lose her balance and fall over. She would fall three or four times in each direction, and so she was naturally frustrated by this pose. I tried to give her some tips on how to modify, or some slight adjustments she could make, but ultimately, I told her, she would need to tune into her own body to know how to do the pose. That was clearly not the answer Tracy was hoping for, and she looked even more frustrated. But she kept coming to class and trying the pose, and one day she just blossomed into it as if she’d been doing Twisting Triangle her whole life. When she came out of the pose, she looked at me with a huge grin and mouthed, “I got it!”
Later Tracy told me it was a simple adjustment of creating more length from fingertip to fingertip that made the difference. The slight shift in weight isn’t something I or any other teacher could have told her, because every single body is unique and distributes weight differently.
She just needed to tune in and really hear what her body was telling her she needed to do.
You already have the answer to “how” within you; our bodies are encoded with this innate knowledge. The key to accessing it is by coming into the moment. Each time you think you don’t know “how” is a clue that you aren’t willing to trust your intuitions—use this question as a tip-off that it’s time to tune in and trust the light of your inner knowing.
Principle 3: Growth Is the Most Important Thing There Is
I have come to a point in my life where there is nothing more important to me than my own growth. I have three boys whom I love dearly. They are my greatest joy. Yet my own growth is still more important to me. How can I say that? Because if I don’t grow, they suffer. If I don’t grow, the people I work with suffer. In a sense, if I don’t grow, the world suffers, because we are all interconnected and impact one another in powerful ways.
We have two choices: We grow, or we die. It’s that simple. Growth is forward movement; anything else is stagnation or, worse, regression. I would even go so far as to say that growth is the answer to the ageold question of the meaning of life. It’s the whole point of our journey: to grow and evolve so we can remove all the parts of ourselves that keep us from living in the light, living from our essence, living as our authentic selves. When you remove the blocks, you create flow in your life and go into new thresholds of personal potential. That
is the goal, and growth is the only way to get there.
Yoga practice is one of the greatest ways to perpetuate growth in all the areas of your life, beginning with the physical. Yoga pokes and prods at our physical limitations, forcing us to experience boundaries not normally experienced. Maybe you can’t initially touch your toes in a forward bend, or perhaps your upper body is not strong enough yet to sustain you in Chaturanga (Low Push-Up position, page 87
). When you hit that edge, you are faced with the choice to either move through or flee. The choice is always yours. The great thing about a daily yoga practice is that you offer yourself that choice again and again. Going even a little bit farther past your edge is the essence of growth. Physically, you are training your body to go beyond its threshold, and you are one day able to do more. But the psychological lessons that arise in this dynamic are what really catapult you forward in your life. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once compared a person’s mind to wet fabric—once stretched, it dries beyond its original dimensions.
The funny thing about growth is the paradox contained within it. It begins not with momentum, or even willingness. It begins with acceptance. You can only grow beyond where you are if you accept where you are in the first place. You can only begin to stretch your limits if you can see and embrace them. It isn’t willpower or anger
at your limitations that stretches them. It’s acceptance. You can never actually grow past your edge if you can’t see it clearly and willingly.
Many new students experience a lot of frustration when they first try to take Eagle pose (page 109
), a balancing posture that takes new students a while to get in their bodies. In an intermediate class most students take it effortlessly and with grace. In a beginner’s basics class, people are usually flopping all over the place like fish on a dock. I watch them get frustrated and annoyed, and remind them that getting angry at themselves for being where they are serves no purpose other than to fuel their frustration and reinforce their perceived limits. If you fight for your limitations, your only prize is that you get to keep them. Everyone started as a beginner, I tell them, and the people who can now do this pose are the ones who accepted even the little bit they could do and worked from there. Just do what you can, from where you are with whatever level of ability you have. When you quiet down and pay attention on purpose, you can actually see clearly where your edge is and play with it from there. But staying focused on what you can’t do prevents you from discovering what you can.
So when you hit your edge in a pose—or in your everyday life—instead of giving in to frustration or whatever other reaction surfaces, focus on your commitment to growth and ask yourself: Where am I now and how can I accept, let go, and grow?
Principle 4: Exceed Yourself to Find Your Exceeding Self
If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. It’s that simple. If you really want to grow beyond where you are, to change your habits, your body, your mind, and/or your life, you need to exceed yourself. To find the authentic you buried inside, you need to tread into new territory. The new frontiers are within us; the real stretch is internal. You know what you get from doing things the way you do right now. Your best thinking has gotten you where you are. But do you know what you get if you go just a little bit beyond the usual?
The irony of exceeding yourself is that it usually happens after you’ve perceived failure. The moment when you believe you have no more energy or capability, when you are certain you have to give up, is when you experience the most profound breakthroughs. In weight training, it is in the last two repetitions after your muscles are fatigued and quaking that new growth happens. That’s called adaptation. Those last two reps are when the muscle fibers finally tear microscopically so they can repair and rebuild themselves stronger than before. All the reps up until that point were just preparing you for that moment of perceived failure and opportunity.
In a challenging yoga practice, you do your best poses when you are near exhaustion, because you just don’t have the strength to resist change. On a certain level
you finally surrender: not to defeat, but to the sustaining power of the universe that propels you forward. In those moments your body is weak, but because your spirit is willing, you venture into new territories of strength, power, and peace.
At one Bootcamp, we were going over the alignment of Crow pose (page 107
) and I asked if anyone was having a particularly hard time with it. A woman named Alicia timidly raised her hand, and I invited her to come up to the front so we could try it together. She lined herself up perfectly but was afraid to lift both feet off the floor; she feared tipping forward and landing on her head (a common fear in Crow pose). She kept trying and trying, growing visibly more frustrated with each attempt. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I just can’t.”
Though her words claimed defeat, Alicia’s eyes said otherwise. There was a spark of willingness in them. “Yes, you can,” I encouraged her. “Let’s do it together.”
So again Alicia tried, and again she pulled back before getting her second foot off the ground. Still, she was determined, and with tears streaming down her face, she lined herself up one more time. I gently guided her up into the pose and held her steady for a moment or two, then let go. She stayed up! After about ten seconds she came down and the entire room burst into applause. Alicia’s face was radiant, and for the rest of that Bootcamp, every time we did the Crow pose, she climbed right up into it and held it with an enormous smile on her face. She’d broken through and discovered a whole new level of herself.
When you hit your edge in a pose, it’s time to ask more of yourself If you can relax with your edge, you’ll realize you are stronger than you think you are. You have more capability than you believe you do. If you just breathe and maintain equanimity in the face of adversity, you can exceed even your biggest dreams for your body and for your life.
Principle 5: In Order to Heal, You Need to Feel
The real irony of spiritual growth is that instead of being some miraculous experience, it feels a lot more like going to pieces. As soon as we open ourselves and our lives up to be healed, suddenly all kinds of unpleasant feelings come to the surface. We experience fear, disappointment, shame, even rage—certainly not the rosy, glowing epiphanies they promised in the brochure!
If you ask for wisdom or higher virtues, know that they only come through trials and tribulations. If you ask for inner peace, God will send you a storm in which to practice and cultivate peace. We get what we want through practice. There’s no such thing as a free lunch in the spiritual realm. You can stay stagnant in your comfort zone on or off the mat, but in order to transcend yourself and gain wisdom, you need to go through the fire, walk on hot coals, travel through the desert of your own mind, and come through on the other side transformed.
In order to heal, we first need to feel. We spend our entire lives stuffing down emotional and physical injuries, but these wounds don’t really disappear. Cellular memory is a powerful thing, and deep within all of us is a record of every feeling we tried to suppress, every emotional scar we keep buried, every physical ailment we thought was healed. To truly heal from the inside out, this psychic debris must be brought to the surface so it can be released.
The things that come up for you on your yoga mat won’t always be easy. As I said, the thing I love about yoga is that whatever is in there, yoga will find it. Physically, old injuries may feel activated, so they can be healed and released. You may feel a strong sensation, a tightness, and even pain as your muscles stretch to dissolve emotional knots and release your body’s holding patterns of tension. New aches and pains may arise as your body shakes off however many years of stress and toxins. You feel the truth of your lifestyle in your body. It’s right there. Your thoughts, your reactions, your emotional patterns—they’re right there in your body. So as you come into all of these different postures, they are just tools for exploration, and then opportunity for release.
Emotional pains may surface as well, because our bodies store the energetic remnants of these emotions deep within the tissue. Backbends symbolize fear of looking into the past, so a Camel pose (page 131
) may trigger a buried painful memory or traumatic experience from many years ago. Our hips are emotional storage houses, so hip openers like Pigeon may release angers you weren’t even aware you had. Chest-opening poses like the Wheel (page 134
) may stimulate buried sorrows or flood you with love and appreciation for someone in your life. Though your instinct may be to stuff these all back down, they are coming up now, so that you can feel them one last time and finally release them and be free. And ultimately, being free from your excess “stuff” is what this is all about. As Kahlil Gibran said, “The pain you feel is the breaking of the shell that encloses you.”
If you are really willing to feel, you can create real changes in your life. On the other side of these pains of purification is true peace. There is a famous story about Renoir and Matisse, who were friends. One day, Matisse visited his friend Renoir and watched him paint. Renoir suffered from terrible arthritis, and every stroke of the brush caused him immense pain.
“Why do you do this to yourself?” Matisse asked.
“Because when the pain disappears, the beauty remains,” Renoir replied.
Thankfully, most of our pains will pass. There is a yogic principle that promises everything is fleeting—nothing is permanent, not even pain. The road to enlightenment always passes through confusion, frustration, and pain. People sabotage their practice—and their growth—because they give up in those difficult moments. But if you stay in it, stay open, relax, and breathe,
a breakthrough is right there
on the other side. Every problem has a solution, and staying in our calm center allows us to receive it.
We can be light, even in the face of adversity and pain. If you can say, “I’ll laugh about this in five years,” why not laugh about it now? If you think it’s hard to open up, to let go, to quiet down, to feel, to bring levity to moments of adversity, to practice yoga, try living your whole life without these things!
Principle 6: Think Less, Be More
I can always tell when students who come to my classes have been trained in Iyengar (a style of yoga developed by B. K. S. Iyengar that focuses almost entirely on perfect alignment). They do beautifully refined poses, with every muscle and joint in the right place, but they never look like they are having any fun. Don’t get me wrong, I think Iyengar is an excellent basis for learning alignment and I have a lot of respect for his method. My only complaint is that these students never seem to come out of their heads. They know all the mechanics but don’t have the flow that comes from getting out of your head and into your body. I always tell Iyengar students who come to my classes or Bootcamps, “You’ve been learning to tune your violin beautifully; now I’m going to teach you how to play music!”
Once you learn the mechanics of a pose—what goes where, what rotates which way, and so on—the only thing left is to get your brain out of the way and just relax into it. You can psych yourself in or out of anything, not to mention think a pose to death. Analysis paralysis is the ego’s way of keeping you rooted in your intellect rather than your spirit. But when you drop your brain, you actually give your body and soul a chance to shine.
Aerodynamically, a bumblebee should not be able to fly. But bumblebees don’t know that, so they just do it. They open their wings and take off, oblivious to the fact that their round little bodies weren’t designed for flight. Wouldn’t it be great if we were all like bumblebees, unaffected by beliefs in our limitations?
The key to learning yoga poses is to take your brain out of it. You can line it up, take my cues, and do whatever you need to make the pose feel comfortable, and then from there, just let go and glow! See if you can perform with half your brain tied behind your back. Come out of your thoughts—your doubts of “I can’t do that,” your worries of “Am I doing this pose right?,” your fears of “Am I going to fall?,” your frustrations of “Why can’t I do this as well as she can?,” and your ego resistance of “If I can’t do this perfectly then I won’t do it at all”—and just be in your body.
When you let go mentally, there is a shift physically. Doubt your doubts and they vanish. Feel your fears and they fade. Let go of your worries and they fail to materialize. What will it take for us to really get it that life is about letting go?
My friend Krishna Das, a kirtan (chanting) master, said the most important muscle to cultivate is the “letting go muscle.” It is the hardest one to locate but the one most essential to develop for true inner peace and physical radiance.
Just think less, and be more. Let go and let good flow in. Let go and then you grow in so many wonderful ways that your brain doesn’t even know about yet. That’s the beauty—that there is a supportive force in the universe there to protect you if you stop trying to control it all and just let it in.
Principle 7: We Are the Sum Total of Our Reactions
There is a story of a Chinese farmer whose wild stallion ran off one day. All the neighbors gathered around, clucking their tongues and saying, “Very bad luck!”
“Bad luck, good luck,” said the Chinese farmer. “Who knows?”
A few days later the stallion returned with a whole herd of wild horses. The farmer corralled all the horses, and all the neighbors gathered around and said, “Very good luck!”
“Bad luck, good luck,” said the farmer. “Who knows?”
A week later the farmer’s son was trying to break in one of the wild horses. He got thrown off the horse and broke his leg. All the neighbors came around and said, “Very bad luck!”
“Bad luck, good luck, who knows?” came the reply.
Several weeks later the Chinese army came marching through the village looking for able-bodied youth to join the army and fight. When they came marching into the farmer’s house and saw that his son had a broken leg, they left him alone and moved on.
“Very good luck!” said all the neighbors.
“Bad luck, good luck, who knows?”
That’s technically the end of the story, but it could go on and on. Does it ever actually stop? Isn’t that all of our stories in one way or another?
We don’t really have experiences in life. What we have are reactions to experiences. Things don’t happen to us. Things happen in and of themselves, and what we do is react to them. It’s not the existence of standstill traffic that affects us, because if it’s happening, say, across town and we don’t know about it, it doesn’t bother us. But if the cars are at a dead stop on the very road that we need to take, suddenly we are activated, and we react to the existence of traffic. It’s not the traffic that we are experiencing. It’s our reaction to it.
Built into our hardwiring as humans is the fight-or-flight response, which we needed way back in the cavemen era to keep us safe. But we’ve evolved, and though the threat of predators is minimal, the response system remains strong. When stress happens, the fight-or-flight mechanism is activated, and we instinctively gear up to do battle or flee the scene. This holds true whether we are faced with a major crisis, like being attacked by a mountain lion,
or a much smaller stress, like a spat with a clerk, spouse, or stranger. Of course, there are varying degrees, but the brain interprets all stressful events the same way and triggers the automatic response.
But there is a third option, which is neither fight nor flee, and that is to just stay and breathe.
If you start to see the reaction rising and feel your emotional feathers getting ruffled, just step back from yourself, come back into your body, watch your breath, and feel the reactiveness dissipate. If reactions happen, let them go, come out of your head, and anchor into your body.
I’m not talking about becoming a zombie. The goal here is not to become emotionally neutered. What I’m talking about is finding a way out of getting hooked into an automatic response because of your reactiveness. Halting your cycle of reactiveness allows you to have a perspective shift, so that you have the chance to respond in better, more positive ways. With a perspective shift, a forty-five-minute traffic jam can suddenly become forty-five minutes of alone time to sing out loud at the top of your lungs, or meditate, or do whatever your daily routine doesn’t afford you the time to do.
Yoga practice gives you the opportunity to create a gap between stimulus and response that gets wider and wider, and in that gap you have the option of choice to change your response, rather than zooming into autopilot. A world of different ways to handle things opens up to you. Suddenly you can read into situations instead of just launching into action or reaction (which is really just an automatic repetition of an old action). This is how we ultimately learn to manage and transform our emotional states, and how stress can make us better rather than bitter.
There will be poses that feel uncomfortable to hold at first. If your hips are tight, for example, holding a Warrior I or Warrior II pose for a while may be difficult. You haven’t stretched and strengthened those muscles yet, so they start burning almost right away. Your immediate reaction will probably be to get out of the pose . . . fast! In that moment, you have a choice. You can go along with the automatic reaction and response and come out of the pose. Or you can remember that every pose begins precisely at the point when you want to come out of it, widen the gap, breathe through your reaction, and stay. A little burning in the muscles never killed anyone. The worst that can happen is that you end up with a well-toned body and a deep sense of accomplishment.
We react thousands of times every day, usually without our conscious awareness. As if by reflex, we get annoyed when the train is delayed, or discouraged when our boss reprimands us, or angry when our kids misbehave. We instinctively launch into anger and fear, but these reactions keep us trapped in unconscious behavior. When we start to open our eyes to our patterns of reaction in our yoga practice, however, it helps us to learn to recognize and slow the reactiveness cycles in our
everyday lives. Working your edge teaches you to rise above the stress you feel and move into equanimity. When you do that, you are operating from your center, from cause rather than effect. You don’t have less stress from doing yoga; you just learn tools to rise above it.
Perhaps the greatest example of nonreactiveness in our time is Gandhi. During the most controversial stage of his protests, Gandhi was approached by an English official who told Gandhi he was very sorry, but that he had to arrest him. With complete calm and certainty, Gandhi replied that he was not sorry at all.
They locked him up, yet he did not react with anger or indignation. When people asked how he could remain so calm, he said it was because he would not allow anyone to walk through his mind with their dirty feet. He believed that other people’s actions belonged to them, not him. He stayed his course, focused on his goals, and did not let himself get hooked by reactions that could have derailed him. As a result, he ultimately changed not only his own experience, but the entire world’s.
Principle 8: Don’t Try Hard; Try Easy
Trying hard invites strain and struggle. Trying easy gives you the levity and freedom to fly. When you try hard, you are using willpower. But willpower never works and will always fail you. That is because willpower is based on brute force as opposed to soul force. Brute force is like trying to lift a Chevy truck with your bare hands. Soul force is having a pulley to raise it right up. Willpower comes from your intellect, but soul force is powered by your connection to the infinite universe. Your muscles can help you move heavy furniture, but your soul can help you move the earth. There is a power in the universe more powerful than you are, and all you need to do to access it is relax, breathe, and surrender.
The Latin root of universe is “uni,” which means “one,” and “verse,” which means “passage.” One passage: I take that to mean that each of us has our own authentic path. We just need to stop trying, stop willing, and just let it happen. The easiest place to see this distinction between brute force and soul force is in your life’s work. If you love what you do, if it is a natural extension of who and what you are and makes your heart sing, then even the most extreme efforts will have lightness to them. The universe works in tandem with you and it all flows. For me, teaching yoga isn’t a job so much as what I was born to do, so I don’t hold it as a chore. If, however, you are not aligned with your work—if it doesn’t reflect your authentic self—suddenly everything feels like a task. Everything is too hard, too much effort, too draining. True
success seems miles away.
What does it mean to “try easy” in yoga? It means that you go from seeking a better pose to just being in it. It’s a deep sense of letting go—not of the effort, but of the struggle. Postures can be achieved through struggle, but the struggle itself
limits both your immediate opening and how far you ultimately grow in yoga. Struggle creates tension in your muscles, which constricts you, and in your mind, which limits you. If you relax and stop resisting and reacting, you’ll just know what you need to do in the pose.
Trying easy is a state of mind that enables you to go into the fire, but also to discover the calm, cool center within it. Physical intensity is, of course, key when it comes to going to the next level, but within that is a release. The Buddha said, “Make yourself light.” He didn’t say to make yourself heavy, or to fight. Take your poses seriously, but take yourself lightly. Smile to yourself; laugh inside.
A student named John who comes to my studio had been struggling with Dancer’s Pose (page 116
) for some time. He would fall out of the pose almost immediately every time. I watched him get more and more frustrated every day, and whenever I said, “Okay, let’s take Dancer’s Pose,” he would get that hard, serious look on his face. Then he’d get all tense and lose his balance within seconds of taking the pose.
One morning, when we got to Dancer’s Pose and John was engaged in his usual struggle, I walked past his mat and quietly said to him, “Don’t try so hard. Just let go and see what happens.” John looked skeptical, but then he shrugged and said, “Why not?”
John reached back, took hold of his foot, and gracefully arched forward into a beautiful Dancer’s Pose. I stayed behind him and reminded him not to tense, not to fight, just to breathe and trust his body and his ability. He held the pose for the full five breaths and came out of it slowly and deliberately, rather than in his usual method of falling. The huge grin on his face said it all.
When you find that you are straining, whether in a yoga pose or in life, you’re probably trying too hard. Your ego is in it, and you are driven by an ambition that ultimately creates imbalance and suffering. That is the point when you should ask yourself: Where am I holding on? Am I holding on to tension, or to my ideal of what I am “supposed to” be doing? Where can I let go more? Where can I struggle less? Where can I just surrender?