I see discipline and freedom like two ends of a swinging pendulum. Trying to keep the pendulum centred and still is the challenge in a moving world.
With my yoga practice, I’ve spent time at both ends of the spectrum, and am now aiming for disciplined freedom – that sweet spot in the middle. Discipline fosters growth and learning, and freedom keeps things feeling light and fun, but too much of either good thing can be a problem. The best teachers I know have a healthy balance of both in their classes, and I am for that balance in my personal practice too.
When I first started practicing yoga seriously, I had heard that in order to be a proper yogi, you needed to practice 6 days a week. Of course, I wanted to be a proper yogi (!), so rain or shine, aching joints or injured muscles, I got on my mat or went to class 6 days a week. My asanas “progressed” very quickly and I noticed a massive increase in both strength and flexibility. Along with the time spent practicing came a desire to achieve the physical aesthetic of various poses and to be able to tangibly see that I was getting “better at yoga” (I used quotes around all of these terms, because I don’t believe [now] that creating a certain shape is what being good at yoga is all about. See more about this at the bottom*). Because of this desire to achieve and progress – rather than enjoying practicing for the sake of practice – I suffered many injuries and mental anguish – beating myself up for not feeling motivated to get on the mat, and often struggling (mentally and physically) when I got there.
I felt so broken after a few months, that I had to reduce my physical practice, and (for a period of time) stop it completely in order to heal. Continuing this level of discipline was not possible at that time, but it did provide incredible learning.
What I came to understand from this period of yoga practice, is that it was my ego pushing me forward. I was spending too much time in my mind and actually disconnecting from my body, not listening to what it needed. And I was comparing myself to others in classes, wanting to be at the same physical place/ability as them, rather than understanding and accepting where I was at that moment. The realisation that I could distance myself from my ego and connect back into my body, was a fantastic lesson that this period of discipline provided. The physical benefits of a disciplined practice – stronger muscles and the ability to move in new ways – were also noted, but understanding my ego, noticing my desire to achieve, and becoming aware of that unconscious comparison with others, had the biggest impact on how I live my life (and subsequently, my levels of contentment).
After spending time feeling caged and feeling like I wasn’t a good yogi if I didn’t do a power vinyasa flow class 6 days a week, the pendulum swung. I discovered yin yoga and slow flow and started to rest, both in my life and in my practice (as someone who desires recognition through achievement, this was a radical discovery; resting was not only acceptable, it was also highly beneficial). I reconnected with what my body needed, continuing to notice when my ego reared it’s big head, and started doing my own thing within yoga classes. I modified poses, I used props when needed, I spent a lot of time in child’s pose. I even sometimes did a different pose than the teacher suggested (I did try to keep the intention of the pose within the new pose I chose). And in my personal practice, things got really soft and flowy, and I spent more time on my bum than on my feet (not a bad or good thing, just how it was). My yoga practice became all about moving in a way that felt good in my body, avoiding injury and not pushing or striving.
And again, I became friends with my ego. It still liked to flare up when other students “achieved” a difficult pose or when I needed to rest. But I learned to take the focus off of other students and focus only on what I was doing and how I was feeling. My practice became very joyful and I started to look forward to it rather than dread it.
I still took myself to a dynamic class now and then, and at times worked on a dynamic practice at home, but more often I kept things soft and easy.
After quite some time of practicing like this, I realised that I wasn’t learning anything new from staying with my soft practice. I had remained injury free and my body and mind felt good, but we can get to a point, whereby, in order to discover anything about ourselves, we have to step out of our comfort zone. That is the beauty of a little bit of discipline, doing something that we don’t really want to do. I realised that by always doing my own thing in class I was limiting my own learning and the possibility of finding a new way to grow – both in my body and mind.
The realisation came quite recently, so while on a yoga retreat with a teacher I wholly trust, I decided to see what would happen if I just did what she suggested, rather than changing the yoga to allow me to stay within my comfort zone. This teacher has an excellent balance of freedom and discipline and I felt safe to do this in her class, knowing that her sequences or instructions wouldn’t cause injury or harm.
I discovered a new sense of freedom and a better understanding of myself, once again getting to know my ego and this time making friends with my fear. So often we limit ourselves because of fear, but if we can get through to the other side of that fear, tremendous expansion and growth is waiting. I felt a newfound sense of contentment, and I was more able to understand and work at my edge – the place where I am both soft and striving, easy and hard. I found the middle of the pendulum.
Now back home, I’m working on finding that balance within my own practice. It’s not always easy, but having seen the two ends as well as the middle, I have an idea of what I’m looking for.
What’s on either end of your pendulum? What’s helped you find balance? I’d love to hear about it – send me a message or leave a comment below.
Photo by Ali Schilling
* Being good at yoga isn’t about being able to touch your toes or bring your foot behind your head. Yoga is about connecting with your body and learning to cultivate awareness of both body and mind. It’s about understanding patterns of reaction and learning how to use the mind consciously, rather than letting our thoughts and reactions control us. I would argue that someone who is able to focus during practice, keep their attention in the moment, understand their own needs and limitations, and work at their personal edge (not pushing too hard, but neither being complacent) is actually “better” at yoga than a distracted yogi able to bend in all directions. Being flexible in body is a beautiful benefit of regular yoga practice, but that isn’t what’s it all about.