When I turned forty I began to look back at my life and at the unconscious beliefs that had guided my choices. One of them really stood out: I must always do things right. For a very long time I tried to be perfect at everything, and I was tired of trying so hard. I was running out of steam, and, despite all the striving, no one had stepped forward and given me the seal of approval that, yes, indeed, I had achieved perfection. As I began to unpack the belief that I must do everything the right way, two new beliefs emerged.
The first came as I began to question the standards of perfection by which I had lived my life, where and from whom they had come. The idea that there is a right and a wrong way to do a thing is ingrained in our culture. Right and wrong are codified into facts, and we are taught to memorize and regurgitate those facts. The facts are the lines, and coloring outside the lines results in criticism and ridicule. We associate doing it the right way with belonging, and there is a no-joke sense of satisfaction when we get it “right.” So, we look for and create belonging around doing things the right way.
The codified facts are used to give certain people the authority to hand out validation, and we are taught that this validation is a limited resource. Because we want to belong, we are willing to contort our bodies, our wills, our minds and hearts to be worthy of receiving some of this precious nourishment. The idea that validation is a limited resource reserved only for the deserving is a lie. It’s simply not true. As I unravelled this lie, I uncovered a new, more empowering belief:
We each have the power to value and cherish ourselves.
As I practiced validating my own truth, I began to see life in a whole new way, and a second belief grew out of the first:
There are many ways to be in this world, each valid and offering with it a gift to the world of a unique perspective.
In my Kripalu yoga teacher training I was taught to honor each person’s experience, to recognize the autonomy each person has over their body and their innate ability to know what is right for them. I was taught that this view is part of the practice of ahimsa (non-violence). If, when a student asks me if they are doing the pose the right way, I answer that one way is right and the other wrong, then I validate the part of them that is abdicating their autonomy to an outside authority figure. What I aim to do as a teacher is empower people to find their inner authority, to make choices that are right for them without having to ask permission. So, when students ask me if this or that way of doing a pose is right, I answer in the way my teachers answered me, “I don’t know. How does it feel in your body?”
Often, this question is met with anxiety and discomfort. I’ve even had a few people respond with anger and frustration at this question. It makes sense when we consider that, beyond belonging, there is also a physiological component to wanting to get it right. Because there is often criticism, or even punishment at the other end of getting it wrong, getting it right and safety get bundled together. In other words, doing it right directly influences our nervous system. When we get it wrong our bodies get flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, our heart rate increases, and a slew of other things happen. This is called the stress response, and it’s a reaction we aren’t designed to sustain. We are designed for peace and safety, and stress poses a very real, very serious health risk.
For very concrete physiological reasons, then, we choose the safety of existing belief structures. When we remain unconscious of this relationship, we can remain stuck in a pattern of always letting other people or institutions define what is right for us, because we want to feel safe. We let others validate us because we want to belong. In this context it makes sense that being given permission to do things our own way can be incredibly frightening. We might be punished and/or exiled for disregarding someone else’s idea of what is right for us, in favor of our own.
One way I guide people toward self validation is using experiments. In experiments the teacher and student co-create an experience that builds the student’s capacity to listen to their body and to know what is right for their practice.
I might give them two options and ask them, “What do you feel when you put your foot here? Ok, now when you put it there?“
The student might answer, “Neither of those feel quite right, but that spot, that one is just right.”
This process is not a passive reception of information that may or may not meet the person where they are at. Instead, it requires active participation and mindful noticing by the student.
Participation builds the student’s capacity for self reliance and cultivates trust in oneself. This approach gets us to the original spirit and thrust of the yogic path. Yoga is not about getting our bodies into the “right” shape. It is not about becoming someone else’s ideal. Yoga is about the dialogue we create between all the parts of ourselves. In asana practice (asana means posture) the dialogue begins with the body. When we become practiced in listening to the body, we can turn our attention to our other aspects, our emotional and mental bodies. As we become practiced at tuning in, at listening and responding to bring about stability and ease for ourselves, we notice we begin to do the same thing in our relationships.
The more practiced we become at tuning in, the more we see that the world is animated by divine presence. We are each the dream of the earth. We are all made of the same divine stuff. Finding our own individual “right” means aligning with divine flow, means honoring the thing we are that spontaneously wants to unfold.
Martha Graham articulated this well when she said, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.”
Who you are is not predefined, not categorizable or boxable. When you unfold (and you are always unfolding) you do so in real time. You are happening now! Now is the edge upon which this unfolding happens, and idealized concepts can’t replace or mimic the majesty of present moment expression and experience.
When we live on the edge of now we are practicing and cultivating yoga of the subtle body. We align with divine flow, and stay on that edge of present moment experience in order to stay in alignment. We embody ourselves in each moment, but also recognize from the seat of witness that which is unfolding. It is a paradox, where each moment is a leap of faith, requires a trust in that which can not be seen or written down, only known through direct experience. When we pause at the end of a pose to notice its effect we are practicing listening, and we get to both observe ourselves and experience that which flows through us. It teaches us to stay attentive to that edge of present moment experience.
It is indeed scary. It’s generations of learned behavior unraveling. It’s new, it’s uncomfortable and strange, but without it when we show up on our mat we aren’t doing anything more than stretching. Without our participation, nothing actually changes in our lives. It takes bravery and perseverance to try on new beliefs. When we realize we're the only one who knows what is right for us, and that we hold the power to validate our own truth, we might just decide that it’s worth the risk.