A few months ago I was preparing for a class when I realized the heat in the studio wasn’t working. I had a few moments of panic before students started trickling in the front door. (It was the dead of winter and the studio was chilly!) My options were limited: I could tell students to leave, or make them sweat. I told everyone to grab their layers and I proceeded to teach a heat-building class rife with challenging flows and long holds. There were vinyasas, forearm planks and dolphins galore. There were grunts and groans and laughs and maybe even some tears? One student remarked that the Half Moon hold was the most challenging part of the class: “Half Moon is my Arch Nemesis,” she declared.
This remark clung to my bones longer than the chill of the heatless studio. Days later I was still thinking about it. I started to look at my own practice. Were there any poses I deemed adversarial? Sure, there are certain postures in yoga that just don’t seem to agree with me. Postures that I shy away from in class, postures that I’ll half-ass or even skip entirely, blaming my tight hamstrings, weak shoulders or lack of yoga experience. Postures that bring up anxiety, aggravation and sometimes anger.
A couple examples include Revolved Triangle and Plow. Revolved Triangle was always a pose I would ease my way through, not really working to my edge. Regardless of how I felt, I would use a block underneath my bottom hand instead of bringing my hand all the way to the floor. During one class, the teacher removed the block and guided my hand to the floor saying “you’re ready.” I was so frustrated with her. I wanted to yell “NO, I AM NOT!” I grabbed the block for the second side and lazed my way through the posture. (I showed her!) Plow pose I would just skip all together. The strangest feeling would wash over me whenever I tried to come into the posture. Each time it was cued during class, I would think “No thanks” and bring my knees to my chest instead, convinced it just wasn’t the pose for me.
Clearly I had some cringe-worthy postures in my practice. I gathered them all up and created a physical list entitled “My Yoga Arch Nemeses” and went on to create a challenge for myself: Rather than shying away from these particular postures, I would make a point to incorporate all of them into my home practice, as well as dive deep into them during my class practice. I wanted to take my practice to another level by exploring these postures and figuring out just WHY they bothered me so much!
My first foray into this challenge was during an online class I was taking in my bedroom. Revolved Triangle was being cued – and it was a LONG hold. As I had promised myself, I brought my hand to the floor instead of using a block. And I found my edge. And I breathed. And I started to freak out. And I kept breathing. And then something crazy happened as I held this pose to this depth. I became very aware of my left foot. Something was going on there. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on… “and release the pose.” It was over. I walked away from that class with freedom in my left foot that I hadn’t felt since I pulled tendons running two years ago. Could it be? This pose that I’d been avoiding held the secret to healing the running injury that’s been plaguing me for 2 years? Just like that – honestly JUST LIKE THAT – revolved triangle because one of my new favorite poses. I kept exploring my depth in the pose, continued to feel relief in my foot and started getting excited whenever it came up in class because I knew it was so good for my body.
And what about Plow? This one was more of a challenge. I started playing around with it at home, sneaking it in after practice. As expected that strange, anxious feeling would come over me each time. It’s a hard feeling to explain – intensity in the legs coupled with building panic. And as expected, I ditched the posture as soon as I felt this. One day, a couple of weeks into this personal challenge, I decided to just sit with this feeling and see what happened. I made my way into the posture, and I waited and panicked and waited and really panicked and continued to breathe and then…the feeling went away. Yup, totally gone. And then I started to explore how good Plow could actually feel. I finally understood why it was considered a restorative pose. Pushing through this anxiety allowed me to reap the benefits of the pose. I still experience that strange intensity, but now I understand that with breath and patience, it dissipates.
I had similar discoveries with other postures on my list. The revelations of this challenge remind me of a Joseph Campbell quote: “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
We all have these challenging things – things we’re scared of, things we shy away from – both in our yoga practice and in our life. It’s easy to tell yourself why they are impractical or unworkable. However the real magic happens when you turn off your internal crap that’s feeding you 9000 reasons for not doing these things and decide to push through anyway and explore. When we stop listening to the stories we tell ourselves, when we push through our fear – that’s when we unearth the real gems.
Pick one pose that you dislike – we all have at least one! Decide to investigate this posture and make it a regular part of your practice. Explore it to your depth over and over again. See what comes up for you. As always, you can take this practice off your mat and into the world. Rather than running away from uncomfortable experiences (that conversation you don’t want to have, that leap of faith you are afraid to make), go right into the thick of your fear and confront it head-on. You just might stumble upon the treasure you are seeking. And in this way, Yoga can help turn your arch nemesis into your most powerful ally.