What if I told you that you are just fine exactly as you are? Sit with that for a moment. Feel it seep into your cells and bones. Maybe even say it out loud; “I am just fine exactly as I am.” How does that feel? I experience an incredible sense of relief when I perform this exercise. I feel my jaw unclench, my belly soften, and my breath slow down. And then the resistance kicks in, “Yeah, but I should exercise more, clean the house, be kinder, be more politically active, eat more kale, increase my income, practice my ukulele….I’m not living up to my potential!” And while these are worthy goals – and just a few of the items on a very long list – it is also true that I am fine just the way I am…and so are you. Self-acceptance and self-improvement are not mutually exclusive. Quite the opposite. You cannot SHAME your way into a better version of yourself – believe me, I’ve tried. You can only LOVE yourself there.
This message may sound radically dissonant. It’s not one we hear very often, partly because it doesn’t sell self-help books or Botox injections. Sadly, all the noise of our present day world, mainstream and social media in particular, threatens to drown out our deeper whispers of wisdom. And then there are the voices of our parents, teachers, judges, and critics that run on a continuous loop through our over-stimulated and scattered minds. We internalize all of the messages we’ve heard throughout our lives, often well-meaning, that our worth and happiness are determined by the way we look, the work we do, the money we make, the people we socialize with, how busy we are, our children’s accomplishments, the house we live in, the respect we receive…ad infinitum. We get seduced by the promise of external happiness, hop on the hamster wheel and run ourselves ragged. Eventually we end up dizzy and exhausted, and utterly confused as to why we still feel so empty.
Yoga offers us a different way. It gives us an opportunity to slow down and connect with something deeper. It allows us the space and inner quiet to examine the thoughts we’re consuming from outside sources, and the thoughts we are feeding ourselves. It helps us strip away the misconception that our worth is tied to worldly pursuits, and it reminds us that, at our core, we are all unique and priceless sparks of universal love. As Patanjali reminds us, “Then (when the thought waves are subdued), we reside in our own authentic brilliance.” (PYS 1.3)
Yoga is not about self-improvement. It is about self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-love. Most of us are starving for these things, which helps explain why yoga has survived for thousands of years and is so pervasive and popular today. It’s a wonderful time to be a yoga seeker! There is a practice to meet every need, and an opportunity for everyone to feel fine just the way they are: Ashtanga and Bikram for the athletic and energetic, Restorative for those needing rest and nourishment, Iyengar and Therapeutic yoga for people working through injuries, Pre-natal yoga for mamas-to-be, Senior and Chair yoga, beginner, advanced, hot, slow, flow, power…The options are endless! We can all find a practice that speaks to us, a practice to come home to. If you leave the mat feeling bad, bored or defeated, explore a different style. Many a beginner has stumbled into the wrong class, and some long-time practitioners attempt to cling to a practice that, while once appropriate, no longer serves them. It can be frustrating and disheartening. But don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. We need yoga to neutralize the poison of not-enoughness that permeates our culture. Keep looking and experimenting until you find the class, teacher or home practice that resonates with that deepest place inside you, and leaves you feeling connected and inspired. Then, from this place of tenderness, you can continue to pursue improvements in any area of your life with a foundation of love and respect for your strengths, your challenges and your innate worthiness.
Yoga doesn’t care if you’ve gained weight or lost your job. It’s just happy to see you again. Allow the sanctity of your mat to hold you like your closest friend or favorite grandma, with unconditional love, acceptance and wonder. Come to your mat stripped of your disguises, your personal brand and your worldly goals. In that brief moment between child and corpse poses, enjoy the freedom of being your unfiltered self, in all its perfect imperfection.