I began writing this smack in the middle of my own period of practice malaise. I pulled out my small, spiral stenographer’s notebook and, at the top of a fresh page, wrote in big blue letters, “Why Do We Resist Our Practice?”
It felt good to write the question down. To look at it. To take the vague and inarticulate feeling of meh out of my head and onto a piece of paper where I could look at it properly. It also felt good to write “We”. To put on my yoga teacher hat and think about my personal problems in a broader context. To acknowledge the fact that this block to practice is not a problem unique unto me. That I am not as especially lazy or weak or inauthentic as my ego loves to convince me that I am.
The act and practice of recognizing a block and reckoning with it, even a block to the practice of yoga, actually is practicing yoga.
When we experience those periods where, for whatever reason, the call to the mat is whisper faint, or it sounds like a nag, or is even nonexistent, it can be frustrating and alarming, especially for those of us for whom yoga is a self-professed passion. Obsession. Lifestyle.
Guilt and shame are the standby routes, so tempting in their simplicity. But neither guilt nor shame will help to bring you back.
But all of our blocks are an opportunity to learn. To question. To deepen our practice. They are an opportunity for practicing the fourth Niyama, svadhyaya, the practice of self-inquiry.
Svadhyaya – the practice of self-inquiry, reflection, and deepening self-knowledge
When we make a habit of svadhyaya we discover something wild: the first answer to any question we pose ourselves is normally incomplete. We spend the majority of our days in too much of a hurry to dig any deeper. It is entirely the norm to accept our knee-jerk reactions and reasonings as our truth, never digging deep enough to discover what is truly going on and what could truly solve our problem. In fact, we rarely dig deep enough to discover what the problem actually is.
When we ask ourselves “Why don’t I want to practice today?” our knee-jerk reaction would normally be something like “Ugh, I just don’t feel like it.” We might then respond by shaming ourselves for our laziness, or forcing ourselves to just bang out a practice.
While neither of these approaches would be the end of the world if it’s just one day of just not feeling it, neither would do anything to help when we are going through an extended period uninspired or out of alignment. Those periods of weeks or months or years when we know that going deep into asana or pranayama or meditation would be the best thing for us, but we either can’t bring ourselves to do it, or – sometimes even worse – we get ourselves there and it feels empty.
Like we’re doing it wrong.
Like maybe the wellspring of yoga has run dry for us.
Like maybe we’re total and complete frauds. Utterly unworthy.
So, instead, we must dig deeper. We ask ourselves why again, even if our minds respond a bit like petulant children. Stick with it. Keep asking. Hold the answers in non-judgement, trusting that beneath them lurks an insight that matters. An insight that the mind will allow to pass only if you treat it with kindness.
Why don't I feel like practicing?
Because I just don't feel like it.
I don't want to.
I have so many other things on my
mind right now and you always make
us do like two hours of stuff and the idea
of doing all of that is stressing me out.
This was one of my own exchanges. I had been holding myself to doing a full asana practice, a full pranayama practice, and a full mediation practice. All at once. It is a big time commitment, but I found myself feeling stressed about getting it all done, while still getting everything else done.
The very act of stepping onto my mat knowing it was for two hours, knowing how much else I had to do that day, was a stressor. Instead of calming my nervous system and allowing me to connect to myself, I was further activating it, and agitatedly moving through the entire practice was a prolonged act of self-punishment.
So I resisted it.
The first practice I had in a couple of weeks where I actually connected with my breath happened at 9:30 PM while my boyfriend was playing videogames. I was tired, vegging out watching a Youtube video, feeling vaguely guilty about, you know, just everything, and eyeing my neglected yoga mat rolled out in its permanent home in the corner of my bedroom.
On a whim, I took my laptop over to my mat with me, stretched out my legs, and eased into upavistha konasana while watching Alayna Fender talk about veganism. I pressed my legs into the ground, breathed space into the pose, and eased my fingers forward over the course of the next 15 minutes.
By the time she was finished talking, I wasn’t listening to her anymore, nor was I listening to the cries of excitement from my boyfriend in the other room. My forearms were on the ground, my head had bowed. My inner thighs had unlocked, but more importantly, I was inside myself, the vague dis-ease of 15 minutes ago dissolved.
I hadn’t intended to hold the pose for so long. I hadn’t intended on much of anything, really. But something about the breath, something about the deep sensations, about the way the sensations changed over time with the breath, the way the feeling moved even though I didn’t had held me there, captivated by my own body and the wondrous experience of it.
Stretching while watching a Youtube video could be the “least” spiritual yoga session ever.
But that night it saved me. It freed me from my expectations. It reminded me that absolutely everything is secondary to that feeling of connection.
The practice of svadhyaya in your daily life is a fundamental game-changer. It can help you to figure out the patterns that have been ruling your behavior for years, and it can help you to overcome them. But it is difficult.
As with all things in yoga, that is why we call it a practice.
Some reasons we Might avoid practice
I described one reason that I was being blocked from my practice recently, but the truth is that there are usually many, many things going on. Dig deep. I’ve written below a few reasons that might lie just beneath the surface of “I don’t feel like it” or “I don’t have time.” Each of these potential reasons in turn could trigger an even more profound insight beneath it, worthy of illumination.
We are expecting too much from each practice.
- The “all or nothing” mentality foils a lot of people from getting anything.
- ASK YOURSELF: What role is your ego playing in constructing your definition of a “Good Practice”?
- TRY: Stripping down your practice to the barest elements. Lie in bed, stretch, and breathe for five minutes. Do it while watching TV. Allow yourself this indulgence as long as you connect with your breath. Trust that you will get to your mat when you can.
Slowing down and connecting with ourselves has become supremely uncomfortable.
- Sometimes things are going wrong in our lives. Sometimes that’s a direct consequence of our own actions. Sometimes we are not living up to our standards. If I am not living my life in alignment with my values, sitting on my mat can be very difficult, especially for more contemplative practices.
- Sometimes our mental health is truly suffering. The practice of yoga can be a wonderful balm to depression and anxiety, but in serious cases it is not enough, and there are some practices that are not appropriate during severe flareups.
- ASK YOURSELF: What am I avoiding? What is going wrong? What are my needs right now and what can I do to meet them?
- TRY: Seeking appropriate mental health treatment.
- On the yoga side of things, try active, fun, guided classes like Vinyasa or Power or anything at a hot studio. Get out of your head and allow yourself to have fun. Allow your yoga to be your oasis for a little while. If you can’t do the mental heavy lifting in contemplative practices right now, allow yourself to just enjoy. Connecting with your body and breath will help you get out of your head, and gain perspective over time. If you can find joy in your practice again, it will help you with the harder stuff.
We are not allowing our practice to evolve.
- The beauty of yoga is that it can meet every practitioner where they are, and with consistency, it will change you. With your practice, you will grow. As you evolve, what you need from your practice will change.
- Knowing how much our practice has helped us, we can get caught up in thinking that what we’ve been doing is “the way.” We can get stuck doing the same thing, wondering why it isn’t helping us in the same way anymore.
- Maybe you’ve been doing Vinyasa classes for a while now and you feel like you practically know what’s going to happen next before the teacher cues it, so you find your mind wandering. And then you feel badly, like you’re not good at this anymore. And then you stop coming so often.
- ASK YOURSELF: In what ways have I changed since my practice began, or the last evolution in my practice? When was the last time I tried something new? What am I curious about right now? What are some areas I haven’t worked on yet?
- TRY: Something totally different. Yoga is thousands of years old and there are so many deep corners of this practice – different schools of Hatha, but also different practices altogether. Attend a workshop or get a book. Maybe you want to try Yoga Nidra. Maybe you want to try deepening your knowledge of Pranayama, which is a full limb of yoga with equal standing to Asana, but is often contemporarily relegated to a minute of guided breathing at the end of a Vinyasa class. Follow your intuition to find something that has been in the periphery of your mind but you haven’t explored yet, and then explore it.
We Just aren’t enjoying it anymore. Our practice is punitive/doesn’t feel good in some way.
- The first three reasons I’ve listed here actually all fall under this umbrella, but I’m including it here because it’s possible that none of those three sit right with you. For whatever reason, you aren’t being called to your practice and you realize that it’s because you don’t like it anymore. It doesn’t feel good.
- ASK YOURSELF: Why doesn’t this feel good? Then, ask yourself why again.
- TRY: Fixing the problem.
Our practice doesn’t always have to feel good. The things that are good for us sometimes do not, and it is a mistake to completely whitewash the practice of yoga with “love and light.” However, if there is something that is keeping you from your practice, change it. Change the thing that is keeping you off of your mat, including if that means stopping a practice that “could be really good for you.” It does you no good if it keeps you from doing anything at all. Do whatever it takes to get back to your practice. Maybe someday you will get back to whatever it is that you think you have to do right now. Maybe someday you will be more ready.
We haven’t made our practice a true priority.
- I’ve left this one to the end because, no matter which of these other reasons (or which of a dozen more) resonates with you, this one is probably at least part of the “problem.”
- ASK YOURSELF: Do I feel selfish if I prioritize my practice? Do I not believe my practice benefits other areas of my life? Am I lacking in discipline? Am I blaming my family or work for “not having time”? Am I making a conscious effort to balance my day? Why? Why not? What are my essential priorities? Why? Am I living in a way that is aligned with those priorities? How? How not?
- TRY: Not judging your answers. Try to understand yourself. Try to understand the ways in which you are trying your best, and the ways in which you are not. Try to understand that when you are not trying your best, you may be lacking a certain type of nourishment. Try to respect the contradictions, the multitudes that make up you. Inquire, accept, nourish, and breathe.
We all go through it. We all go through it at different times throughout our life. It’s okay if it frustrates you, scares you, or makes you feel resentful. When you notice these feelings, sit with them. Invite them in. Talk to them. Use them as a tool to go deeper.