Monday, September 26, 2011

Cultivating Softness

Soften: to lessen hardness, reduce resistance, make less critical.

Softness is not a very highly sought after quality in modern Western society. Softness is perceived as weakness. Strong. That's the way to be. It's how you make something of yourself and succeed. To get what you want out of life. Right?

Humor me for a moment. I want you to form a picture in your mind of a thing that you really want. A thing that has been eluding you. It can be whatever you want: a better job, moving to Paris, the ability to do a headstand. Visualize this thing you want getting farther and farther away. And feel what's happening to your body. To your breath.

Release that picture.

Again, see this thing that you really want. This time, picture yourself getting this thing you want so dearly. And, again, check in - mind, body, breath - how are you feeling?

For most of us, when we picture something we really want getting beyond our reach, our body and breath will tense. Everything will draw in and harden. When we picture actually getting what we want everything releases and we soften.

When I first started practicing handstand I would harden. My body would go completely rigid, my breath would catch in my throat. And my feet would barely leave the ground. I would visualize this thing that I really wanted, the ability to progress my practice, and my belly would clench up, my limbs would fill with lead. The only option I saw left open to my finally getting what I wanted was sheer determination and brute strength.

I believed that above all else I had to be strong.

And for months I carried on in this way. Gritting my teeth, holding my breath and just trying to push my way forward. And in all this time I made almost no progress. It was a battering for my self-esteem.

Turns out that yoga isn't a competition. I mean, in North American there is actually a Yoga Asana Championship, but on a day-to-day, personal basis yoga is not a competition. Not with yourself, not with those around you and not with an idealized photo in a book or magazine.

And therefore the idea that you need to push yourself through to greater and greater success in a pose is rather unyogic - don't you think?

So what's the secret? Softness!

I had to learn how to soften. In body and in mind.

This is a lesson I'm still learning. Like, I don't need to be the best right now.

Part of my challenge with handstand was that I wanted a perfect freestanding balance right from the start. By cultivating softness I was able to accept that I didn't need to be perfect. Instead I could focus on celebrating where the practice has taken me today. It may look a little more or a little less like the poses in a book or a magazine, but it really doesn't matter. Because exactly as I am is exactly as I need to be.

Elissa Jordan teaches It's Just Yoga - a fun sequence with the right mix of strength and softness - at Healium.

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