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Ways of Seeing: Accepting your body as it is can be perfect yoga

I don’t travel much, but if I did go on a trip, it probably wouldn’t be during the month of January. That’s not just because I would hate to miss any good skiing, but mostly because January tends to bring lots of new students to the yoga room and I want to be there to welcome them. What is it about the new year that encourages us to begin a yoga practice? Is it that bloated feeling after one too many eggnogs or Chanukah latkes or Christmas pies? It certainly seems true that on Jan. 1 we are likely to resolve to exercise more, eat more kale, and generally shape ourselves up.
While new year’s resolutions definitely benefit our small yoga business, a part of me rebels against all this rampant self improvement. Why? Because more often than not, the desire to be better comes from a place of feeling bad about ourselves. Depending to some degree on how plugged in we are to 21st-century commercial culture, we are bombarded with images that tell us we just aren’t good enough. We aren’t thin enough, young enough, sexy enough. We don’t have enough hair, or our hair isn’t the right texture or color. We don’t have the right clothes, furniture, cell phone.
While I try to maintain my California hippie status by rejecting most glossy magazines and the airbrushed models therein, I am sorry to confess that I am not entirely immune to looking at my body through a critical lens. In fact, in the recent photo of me that ran in this paper, I noticed a slight bulge in my waistline that Trent Campbell could have easily photoshopped out, if he only knew how much it would bother me! As soon as I noticed it, I was hit by a swirl of negative emotions. It’s my job to help others learn to love their bodies. If I am dismayed to discover an ounce of fat in my belly area, how can I teach others what I so obviously still need to learn myself? It’s like trying to teach a yoga posture that I haven’t yet mastered! However much I celebrate the diversity of the human form, and honor all the different shapes we come in, I guess as a woman in the United States in 2013, I still get to have a body issue or two!
The truth is that we are all learning yoga along a continuum. I am still deepening my knowledge of many postures that I routinely teach my students. The way I do my poses 10 years from now will probably look very different from how I’m practicing today. My students don’t expect me to be perfect, they expect me to keep learning and to share my love of yoga with them.
Practicing yoga serves to help us understand ourselves further and deeper. As tools for self awareness, the postures show us where we are flexible and where we are restricted. They show us where we are strong and where we are weak. They show us our psychological tendencies, positive and negative. In the course of a 60- or 90-minute practice, we might experience impatience, frustration, pride, fatigue, exhilaration, delight, sadness or boredom.
In many yoga systems there is some distinction between beginning students, intermediate students and advanced students (who are usually teachers themselves). What differentiates a beginning-level student from a more intermediate one? It’s not strength or flexibility, but a quality of awareness and integration. A tighter-bodied student must learn to use a different prop setup than someone with greater mobility. An extremely flexible dancer must guard against practicing in a way that will injure her joints. When we learn to be aware of our own physical and mental tendencies, and practice in a way that encourages stability and freedom, we are moving toward a greater level of mastery.
If you practice hatha yoga you could have a physical goal of learning to do a headstand, push up into a backbend, or to be able to sit on the floor comfortably. Or you could have a goal of learning to be more calm, less anxious, or kinder to those around you. The Aikido master George Leonard said, “A person not on the path of mastery practices in order to achieve goals. The people we know as masters have goals in order to enhance their practice.” I love this definition of mastery. The word yoga means to harness, yoke or join together. When we practice, we are unifying body and mind. We are also unifying ourself with the entire cosmos. So from a yogic standpoint all of our goals can be seen as being in service to that big practice of understanding how connected we are to all that is.
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. She lives in East Middlebury with her husband, daughter, father-in-law, and two cats. Feedback warmly welcomed: joanna@ottercreekyoga.com.

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