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Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

Finding Your Own Way

April 18, 2012
My eight-year-old hands me his airplane and tells me it just doesn't fly straight and far anymore. I study the homegrown Cessna, a little beaten up from too many crashes into the living room wall, and consider pulling out one of our many books about flight. And then I decide to try another tack.

"Why don't you try thinking like the Wright brothers," I say, slipping the plane back into his long fingers. "Great discoveries are made from those who think like inventors, who do the research themselves."

He sighs, and I see  that he wasn't looking for a teachable moment but just wanted his plane fixed. Still, we talk about the adjustments he could make - changing the wings, weighting the nose, bending the tail fin just a bit. And then he heads off to see what he can learn.

The following morning in yoga class, a student asks about how to fix a sagging dog pose. I make my way to her mat with the intention of helping reshape her body into a slightly spunkier shape. And then I remember the Wright brothers and my son's experiments with flight. "Let's do the research in our own bodies," I suggest.

And so begins a rich exploration of how various changes in focus - raising the heels, lengthening our stances, adjusting our shoulder blades - can alter our experience in the pose. We try extending through our tailbones as if we had long tails we were trying to reach all the way up to the ceiling.

We explore "puppy pose," where our knees remain on the ground but our upper bodies are outstretched. We take our poses to the wall and explore them there. We break out blocks and straps, and consider how we can use them to help us find more stability, more freedom, more vitality in the pose.

I notice that a little fresh air seems to have blown into the room. The class feel like it's singing, like it's really coming alive. We're no longer just following instructions, just trying to get things "right" according to someone else's plan. Instead, we're acknowledging our own intelligence and creativity as we tinker, consider and explore.

"Power to the people," I think to myself. I've just handed yoga over to their willing hands. How empowering, how vital, how awake!

Life's like that, isn't it? We start out learning the rules, trying to find our way in someone else's world. And then at some point along the way someone hands our lives back over to ourselves, or maybe sometimes we wrest it away ourselves.

In yoga class, most of us start out just trying to figure out our left hands from our right, our inhalations from our exhalations. We're grateful we have the landmarks of the postures to guide us, and we do need a little help from someone who's been down this road before.

But then one day our teacher asks us to internally rotate our thighs while we're in bridge pose, and we hear a small "Why?" bubble up from within.

With a little curiosity and a lot of faith - along with a fair bit of tinkering - we begin to see the possibility that we could answer this question ourselves, and quite possibly even come up with other answers that are just as valid and true as the ones our teachers may have handed us.

And with this, our yoga practice - and quite possibly our whole life - shifts. Our intelligence awakens and engages. We begin to see ourselves as vital and capable, and quite possibly even wise. We consider that we might be our own best teachers, that the ultimate teacher lies within.

The Buddha put it another way. He counseled his followers to listen to his teachings and then explore them deeply in their own lives before deciding whether or not they were true. On his deathbed, the Buddha is said to have counseled his disciples, "Be a lamp unto yourself."

Ready to light the lamp? The next time you're in a yoga class (or any other kind of class for that matter), let a "why" or two bubble up from within you. And then instead of asking someone else, try answering that question yourself.

It may be that adjusting your stance in triangle pose the way your instructor says makes total sense, especially when it comes to anatomy and how healthy bodies move. But it's also possible that this particular adjustment isn't what your particular body needs right now. It's possible that some other shift may be what brings you back into balance.

In your own practice, pick one pose and try on all the variations and adjustments you've been taught. With each one, ask "Why?" and observe what changes within. "Why do we draw the kneecaps upward in triangle pose? Why do we draw our hips over our heels in mountain pose? Why do we sometimes place a blanket under our heads in savasana? ("I have no idea" is a perfectly legitimate answer, and a good sign that your mind is wide open. Just stick with it and see what happens.)

As you grow more comfortable with this tinkering in your practice, you'll probably find yourself eventually unearthing your own answers, your own adjustments, your own variations. Enjoy this process. It's a beautiful practice of unfolding, and your yoga is finally becoming yours!

It's likely that this newfound faith in your own inner yoga teacher will pierce through the rest of your life. One by one, you'll begin to question all the "rules" you thought of as given. And instead of turning to others for answers, you'll begin to look for them yourself.

You may come up with answers and explanations that confirm what you've always been told. Or you may decide to throw away a convention or two, freeing yourself from the chains of others, reclaiming your life as your own.

You'll gain deep roots. You'll believe in yourself. You'll chart your own course. In other words, you'll grow up.