Students ask me all the time, “Am I doing this right?” about their yoga poses. They will look at me earnestly from their Warrior 2, wanting me to give them some kind of authoritative assessment of their pose. Sometimes they are curious, sometimes they are worried. That question always makes me hesitate. What does “right” mean?
I used to believe that there were “right” and “wrong” ways to do yoga poses. I would look at a photo of someone doing yoga and feel smug if I noticed something “off” about their alignment. My initial yoga teachers told me that there were certain ways of moving or aligning that were “optimal” and that being outside of that was undesirable. Now I think differently.
For years the yoga community has thought that particular ways of moving were “safer” than others, that alignment performed a certain way would reduce discomfort or pain. But the more research that gets done on yoga and stretching and movement, the more we realize that human bodies are incredibly variable, and that pain shows up differently in every individual. (Wanna go down a rabbithole on this subject? Read this blog post by physiotherapist Greg Lehman).
We are also learning that developing stronger interoception (feeling internal sensations in your body) is one of the most important things to learn to keep yourself “safe”. There is not an ideal outer form for you to get “right”. It is more valuable for you to get into the living experience of your body, to feel and notice what is happening in the moment and then choose how to move or adjust or “align” from there. This doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen the first few times you try a yoga class. This takes constant and consistent effort and attention, trial and error. Your body is an incredibly complex and ever-evolving process. Getting to know how a yoga pose can feel in your unique body, and learning a range of ways to adjust/understand/experiment is the joy and challenge of a yoga practice. We, as your yoga teachers, can give you some of our best suggestions for different ways of aligning, but ultimately, there is no “one shape to rule them all”. (Lord of the Rings reference, I can’t help myself.)
But man is it hard to teach that! It is so hard to change the idea that there is a “right” way to do yoga. So I’ve got a little challenge for you.
The next time you find yourself in a yoga class asking “Am I doing this right?” see if you can replace that with a different question. What if you asked, “What do I notice right now?” What might feel different about that question? Maybe it would generate sense of curiosity, or wondering. Maybe it would invite a softening and broadening of your perception.
If we think about a yoga pose like it’s some ideal state to get into, and anything outside of that as “wrong”, we set up an unnecessary binary for ourselves. We have only two poles, with nothing in between. Then our yoga is limited. We can have only two experiences: right or wrong.
Our culture loves binaries. The gender binary has been a big one for us. Our culture has assumed for a long time that there is only male and female with nothing in between. But, more and more people these days are wondering about the space in the middle, between the sexes. What kinds of possibilities exist there?
I want to declare yoga as non-binary. That there is not a right way or a wrong way to do yoga poses. When you’re practicing yoga, instead of wondering “Am I doing this right?” and pinging between the black and white poles of a binary, could you instead ask “What do I notice?” and be in the middle space, where there is so much to notice and learn from?
So when we ask, “What do I notice?” instead of, “Am I doing this right?” we can discover a variety of ways to approach the poses instead of only one way. We can see how our yoga poses can serve our body, and not the other way around. We can let our poses change and transform over time, sometimes feeling the physical pose change, but also letting our inner landscape change. We can grow our experience and understanding moment by moment from the inside, rather than trying to impose something “right” from the outside.
This can be tough work. It can feel so much more reassuring to find certainty, “get it right” or know where you are in relation to that binary.
But I am pretty sure, that in the space between the poles, there’s a rainbow.
Ask yourself, “What do I notice?” and see if you can dive into the rainbow of curiosity and learning that lives outside of the binary. See what wiggling around in the rainbow space can yield.
We are celebrating all things non-binary and rainbow this month at Queen Street Yoga. June is Pride month and we will be hanging our Pride flag and our Transgender flags high at the studio! Our aim all year round is to create a space that people of all genders and identities can feel comfortable and included. Please join us on Saturday June 1 at 1pm in Victoria Park for a Pride Edition of Yoga in the Park. Wear your rainbow colours, dive into your practice and see what you notice.
Emma Dines is the creative director of Queen Street Yoga. She loves writing, visiting thrift stores and going for walks in the woods. She also loves cartwheeling, sewing and making her own kimchi.