Why do we practice yoga asanas? I would guess that most of us do it for our health and well-being, to reduce stress, or to experience inner peace. Those are good reasons. But to achieve those results, it’s important to practice in a way that leads to those goals.
Remember that the word “asana” can be translated as “comfortable seat.” The word “comfortable” is the key to your practice. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t gently extend your boundaries—on the contrary, without doing so, the poses won’t get any easier. But it should be a gradual process, approached with patience.
All too often, people let a competitive spirit creep into their practice. They may be in a class, struggling to keep up with more limber or stronger students. Seeing them struggle, teachers may cue students to rest when they need to, or offer them an easier way to do a pose. But some students feel it’s demeaning to do an easier version or to come out of the pose before others in the class. “I can do it,” they think. Yes, perhaps so, but it’s not comfortable, it’s not relaxing—on the contrary, it’s stressful. I think we’re all aware by now of the many negative effects of stress on our health.
In order for our asana practice to be truly beneficial, we should approach it with an attitude that encourages inner peace. After all, we already compete in so many fields of activity. We compete at work, at play, in sports, at school, with our appearance and so on. Competitiveness and stress come hand in hand. There are enough sources of stress in our lives already; we certainly don’t need another one.
One of the main purposes and benefits of practicing yoga asanas is to help relieve the burden of stress that plagues everyone in this day and age. Bringing a competitive spirit into our asana practice undermines the very purpose of yoga. So if you tend to be competitive when doing asanas, remind yourself every now and then that you’re doing it for your own well-being. Take your time, listen to your body, give yourself permission to come out of the pose when you feel the need, or do an easier version (for example, use a strap for Sunset Stretch) and notice how nice it feels not to struggle. In fact, it can be quite liberating!