I have a really hard time seeing this picture. Not in the sense that my optical nerves are not functioning properly to allow the correct information to reach my retina and visual cortex, but in the sense that I wind up zooming in on one thing- my left hip and side body.
You see, I am an alignment nut. A structural junky. I am that person who drives down the road and sees someone jogging along and notes not their clothing, hairstyle, shoes or pace, but their form. Similarly, if a person rides a bicycle past me and their seat is too high- I feel I must comment. Walking with lop-sided stride? My brain goes into “Does Not Compute” mode and begins analyzing where and why the gait is “off”. It drives my husband bonkers. It is all well meaning, stemming (mostly) from a fascination with the human body as a whole system and a desire to bring ease and fluidity to my system and those around me. And it is a large part of what I can offer as a teacher- the ability to see where to kink in the system comes from and offer suggestions on how to smooth things out. But it means that sometimes I should myself into a corner.
When I look at this picture I should myself so much that I can’t see the beauty and wonder of the whole darn thing. This is what the “shoulds” say:
-I should draw my left hip down from my left shoulder.
– I should walk my left foot up to lengthen through my side body.
-I should spend more time working on my pelvic alignment overall.
-I should have chosen a pose that didn’t challenge the weaker side of my hips.
But, the more I should, the less I see. The less I see how much strength I have built in my upper body. The less I see how cool it is that I have “back dimples” aka “Venus Dimples” that remind me I am genetically my mother’s daughter. The less I see the awesome alignment I do have in my hands, elbows and shoulder girdle. The less I see the strength and vulnerability it took me to have a picture taken of me in not my “go-to” pose, but a pose that nonetheless makes me feel crazy powerful. The less I see the beauty and composition the photographer brought to the image.
And you know, the “shoulding” doesn’t stop there of course. The title of this blog post originally came to me as I was quieting down for meditation last week, thinking more about motherhood than yoga. I should all over myself when it comes to motherhood and partnership (if you know me and my sense of humor, you will also know the liberal use of “shoulding” is meant to sound like something else 😉 ). Here are some of the “shoulds” I lob at myself as a mother and wife:
-I should bake more cookies and desserts, especially during the holidays.
-I should can my own fruits and vegetables, preserves and sauces.
-I should write thank you letters and send holiday cards.
-I should need less time for self-care.
-I should not need or ask for help from my husband in childcare.
The list could go on and on, and some days it does. The “taskmaster” in me has a perfect mother, a perfect wife, a perfect yoga teacher, and a perfect version of every other role I fulfill in my daily life. At the heart of each of these perfect roles are the qualities I think someone else expects of me. That is the problem with all the “shoulds”…they aren’t really mine. At the foundation of all of the unmet expectations we have for ourselves is someone else’s opinions.
Often it is not even spoken or directly noted expectations as well. I imagine that others expect me to be a perfectly aligned yoga teacher because I emphasize alignment. I expect others to assume I am a crummy mom because they made cookies and I didn’t. So how do we let go of the spoken and unspoken “shoulds” in our lives?
The yoga solution for stopping the nasty, nagging “shoulds” comes in the form of a dynamic trio: Svadhyaya (self-study), Tapas(discipline), and Santosha(contentment).
Svadhyaya (self-study) encourages us to take a step back and look closely at ourselves. Our motivations, our desires, our past experiences, our hope and dreams, even our own bodies. It prompts us to see ourselves as part of the larger picture, a dynamic, ever changing aspect of a series of relationships, to people and food and place and whatever else is part of your life. It helps us to see what we actually want and need in our lives, as opposed to what other people want and need us to be.
Tapas(discipline) is a delightfully complex sanskrit word that translates most literally as “heat” but is most often referred to as “burning away impurities”. The practice of tapas in our yoga and daily lives is about taking what we discover through self-study and burning off what does not serve us. It is often misconstrued as masochistic self-control, but has a far deeper meaning. For example, eating lots of donuts and cookies around the holidays is something that is fun, tasty, and may even ease the stress of physical and emotional overwhelm, but also often leads to overindulgence and not such good feelings. So, we are told to diet and restrict and watch and control ourselves. Much shoulding takes place! The discipline of Tapas comes from an awareness that eating sweets due to stress does not serve us in the long run, and encourages us to keep noticing our reaction to what doesn’t serve us and burn it off/let it go as a form of deep self-care. It’s the act of saying to yourself, “I love you, and that is not taking care of yourself. You deserve better.”
Santosha(contentment) is the balance to Tapas. I absolutely love, love, LOVE that yoga philosophers instruct us to not only let go of what doesn’t serve us through discipline, but also through radical acceptance and ultimately contentment with what we do have. When we go too far down the road of self-study or discipline we can lose track of the all that is working for us, all that we do have, the abundance in our lives. The teacher TKV Desikachar, in the book Heart of Yoga, says, “Let it suffice that we know we have done our best.”
I see Svadhyaya, Tapas and Santosha as three points on an infinity sign- Tapas and Santosha to the left and right, with Svadhyaya in the middle. We move from self-study to discipline, back to observation and into contentment, never becoming too complacent or too strict with ourselves.
My new motto: “The more I let go, the more I see.” The more I let go of other people’s expectations and desires, and even more so the ideas I have of what other people’s expectations are, the more I let go of the long list my inner taskmaster has created, the more I see what I truly want to work on as well as the real abundance in my life. The more I see my own strength and virtue.