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Conference with Sharath: Yoga is a Mental Practice

Note to self: When you’re told to be at the yoga shala at a specific time, show up at LEAST 45 minutes before, because whatever it is, it’s probably already started.

We walked into the packed shala for Sharath’s conference after breakfast last Saturday morning (I can't believe it's taken me this long to get this post out. Where does the time go?!). There was no room in the main space, and students seeped out into the lobby, listening closely to his every word. But the lobby was not the ideal place to hear conference. All the parents with their playful toddlers, cars passing by outside, Indian fruit vendors screaming their produce options as they roll down the road, and all the various sounds of India were soaked up and electrified in that little acoustic room.

So needless to say I didn’t hear much of what Sharath had to say, but I did hear this:

“It doesn’t matter if you are very flexible. Flexibility is not important. Breath is important. If you are very flexible in a pose, very strong in a pose, but without breath, it’s not working.”

Ah, the classic yoga conversation. It's practically cliche at this point, but that's only because it's so true. Yoga is not about the physical pose.

That’s not to say that to be strong, mobile, and have a healthy body that works properly isn’t important. Of course it is. And it’s absolutely a reason—a great reason—to practice yoga!

I think the deeper meaning behind what Sharath was saying is that yoga practice is not about simply mastering the physical poses (or “showing off” as he puts it), it’s about mastering the mind. All of yoga is to control the mind. You can have an incredibly physically capable body and still be grumpy and mean. You can be very strong yet very stressed or super bendy and narcissistic at the same time.

When we get too caught up in the outer, physical aspect of practice, we tend to fall one of two ways (to varying degrees): All In or All Out. We either stop pushing ourselves altogether or run ourselves into the ground.

But the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and ebbs and flows depending on the season of our life. A friendly push in our yoga practice is necessary in order to shift our perception of limitation and conquer our fears, but we can play with those edges gently, lovingly, and sustainably over time, with our breath leading the way.

I know for myself, I used to have an all-or-nothing attitude about my Ashtanga practice. I got caught up in the poses. I wanted to move on to the next series, get that new pose, deepen my backbends, and I wanted my fellow yogis to see all my progress. There was a mild rigidity in my practice that stemmed from a longing to prove myself.

But then I had a baby, and I couldn’t do all the things I could do before and it made me realize I didn’t need to. My purpose didn’t lie in my backbends or over-splits, and my yoga practice didn’t diminish because I wasn’t doing every asana. In fact, if anything, my yoga practice matured postpartum. It became stronger, all encompassing, and much more compassionate.

We need to be present with ourselves. We need to continuously have an open stream of communication between our body and mind so that we can meet ourselves where we are and find our edge on any given day. That requires a lack of judgement or attachment, and a whole lot of self-love. Yoga is fluid, and we must be too.

We practice yoga, not to be good at a pose, rather, to feel good in our body and mind, to heal physically, mentally and spiritually, to unite our small self with our Infinite Self and realize that, actually, they are one and the same. We practice yoga to learn how to deeply love ourselves and others, and to better show up as an active member of the world. And that’s a life long process of exploration, mistakes, defeats, and triumphs. It’s the ultimate love story.

So this is a gentle reminder for all of us: the best yoga practice is the one you show up for, radically accepting yourself exactly as you are, on your journey toward your truest, purest existence. And don’t forget to breathe along the way. :)

For love, with love.

-E

All Photography taken in Melkote, India

by Sean Shelton @capturedconnections

and Emily O'Brien @emily.obrien

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