I've been struggling for a long time with understanding the distortion of yoga by our western culture, especially since I've begun teaching at a yoga studio and now begun my own Ashtanga practice.
One of the things I see most is people pushing themselves so hard that their yoga practice becomes a sort of masochistic pleasure. And then, of course, there are the other people who see this yoga culture and assume that they couldn't possibly do yoga--they're not fit enough, it's too hard, and they're horribly uncomfortable and exhausted when they try a class.
People tend to approach yoga in a goal-oriented way, because one of our cultural assumptions is that the only way to improve is through effort. Even if they understand the mindfulness aspect and focus on their breathing, they muscle their way through their practice using willpower.
What if you were to find genuine ease in your practice? Could yoga (and the rest of life) be about intentionally putting oneself into awkward, unfamiliar postures, and figuring out how to make that comfortable and enjoyable? When we're in difficult situations, how can we make those pleasurable?
I think a problem we have, though, is that we don't actually know what pleasure feels like. We spend so much of our time muscling through life--succeeding through sheer force of effort and willpower--that we don't trust that anything can come from awareness and attention alone. We act upon the assumption that we are not good enough as we are and that we must get somewhere else, be someone else, achieve a particular goal in order to be worthy of life.
What if we are good enough exactly how we are? What if we are exactly how and who we're "meant" to be? We improve organically by being aware, paying attention, and asking good questions--not because we have to improve or because we kill ourselves trying, but because we are wired for learning. Our nervous systems are wired to be constantly taking in new information, sorting through that, and adapting and improving based on that input. We only stop improving when we become complacent, stop asking questions, abandon our curiosity, and stop sensing and feeling ourselves.
We need to spend time cultivating this sense of ease though. We have learned to not sense or feel ourselves--it's an adaptation that we make to live in a world and in a way that's not congruent with our true selves. For example, when we're kids and we need to be outside playing but are made to sit at desks all day, we find that, from our powerless position, the solution to the problem is to stop feeling ourselves. But we're not powerless anymore--we're adults, and if we claim our power, we have the freedom to make our own choices. So we must begin to come back to ourselves and develop our sensitivity to we can know how we really feel, who we really are, and what we really need. And trust me, this is a lifetime of work in and of itself. There's a infinite amount of sensitivity to cultivate, and we have to keep coming back to it or we lose it. But this sensitivity--learning to sense and feel ourselves--is how we "restore each person to their human dignity" and begin to "live fully [our] unavowed dreams" (Moshe Feldenkrais).
So next time you're in a yoga pose--or an unfamiliar situation in life--can you sit with it, notice yourself, and ask good questions? Can you find a way to soften, to reduce the effort, and to genuinely enjoy it? Can you find ease and comfort and play? Because play, of course, is the real way we improve. Play and curiosity are how we're wired to learn. When something feels pleasurable and enjoyable, we want to come back to it, and it becomes effortless. When we make ourselves do something because we think we should, it takes a whole lot of effort, and we become stuck in an addictive cycle of self-denial and deprivation.
Also see "Illuminating Yoga" by Rebecca Roman, GCFP, ABM, E-RYT 500.