When I had my first introduction to yoga it was the most liberating experience I can remember.
After my second experience with yoga, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was a pathway to freedom. Pretty soon after that, yoga and I were in a committed relationship.
What resonated with me most was not just the new level of comfort and ease I felt in my body and in my mind, but more than anything I knew I had discovered a doorway into myself.
Put simply, it was clear I was becoming more self-aware.
As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself.”
It was quite beautiful to fall back in love with myself after years of self-doubt, insecurity and looking for validation externally.
But yoga, as with anything else in life, has a shadow side.
This very same path that opened the door to the first real relationship I ever had with myself also became another opportunity for judgment, guilt, comparison, and competition.
But that’s not really yoga. It's the human ego wrapping something pure in rules, expectations, and comparisons. That, by definition, is dogma.
On the contrary, yoga is about breaking free of dogma. It’s about lifting the veil and seeing through the illusion of the ego - both ours and others.
Some would have us believe we’re not “real yogis” if we eat meat, have sex, drink wine, drink coffee, wear makeup, wear nail polish, get angry, swear, react, etc.
But who gets to decide at what point one becomes a “real yogi”?
In the words of the great Lao Tzu, “Care what other people think, and you will always be their prisoner.”
Let’s keep things in perspective. Yoga began thousands of years ago as a study passed down from guru to disciple in a lifelong study together. There was nothing outside of that - no family, no job—there was nothing but yoga. Yoga became the student’s entire life, not at all unlike a monk living in a monastery. Yoga was never made available to the masses, never offered in classes, until it controversially made its way to the US around the mid-1900s.
Beautifully, this strict, ascetic lifestyle is now accessible to mothers and fathers and business owners and teachers and men and women of all ages.
So we have to take this ancient school of wisdom and find ways to weave it into our modern-day life. Each person gets to decide for themselves what that’s going to look like.
Of course, yoga is about becoming conscious of the choices that we’re making, as well as the ripple effects they have on the world around us.
But yoga is very personal. It’s up to each of us to go within and embark on our own unique journey.
How could anyone else possibly know where and how we are supposed to be at any point along the way?
I teach my students not to worry about being perfect and to avoid focusing on their "bad habits" or the things they want to change about themselves. Rather, I encourage them to focus on their personal growth and evolution, and notice as the things that no longer serve them fall away.
Someone once told me, "smoking quit me”, because she had embarked on such a liberating and empowering path of growth that the day came when she lost interest in smoking.
The same thing happened to a friend who joined me on a vegetarian yoga retreat in Costa Rica. Halfway into the week she couldn’t stand it anymore and disappeared for a few hours after hailing a cab into town to find a burger. Years later she shared the experience of taking the first bite out of a steak she had ordered at a restaurant before pushing it away, realizing she no longer had any desire to eat meat.
In both of those cases, it happened entirely organically. Not because they were being pressured to look like a yogi, or out of guilt, or out of a desire for perfection, but because it simply no longer fit into their lives.
Yoga is a lifestyle, and it is a path toward personal and spiritual freedom. It doesn’t have to be a new opportunity to judge and be judged.
If we allow ourselves to stay humble students on the path of yoga we will continue to grow and expand and evolve.
We will continue to let go of those things that no longer align with the truth of who we are, and it will happen with effortless ease, free of guilt.
As we continue to honor and respect the organic unfolding of our own unique journey, we are able to offer the same to others walking the path beside us.
Together, and individually, we can be free.