Yoga. Well renowned for building the flexibility and strength of the body. It’s also known to shake loose emotional baggage. What isn’t so well known is that yoga also makes you mentally tougher.
There is a quote (I couldn’t find who to credit, and I’ve heard it in many different venues) that I like, “The posture starts when you want to leave it.” In some ways, this is the key to yoga’s success. As a teacher, my style doesn’t tend toward the gentle, restorative style naturally. I’ve learned to lead classes like that, but it isn’t my natural style.
In fact, I draw quite a bit from my Tae Kwon Do and Ki Gong training when I lead classes. I tend towards classes that are tough, physically tough and I call that out. I then draw the students’ attention to what they think their limits are and what comes up for them both emotionally and mentally. Since the emotional and physical aspects of yoga are pretty well covered, I want to focus on the mental conditioning.
I led a sadhana for a yoga teacher training a couple of months ago. They had several other teachers lead them through morning sadhanas during prior sessions and those practices were all brilliant and supportive and while challenging, overall gentle. What I took them through, again drawing on my Tae Kwon Do and Ki Gong, was a sadhana of slow, steady postures with holding time and breathing in each posture.
This is the important part, the hold time mixed with the breath. Vinyasa is great, I like a good flow class for getting out of my head. But when it comes to getting *into* my head, I prefer a hatha style practice. I kept the postures simple because I wanted to guide them to a point where they found their preconceived limits.
Those limits we all hold onto, such as I can only do something for so long, or I can’t do that posture, or I can’t breathe like that, etc. Those internal limit we set on ourselves. To encourage students to test their limits, I guide them into simple postures. I layer in different breathing techniques to guide their awareness deeper into themselves. And just like a Tae Kwon Do Black Belt test, I drive them to what they believe their own limits were and encourage them to take just one more step.
That’s it, right there. The secret ingredient to yoga making you mentally tougher, taking just one more step or staying with a posture just one more breath.
As we approach what we believe our limits to be, there is a natural slow down in moving toward that limit. There is also a natural resistance that grows the closer we get to that limit. When we are in a safe environment and given a little nudge to take that one extra step, the old limit collapses.
As the limit collapses, we impose a new limit, beyond that extra step. And the next time we approach the old limit, we tend to breeze right by it. Do this often enough, and those instinctual limits we throw up start to feel less like limits meant to hold us back and more like boundaries that cry out to be pushed.
The next question I get is how does this physical boundary pushing translate to mental toughness? The answer is attitude creep. As we begin to experience a shift in our mental attitude in one aspect of our life, the shift starts creeping into other areas.
Another saying I like (that I also couldn’t find a reference for) comes into play here, “How you do one thing is how you do everything.” Start giving up in one area, you start giving up in others. Push your boundaries in one area, stand up to your fears, your limits, and watch how quickly that courage and determination spreads to other areas of your life.
Don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. Choose just one area in your life where you feel afraid or timid. Start small. Find support, a friend, family member, teacher, trainer, whatever. Work with them to go up to that limit you have in your head and take just one step past it. And when you do, when you take that tiny little step, take a moment and notice what you feel. Pride, relief, excitement, confidence?
You may also feel that there is another limit you want to tackle. Some other limit that is chafing and needs to be pushed. Most people I work with experience this shift at some point. It ignites a determination (there’s that mental toughness) to examine their lives and goals and the limits they’ve set on themselves and start challenging them.