Since I’ve been following a few experienced ashtanga yoga practitioners, I’ve been hearing a lot about pain and fears, seemingly hidden deep inside our consciousness, but being as well locked in our physical bodies. Even though I’m a strong believer that many illnesses we get in life are a result of injured souls rather than just bodies, I have never experienced a direct connection between physical pain and deep emotional or mental matters by myself. Until yesterday.

When I was a kid I wanted to dance. I was not accepted to ballet classes because of not suitable physique and prior to that I abandoned training in synchronized swimming (which is nothing less than dancing on water). Even though the main reasons for stopping swimming classes had nothing to do with me personally, I took it on my account and honestly speaking I felt relieved: classes would be held 5 times a week, trainers were strict and pushy like in any big sports, and even though I thought I tried hard, I always belonged to the weakest in the group, as my flexibility was falling far behind most of other girls. Whatever type of dance I threw myself into afterwards I always had inferiority complex since, as perfect splits in all directions seemed to be unattainable – for me, but not the others. I accepted it as given and developed myself in traditional dance styles which did not require extraordinary stretching ability, but rather built their character on rhythm, plastics and charisma (like flamenco, bellydance and classical Indian dance).

With time I erased all flexibility issues form my head and when I started practicing yoga, stretching became a positive side-effect, rather than a final goal or a reason for the beginning of the practice. Many basic asanas were initially a big challenge for me because of lack of flexibility (as I convinced myself), but as I continued working on them and exercise regularly without any thoughts about what “I can” or “I can’t”, eventually I found myself reaching a level of flexibility I couldn’t even dream about when I was 8 years old.

Image Source: International Infopage for Ashtanga Yoga

One of the asanas has been posing a particular challenge for me: Upavistha Konasana B (on the image above). Every time I practice it I would be very careful and wouldn’t force my legs straight up, until I feel ready. As this asana is exercised towards the end of the flow, my concentration would normally reach a high point, and my mind would be calm. But this time I was in distress, which was caused by a tiny episode from a few days before. Earlier in the week I took a decision to resume my dance training and jumped straight into advanced contemporary ballet class. One young boy, an obvious star in the group, was as flexible as a wire, bending in all directions and transitioning even ordinary dance moves into acrobatic tricks. It did not make him a better dancer though, but he could jump straight into the cross split and make all the possible variations. In fact, most of the group members could. I felt like I was 8 years old again – inflexible and unable. And even though I channeled my thoughts into a different direction, the next day, when I reached Upavistha Konasana B, this double-jointed boy appeared in front of my eyes, as a reminder of all those things that I can’t do and will never be able to do (regardless if I need it or not). Within a second two conflicting and scary forces collided in my mind: one, was an ego screaming “You are no worse, show them all, do it, pull it, stretch it!” and another was a self-consuming teenager, screaming: “Useless, you will never do it, you have no ability!”. My body reacted to what the mind was saying: despite invincible resistance in my legs (held back by a teenager), I pulled them up with as much strength as I could (driven by a winning ego). An immediate, unbearable pain paralyzed my right leg and brought me back to senses within a moment. In shock, I leaned back on my mat, and while the pain was fading away, a realization of numerous counterproductive and even traumatizing experiences I’ve been creating for myself was shaping in my mind. A combination of self-doubt and fear colliding with an unreasonable and equally strong force of “just do it despite anything” can bring nothing but injuries which are not easy to heal, and a story of a cross split is just the tiniest story of all.

Not all the lessons should be learned through physical pain and definitely not through injuries. But I’m amazed how much our bodies and physical reactions can tell us about ourselves – we just need to be able to listen and interpret them wisely. At the end of the practice on that day I managed to let fear go for another asana – for almost 3 years I didn’t even attempt it, as I was convinced I didn’t have a physical ability for it. That made me believe that my personal lesson was learned.