I have spent, and still do spend, a lot of my life feeling obligated to do certain things. I guess it’s a bit complicated to explain; and, anyway, I never really noticed it until the drama of graduate school (I guess we can call that my existential crisis). I’ve noticed that many other people experience this internal belief as well—that they have to be a particular way or do certain things, and/or in a specific way. Spoiler alert: it’s all related to judgement and how we judge ourselves. But we’ll get to that later.
One thing that I love about yoga—that I didn’t notice about it until after about eight years of practice—is that it demands nothing of me. I don’t have to do yoga. I don’t have to do a downward-facing dog pose; I don’t have to do asana first, pranayama second, and meditation third; I don’t have to practice for at least 50 minutes at a time for it to be “worth it”; I don’t even have to roll out my mat every day. I don’t have to do a damn thing. It’s really such a relief.
…And yet I continue to do yoga. Over and over again, I roll out my mat and try out postures with my body. Sometimes I meditate, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I meditate without doing postures. Sometimes I practice breathing exercises in the car or when waiting in line. For nine years now, I’ve continued to do yoga—and I will (more than likely) continue to do postures until my body won’t let me anymore. Not because I have to, but because I choose to do so.
Once I finally learned this lesson about doing yoga postures on my mat, I began to see opportunities to practice this new life-approach in a variety of daily activities—from as trivial as I don’t actually have to wash the dishes tonight to I don’t have to believe that what other people think about me is important, for example.
I am definitely not saying that I have always been successful at changing how I feel about these things. I totally still do the dishes because I feel like I have to do them, and I definitely still find myself believing that what other people think about me is important. But sometimes I am able to do things because I choose to do them, not because I have to; and sometimes, I am even able to let certain things go—to not do them, because I don’t have to do them and because they do not serve me.
Where do these “have to”s come from? And why do we demand certain things of ourselves? I think it’s because we think less of ourselves when/if we don’t do the things we “have to” do—we love ourselves a little less. I mean, that’s been my experience; from what I’ve heard, it sounds to me like I’m not the only one, either.
I think that the world we live in is very good at ingraining “have to” beliefs into our perspectives on life… and who knows? Maybe some of the things that we do believe we have to do are, in ultimate reality, very important. I wouldn’t count on it, though. Our contemporary lives teach us to make judgements on ourselves—in and of itself, not a bad thing. However, when our judgements of ourselves cause us deep (and perhaps constant) suffering, then I would venture to say that it’s not a very healthy habit.
A lot of my experience with yoga over the last year and a half has shown me so many deeply entrenched judgements I had about myself. I’ll be honest, I still have some of them; but I’m only human—can’t fix it overnight, ya know?
I think that, for me, though, the basic foundation I needed to finally address all of my own judgements was to be in a non-judgemental space… which was yoga. Since the beginning, even if I demanded myself to have a “perfect” pigeon pose, I felt comfort in the teachings that I did not “have to” have a perfect pigeon pose. And when I finally delved deeper into my yoga practice (with a little help from some friends, mentors, and wonderful teachers), I finally saw that I didn’t even have to demand that of myself. There were no expectations of me, just an unconditional hope that I would just be myself.
I am grateful beyond words for the little moments of peaceful congruity when my intellectual brain and my emotional being are in harmonious perspective; when I am at peace with my choice to not do something; when I allow myself to not only want something different, but to act (or not act) on that desire, despite all of the judgements. Sometimes I can let go of the judgements (but mostly I’m still at the point when I’m just trying to be aware of them at all!).
And so it’s …just, well, really nice to have a physical, emotional, spiritual, and philosophical space I can go, where there are no demands on me—and that’s yoga. It is the teachings, the physical practice, the practitioners and teachers who have gone before me, the tiny illuminations of yoga. And I’m hoping that, little by little, I’m learning to broaden that space out from my yoga mat into my daily life.
Photo by Maggie Mullane, Zilker Botanical Gardens, Austin, TX (April 2014).
Just came across your blog, and this is really a tremendous statement… really captures the grace possible in the practice.
Thanks, James! For reading/sharing my posts and for the generous comment. The “I don’t have to” realization has been an extremely important aspect for me, and I think it applies to a whole lot of people of yoga-practitioners in the West as well. I enjoyed exploring your site, too, and I hope you drop by my online space again soon!