Our Obstacles, Our Selves.

Posted on Apr 15, 2016



When I first started to practice yoga, I was a young-ish adult with some history as a dancer and gymnast. Many of the poses, including those that a teacher-friend calls yoga’s “circus tricks,” were quite accessible. My ego was pumped in those classes and I had some fun. I also learned to relax and sleep a little better; I decided that I was “pretty good at yoga.”


Since that time, some 20 years ago, I have begun to appreciate that yoga can meet me wherever I am. And I’ve realized too how little I was asking of myself, or the practice, in those early years.


Richard Freeman, one of the very greatest of teachers with whom I’ve had the privilege of studying, often offers pose modifications to his students with these words, “If you are blessed with stiffness, try….” At first I thought that he was offering some gentle yogic sarcasm, but now I believe that Freeman is referring to the fact that when we come up against obstacles, there is opportunity. We can notice how we meet obstacles in our bodies and in our lives. We can ask whether the obstacle is outside or within us.


This last year has been challenging, thick with obstacles that have sapped both my time and energy. Throughout it all I had a persistent feeling that my health and my relationships were somehow getting in the way of my life. Hmmmm. For example, a couple months ago I got pretty sick with a bizarre photo allergy right at the start of a retreat I was co-leading in Costa Rica with my pal, Linda Sparrowe.


One perk of sharing a retreat with another teacher is the opportunity to take each other’s classes. Mid-week Linda taught a Yin practice. I had been looking forward to the class in part because I have a bit of aversion to Yin yoga and that seemed like a really good obstacle to work with in the spacious container of a retreat. As it turned out, that afternoon was the apex of my illness and I was miserable. Although we had spent the day in the cool and not-that-sunny rainforest, my skin had completely flared up and my entire face was raw and swollen. The students were looking at me with some alarm while I tried to make light of my appearance and situation.


As we moved slowly into the various held poses, I became obsessed with the feeling of heat in my face. I quickly realized that in any of the forward folds (Yin is filled with them) my entire head would feel filled with blood and throb. I began to panic. Any part of my head that did not feel filled with blood was crowded with stories of grief, resentment and frustration. I was mad at my body, at Linda, at the sun, and at the cruel inventor of Yin. I backed the pose way up, tilting my pelvis only a fraction forward, and felt the humiliation that only a yoga teacher can feel when taking class with her students and not able to execute a simple pose. New stories joined the party in my head; the potential failure of our retreat, the end of my teaching career—a future of severe disability and disfigurement.


And then there was a gap. A moment between the breaths. A breath between the thoughts. A stillness in the fluctuations of the mind. Nirodha. For me it was probably the most important yoga moment of the week. The least bliss- filled perhaps, but a moment in which I saw my stories for what they were and could compassionately witness my experience. It was a moment of practice that felt way more advanced than any of the upside down pretzels I’d executed with ease back in the day.


I remember my teacher Cyndi Lee once blasting the myth that yoga is necessarily relaxing. It is not a vacation. I agree! The only way that yoga ever reminds me of a vacation is that, often, being present with my practice feels like looking into one of those bright magnifying mirrors that you find in hotel bathrooms—your pores look huge, your skin tone disturbing, and each blemish a cause for either the vanity or health police to sound the alarms. But when we can look at all that in yoga class, in the form of tight muscles, heavy hearts, creaky joints and wayward thoughts, and yet still stay steady…neither clinging or pushing away; in those moments our practice deepens.


Maybe in some ways yoga is a kind of staycation. Sorry—I hate that word too. But what if you could be in your regular life and your regular body and relate to both with fresh awareness and appreciation? What if you took some time to be and not to do, and to feel at home even as you witnessed the constant change that defines your life? This is where yoga has the potential to lead us: way beyond any fantasy beach, daring arm balance, or bikini-ready body. Here. Now. That is all there is!




  1. Susan, Your blog post struck such a hord, not the least of which was because I was there, at the moment, for Linda’s yin yoga class at Finca Luna Nueva. Thanks for posting on Facebook.

    The Costa Rica retreat was in every way, a “gift that keeps on giving.” I continue to find new insights. Since I’ve been home I’ve deepened my practice to include home practice, started a meditation practice, made new friends from the retreat, learned about sustainable agriculture, and understand that yoga has to do with so much more than fancy poses.

    You are my teacher in this area.


    • Thank you Nancy! I am so profoundly glad that the retreat has stayed with you. That means so much. Come back with us next year!

  2. I did not start a regular yoga practice until I was-gasp- 61. My body was happy to be moving and stretching, I was happy to be on the mat, in a class, with a teacher, my head was happy with rest of me otherwise engaged.
    There was pain but also empowerment and joy.
    That’s the big payoff for me, ego be damned! While It’s good to explore everything I humbly know my limits.
    I’ll never achieve arm balances or headstands but my savasana is world-class!