Ramakrishna told this story:
Once a guru told his student to put his total faith in God and God will always protect him. The student was walking down the street when he heard a terrible noise and looked up to see a rampaging elephant. The elephant’s driver screamed “Get out of the way! Get out of the way!” The student thought to himself, “I have faith that God will protect me.”
He stood his ground and was trampled by the elephant.
The Guru came running and cradled the injured student in his arms.
“Why did you not get out of the way?” he asked.
“Master, I had faith that God would protect me, and he did not. Why did God not protect me?”
“Dear boy,” replied the guru, “God was in the elephant’s driver. He told you to get out of the way.” ~Liberally retold from The Gospel of Ramakrishna
We are the greatest obstacle to our practice. We are also in complete control of removing ourselves as an obstacle to our practice. I cannot count how many times I had thought to myself “If it weren’t for this [insert name of joint/muscle here] pain, I could do [insert name of fancy pose here]!” And I kept on trying to work through the pain to achieve that fancy pose.
Here’s a little truth that I have to keep reminding myself of: Pain is a good indication that you should STOP doing the thing that causes the pain!
How simple! If I keep popping my hip out when trying to do Eka Pada Sirsasana (one foot behind the head pose), maybe I should stop doing it.
You don’t win any more points for doing complex poses. ANY pose, ANY breath, ANY attempt at practice IS practice. Preparation IS the pose. Do it as an offering, and your practice is successful.
A teacher’s, guru’s, advisor’s job is easy: they show possibilities and shed light on the path. The student’s job is much harder—we have to experiment with the possibilities. We have to put them into practice then analyze and reflect upon the results.
Swami Sivananda says:
“Common-sense or Yukti should be used throughout your practice. If one kind of
exercise is not agreeable to your system, change it after due consideration or consultation with your Guru. This is Yukti. Where there is Yukti, there is Siddhi, Bhukti and Mukti (perfection, enjoyment and salvation).” [The Science of Pranayama]
Pay attention to things like pain, clenching your jaw, tension in your face, huffing and puffing, breathing through your mouth. These are signs you are getting in your own way and need to back off. We all need to remind ourselves to be vigilant, flexible, and adaptable in our practices. What works today may not work tomorrow.
The most advanced yogi is not the one doing the most complex contortions, it is the one who enjoys the practice and does it consistently.
The beginner says: “I want to be able to do that.”
The experienced say: “I can do that, let me show you.”
The expert says: “I can do that, but I shouldn’t.”