“You are what you practice most.” ~Richard Carlson
“What are you practicing?” she asked in a gentle, lilting voice.
The entire class was in triangle pose, and at that moment I was comparing my triangle to the young woman’s right next to mine, scolding myself for wobbling out of the pose and simultaneously harassing myself for not being “further along” in my career. (Because if you’re going to hate on yourself, my motto is GO BIG.)
“Are you practicing judgment or comparison?” she tenderly probed.
“WTF!” I thought. “Does this woman have a direct line to my brain?”
“Are you practicing worry or blame?” she continued. “Perhaps you’re practicing patience and love. Notice what you’re practicing and know that you become what you practice. What you practice is what you live.”
I was three days into a five-day yoga retreat and I was far from blissed out. In fact, I had deftly managed to tie myself into a knot of comparison, self-doubt, judgment, confusion, shame, and embarrassment.
With my inner critic having hijacked my brain I was a total wreck, and caught myself, more than once, crying through one of the two yoga classes I took each day.
I should also mention I was pissed to be spending days of supposed relaxation and inner communion bumping up against every old demon that laid buried within me. Not a productive use of time, and if there’s anything I hate, it’s feeling unproductive.
I had gone on the yoga retreat (my first ever, and a huge indulgence according to my inner critic) for a good dose of soul care. I was craving reconnection badly and knew an idyllic yoga retreat in the Berkshire mountains was just what I needed to come back to myself. Little did I expect that to get to that reconnection, I first had to wade through a number of stinky layers of self-perpetuated crap.
And so there I was, wobbling in and out of triangle pose, in full blown comparison mode and hating on myself for not having written a book yet, for not being on SuperSoul Sunday, and for most certainly not being Zen during a yoga class.
And then her soft words plucked me out of my maelstrom of negativity.
“What are you practicing?”
I took a breath.
And then another, letting the fresh oxygen pulse through me.
I took another, solidified my stance, stretched more deeply into the pose, and faced all I was practicing.
I let the comparison and self-doubt wash over me. Let the judgment and shame flow. Let the embarrassment of this entire emotional debacle be there without feeling bad for feeling any of it.
In the breath I found that I wasn’t practicing the negative feelings and old stories. I was experiencing them. What I was practicing in feeling them (without kicking myself for experiencing them) was compassion.
I let the compassion grow, filling every edge of my body, and watched it morph. First into curiosity for my feelings, then acknowledgement for my pained state, and then into deep love for myself for finding kindness where there had originally only been gripped anger and a cold heart.
What I found in the instructor’s question was this: I can experience any number of painful thoughts and feelings, and in approaching them with compassion, it’s compassion I’m practicing, not negativity.
I wish I could tell you with that realization my struggle ended, my demons were forever released, and I quickly became the blissed out, wise yogini I had wanted to be at the start of my retreat.
Not so much.
It took another few days (and will probably take the rest of my life) to continually soften, to come back to the breath, and to remember to practice compassion.
But what her question did do was loosen the knot.
It created space to find compassion where there had originally been none. It sparked the sloughing off of old layers, the questioning of painful stories, and the unfurling of my most sacred knowing to allow me to reconnect with myself.
“What are you practicing” is a brave question, as it often brings us face to face with the uncomfortable emotional space we’re in. And yet, it’s in letting ourselves ask the question and getting curious about it that a crack is made for compassion to squeeze through.
The next time you catch yourself in a maelstrom of comparison, anger, self-doubt, worry, or judgment, take a breath and ask, “What am I practicing?” Be gentle with what comes up (no judging yourself for being judgmental) and notice if in embracing your experience with tenderness, compassion has a chance to blossom.
Know this: It’s impossible to practice love and patience all the time. That kind of every-second-of-every-day bliss was not built into us humans. We suffer, and that’s okay.
And when we can be compassionate with ourselves when we’re practicing things other than love, our heart softens, our grip loosens, and suddenly we have a greater access to the love we were seeking all along.
Woman with heart hands image via Shutterstock