By Enid Spitz
On the sidewalk, Bill is a graying man in dark jeans who stands about 5 foot 4. He looks mundane until yoga class begins, and then Bill is a master teacher; easily jumping (yes, jumping soundlessly) into headstands, hopping into crow pose and resting with a foot behind his head. If anything, Bill is a lesson in not judging by appearance. But as my Ashtanga Yoga teacher for the past two years, Bill also taught me an unforgettable lesson about joy.
I notice in my students and myself how easy it is to be overly serious and intense when exercising. It is too enticing to clench and grimace and push. But I have found that nothing opens my own yoga practice more than levity. Smiling with ourselves not only makes routine more enjoyable, it allows us the opportunity to explore our abilities further, without judgment.
When Bill first recommended I try lotus (Padmasana) with my legs while in shoulder stand, I laughed at the impossible request. “How about it? We can just try today,” he joked. With this lighthearted tone, he made the difficult pose seem like no big deal. This approach took all the intimidation out of it and allowed me to try without feeling any pressure. And to my surprise, it worked!
Over the next two years I was consistently surprised by the capabilities of my body. While physicality is important of course, I really improved because of joy. Lightheartedness has allowed me to try the most difficult postures with a sense of playfulness instead of self-punishment and Joy instead of judgment.
This lesson of joy inspires me on and off my mat. I seek to incorporate a sense of play into parts of my class, welcoming exploration and enjoyment. Maybe Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana is easier with a smile. Joy in no way makes your yoga practice or workout less sincere or powerful, it simply removes the severity that is detrimental long-term. As Thich Nhat Hanh’s words suggest, bringing a smile to your activity can become a source of joy. And where there is joy, there can be growth.
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh