Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and we are preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties so clearly. But Ian MacLaren noted wisely, “Let us be kind to one another, for most of us are fighting a hard battle.” – Chicago Tribune, 1965
Practice on your own mat, my yoga teachers remind me.
Bring my gaze inward, and I deepen my connection with myself. Practicing on my own mat gives me the information to more skillfully make choices based on what is actually happening, rather than what my mind thinks is happening (or thinks should be happening).
It’s true in yoga and it’s true in my life: when I stop distracting myself with shallow stories about those around me, I can actually sense what is true right now for me – the only person I hold any sway over.
The instruction of practicing on your own mat might lead you to practicing alone, just you and your mat. No sweaty, grunting guy behind you, or perfectly bendy girl next to you. And it can be good: solitude and quiet can be meditative and healing. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, taking time alone without distraction is deeply restorative.
We need to practice on our own mats, and maybe alone … but at least sometimes, we need to practice with other mats around.
When my yoga teacher, Sara, instructed me to bring my attention onto my towel, she helped me get out of my head, off of everybody else’s mat, and into my body. What it also did was to remind me of my real connection to other people. Her instruction, counter-intuitively perhaps, helped me see that we are all have suffering and that we support each other by practicing together.
In the midst of a 90-minute yoga class in a 105 degree studio, it’s fairly likely that I’ll be faced with some internal resistance, if not outright struggle, at some point. When I’m caught in some tangle of discomfort, it’s easy to distract myself with stories about how mean the teacher is, or how easy this is for everybody else, or how a cool shower and a cold beer is all I ever really needed to be happy.
It takes real courage to practice on my own mat and show up for whatever may be happening, no matter how stressful. But when I do, when I make that brave choice to show up for my own practice and really notice everything that is happening in my body and mind, something else shifts. I begin to see beyond the superficial in myself … and in everybody around me.
When I quiet the distraction of stories about others and about myself, I can actually feel my direct experience. Instead of “Dang, I’m good. I got my head to my knee!” or “Heavens, that guy sweats himself a lake!” I can focus on what I’m feeling. When I admit that the heat is kicking my ass, that my knees in Fixed Firm are screaming bloody murder, and that I am feeling a little desperate to be finished, I can use it as a reminder that everybody has something that is kicking her ass, screaming bloody murder, and making him desperate. As I deepen my connection to my own experience, it can (perhaps paradoxically) deepen my connection with everybody else.
When I find myself twisted in my own trouble on the yoga mat (or out in traffic), it helps to open my eyes and look around at the other mats (or cars). Instead of fabricating a empty story about them, practicing with other mats around reminds me to cultivate an attitude of compassion, inclusion, and care for all of us.