The Case For Taking An Annual Yoga Break

...also known as "finally understanding what it means to have the self as a teacher" (even if I'm no yoga teacher, myself)

by Jill Damatac Futter

This year, it happened on a chilly spring Friday evening in London, as I was in the middle of full visvamitrasana...for the eighth time in the same class (I may be exaggerating a bit here, but you get the idea). Already mentally kicking myself for taking a class whose definition of "dynamic" meant "handstands every four to six poses" and "bonus points for transitioning into a nutty arm balance after each of those handstands" when what I really needed was a soothing Yin class...let's just say my willpower sort of broke down. In that same class, my right hamstring broke down, too, sometime in the midst of the 11th or 12th full visvamitrasana, as did something deep in my left sacroiliac joint, sometime in the midst of the bazillionth full vasisthasana, when the teacher insisted that we all grab our foot, not the big toe, and transition into hanuman...and that includes the "slackers" in tree variation. 

I hobbled home that night, and continued to hobble into classes for the next month, feeling completely disconnected, disillusioned, and dissatisfied. Eventually, nagging physical pain, a deep need for spiritual inspiration, and a not-so-pretty self-discovery all conspired to finally keep me at home, searching, breathing, reading and meditating in lieu of asana, for the next six weeks. 

Every time I returned to asana, I found a renewed sense of spiritual purpose and physical vigor

Ever since my first year of yoga, I've always found myself sliding into this pattern--practice hard for 11 months of the year, then drift off into a break for a handful of weeks. Every time I returned to asana, I found a renewed sense of spiritual purpose and physical vigor, and that seems to be true this third year, even with the taint of three nagging injuries this time around. As always, I needed a couple of weeks into the hiatus to eventually relax into the conclusion that it was totally okay and necessary to do so, but once I did, the following truths surfaced, as they do every year and, each time, with a more profound and lasting resonance:

  1. Me, myself, and my ego. I grew up running and swimming competitively through to college and into my late twenties. Ingrained with a sense of doing more, and better, and always, I've found that while yoga foiled those general tendencies by removing my desire to compete with others, it didn't quite do as much to keep me from competing with myself. With every class I took and every pose added into my mental asana Rolodex, my ego kept urging me to beat, well, me. It's an ugly truth, but a necessary one that leads into...
  2. Self-kindness is ok. This isn't exactly a natural tendency. Awful at basic things like accepting compliments or help from others, I'm probably the last person to practice compassion inwardly (see reason #1, above). A harsh inner critic and not the highest self-esteem only fuel the flames of guilt whenever I take an easier asana variation, or (gasp!) use a prop, or take a break. To counter this, I made sure to slowly practice a few restorative poses at home during my hiatus. Side note: nothing makes you accept self-kindness more easily than a supta baddha konasana deliciously supported by blocks, blankets, bolsters, and a lavender-scented eye pillow at home on a Sunday afternoon.
  3. Community matters. I'll be honest: a large part of my need to take a hiatus often involves the desire to wind down from the emotional energy of others. While yoga communities almost always consist of some of the kindest, coolest people I've ever met, there can also sometimes be a sense of pettiness, cliquishness, and perhaps competitiveness that pervades (though not in my favorite cozy, community-driven Brooklyn yoga studios, which I miss terribly here in London). As an introvert, others' vibes tend to make their way into my gut and mood, and too many days in a row of weird vibes make me want to run far, far away. A hiatus helps to recalibrate the emotional barometer and, when once back on the mat, I can focus just on the breath and the movement once again. 
  4. Listen to your body. This has been the prevailing lesson in this year's hiatus. Weird clicking wrist noises, a wonky right hamstring, and a constant stabbing pain in my left sacroiliac joint reminded me of why I quit running (and competing) in the first place: the body has limits, and a highly attuned balance between discipline and pain is necessary to navigate those limits and, occasionally, take them to the edge--only just--to encourage growth. 
  5. Explore yoga beyond just asana. It's easy to forget that asana is just a small part of the yoga practice, especially in the midst of busy days and weeks filled to the brim with work and life obligations. Sometimes, squeezing in time for a class feels like enough yoga for the day, and while that may be true, it's also helpful to go for some meditation, or volunteering, or maybe even finishing that yoga book you bought upon a teacher's recommendation but can never get around to actually finishing. At least, that's what I've ended up doing while taking a break.

As of last week, I wrapped up the self-imposed hiatus, and I'm happy to report that the right hamstring has recovered fully, the left sacroiliac is mostly back to itself, and that my wrists' clicking noises have subsided. While that's all well and good, the best part is that the above lessons are now more deeply ingrained than ever, and I can look forward to what I'll learn during next year's asana break.