When you Fall off the Yoga Wagon...

Written by Jessie Blackledge.

We can all fall off the yoga wagon. We know this. We know from experience, and from plenty of stories. When I first started yoga, I wasn't even aware there was a wagon, never mind climbing aboard it myself! But as soon as you become aware that there is a wagon passing through town, somehow you have a need to hop on. And when you're on, it's good. I'm talking yoga every day. I'm talking those benefits that every yoga-loving website, book and DVD out there is raving about, that you never believed. You remember those? Yes, they happen.

yoga side stretch

Imagine not freaking out when there's no milk left. Or smiling at that work colleague that really gets on your nerves. How about waking up actually feeling good? Positive attitudes, less anxiety, deeper breathing. Strong bones, flexible muscles, improved arthritis. Keeping aches and pains at bay, feeling more confident and stress-free as time goes by. Need I go on?

And yes, it's good. But yes, you can fall off. We've all had those weekends where we've perhaps slightly over-indulged a little. Maybe we've gone overboard on the drink, maybe we ate far too much of that chocolate cake, or perhaps we've just been pretty slovenly and couldn't be bothered with any yoga for a couple of days. Your discipline is jumbled in a chaotic mess of pleasure-seeking which has evolved into self-indulgence. It sounds bad, but it happens to all of us. Often, when this has occurred consistently for a few days, the thought of rekindling your relationship with your yoga mat pops into your head. Almost immediately, there are several emotions playing havoc with your conscience.

  1. Guilt. You know you need to be back on that mat. You feel consumed by a sense of 'oh-god-I've let-myself-down'.
  2. Denial. Pretend that weekend didn't happen. Have another piece of cake and a glass of wine, and avoid eye contact with the mat.
  3. Self-deprecation. You've overindulged. You've gone against your yogic lifestyle. You are feeling very down. Why bother getting back on that mat? You'll only let yourself down again. Stupid you. Go back to bed.

We've all experienced some or all of these symptoms from falling off the wagon. And often when you take a break from your regular yoga practice for even a day or two, you can feel the difference in both your body and mind when you get back onto the mat. You can feel stiffer, less practiced, less into a flow of regular routine; and this can be off-putting.

I recently took a few days off from my regular practice due to illness. I realise that illness can't be helped, and yes I did have a bad bout of the flu, so for the first couple of days it was virtually impossible for me to get out of bed, so the most I could manage was a bed-ridden savasana. But by the third day I was feeling much better, and definitely could have had enough strength to do a gentle practice. But no. I had fallen into my black-hole of watching daytime TV in bed with endless cups of tea and a healthy dose of self pity. It felt good to hide away; it felt like I was doing myself some good, it felt as though yoga would be a chore. Interestingly, I felt as though I didn't deserve yoga, as though I had fallen short of my disciplines, therefore my punishment is no yoga.

But those feelings were wide of the mark. They reminded me of the old ways I used to feel before I started practising yoga regularly. The days when I had to force myself to a yoga class, instead of being excited to go. When I used to think of yoga as something that had to be done, rather than something I looked forward to doing each morning. I had reverted back to a time without yoga. I had time travelled, people. And it wasn't pretty.

Yoga is not something we need to earn, and it is not something we need to be worthy of. Everyone ought to have yoga in their lives, and there is nothing to justify the presence of it. Of course practicing gratitude and appreciation towards our practice is key, but adding self-deprecation to our mix of emotional consciousness each time we fall of the wagon, is not the way forward.

The guilt will be there, and there's not much we can do to change that, we are all human. But part of yoga is about forgiving and allowing yourself small pleasures, whether they be in the form of an extra glass of wine, another slice of cake, or just taking a well-earned rest for a few days. Keeping your mind on your own satisfaction will undoubtedly facilitate your practice as a whole. Your life has levels of fulfilment, and if you rely solely on your 'moments on the mat' for these, then you will never fully succeed in achieving them. Yoga needs to be a well-rounded component which is in each aspect of your life, both on and off the mat. If what gratifies you is to relax with your friends over a nice calorific meal on a Saturday night, then that you must do. On the other hand, if you take your pleasure in a warm bath with a good book, then go for it. Your contentment is what yoga is about.

One of the Niyamas, in Patanjali's 8 limbs is Santosha, which is translated as Contentment. Santosha is often defined as not craving more than we have to achieve contentment. In other words, being happy with what you've got. But everyone is different, and we can translate Patanjali's work into our own daily affirmations and adapt them to our ideals. For me, Santosha is about balance, about maintaining a level of contentment in your life by indulging when necessary, and committing when needing to. You may have another version of Santosha for yourself, but for me, living by this formula encourages me to exude a balance of peace and happiness in my life, without feeling like I am denying myself any pleasures.

So, taking a break from yoga may be one of the ways you incorporate your Santosha (or maybe your Santosha just crept up on you in the form of a really good night out). Stepping back onto your mat you might feel a little more physically stiff than before, you might feel like your hard work has gone to waste. It hasn't. In fact, I think that taking a couple of days out is sometimes a useful tool to realise the benefits of yoga. Sometimes, when practising yoga regularly for a long period of time, the health and wellness benefits just become your life, and it can escape you to remember to credit the yoga for that.

Taking a couple of days out, and feeling the difference in your mind, body and spirit can encourage us to be reminded of the beauty and brilliance of yoga and how empowering it can be to bring it back into our lives, and bring ourselves back onto the mat. It will be daunting to bring yourself back after time away from your mat, but once you do, it's like you never left.

So inevitably, we will all fall off the yoga wagon, we all have that capacity; but equally we all have a strength and resolve to dust ourselves off, and climb back on. Yes we'll have a few cuts and bruises from the fall, but what better way to heal, than with yoga?

When falling off, we really only have one option. Just get back on.

Jessie Blackledge is yoga teacher based in Birmingham, UK. She is qualified in ashtanga and hatha yoga as well as pranayama, meditation and chanting. Jessie's classes mix ashtanga and hatha yoga, incorporating the breath into a series of therapeutic postures to create a meditation in motion.

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