Humans are programmed to see the negative. It's an evolution thing. If we're aware that there is strong evidence of a sabre-toothed tiger (above, not to scale) in the living room then we can prepare ourselves to take evasive action. Forewarned is forearmed, and all that. You can put your breakables up on a high shelf and take up the rug. No damage done.
But what if, every time you get home, you presume there will be a sabre-toothed tiger swiping everything off the mantelpiece with its nine inch eyeteeth? To be safe, you'd have to keep your precious things in a box and plastic sheeting over the sofa at all times, never getting to enjoy your living room and dooming your arse to a perennial sweat rash. What's the point of even having a living room, you may finally ask yourself, if there's the chance that a 600lb Smilodon has called bagsy on the remote control?
So you decide to lock the door against the possibility and never go in there again. You can't. You avoid it. There is simply nothing to be done.
Stemming from several conversations over the the last couple of weeks, I've become interested in the notion of "can't" and how we use it. With direct reference to asana practice, there are two types I hear in class.
The Just-in-Case Can't (aka The Sabre-Toothed Can't)
"I can't touch my toes."
"I can't balance on one leg."
Or its derivatives:
"I've never been able to jump."
"Even as a child, I couldn't sit cross-legged."
"My whole family has dodgy knees." (They do, actually.)
The Just-in-Case Can't is bandied about like a crucifix, only instead of warding off an undead Christopher Lee (legend) we use it to ward off the possibility of failure, humiliation, and of not feeling good enough. If we say we can't do something, we're building in permission not to try. Because, well, we just can't right?
This is the sort of can't that yoga loves. Yoga laughs in the face of can'ts like these because yoga knows that it's us feeling human and frail and scared. Yoga teaches us to accept our body exactly as it is, to not wish wistfully for what it once was, or could do, or for what it will never be. It teaches us to tune out those thoughts and tune into what our body feels about what it can or can't do. Usually there's a huge disparity between the two.
Which brings us to the second, rarer, type of can't.
The Factual Can't (aka The Suck It Up Can't)
When talking asana, The Factual Can't could arguably be conceived as more valid than the Just-in-Case Can't. However, it also requires monumental effort and attention to avoid a psychic downer when it hits you.
No matter what the most ardent asana practitioner tells you ~ and you can spot them a mile off, high on the smell of Lycra with too-bright eyes and a selfie stick surgically attached to their hennaed hand ~ there are poses that you will never be able to do.
I'll repeat it because it's important: there are poses that you will never ~ ever ~ be able to do. Your skeleton, the proportion of elastic fibres in your muscles, age, injuries, operations and illnesses are the final arbiters of whether you can drop into Hanumanasana or do that funky bind. Fact.
As we move and breathe through our asana practice, we need to learn to move and breathe through the running commentary in our head, to exhale away the frustration and anger when our body resists our will. This is where yoga exists. That point where mind, body and spirit meet ~ where everything is balanced and equal.
So what if you can't hold Warrior III at the moment? If you are breathing and present, you are doing yoga.
So what if you can't step forward or jump through? If you are breathing and present, you are doing yoga.
So what if you can't kneel? If you are breathing and present, you are doing yoga.
So what if you fall out of Tree Pose. If you are breathing, present and laughing, you are doing yoga.
Yoga is not the imposition of our will and desire over the body. Yoga is turning down the volume of our mind's genetic negativity so that we can hear our body speak to us and, uniting with the breath, respond with honesty. Our body is our home; it is on our side. It is not an agent of evil or a sabre-toothed tiger that needs holy water or polythene sheeting covering the chaise longue.
Our body isn't a "can't", even when there are poses it is unable to do. Because look at everything it does, day in, day out, smoothly and with quiet magnificence, busy keeping us alive here on this brilliant planet. Our body does its very best for us and so we must do our very best for our body. In our yoga classes, let us use those props, take the modifications, sit things out. These are not signs of failure or low mental fortitude. These are kindnesses and love, of which we are worthy.