You Must Contract in Order to Expand

Getting on a yoga mat or trying a new workout class—or even trying out a new piece of equipment in the gym—can leave even the most expert gym goer a little nervous. Even when we know that practicing yoga can benefit our mind, body and spirit, or that trying the new machine at the gym can move us beyond a plateau, we experience a moment of hesitation.

At that moment, each of us has a choice: To stay in the contraction—in the moment of hesitation—and retreat into the depths of our comfort zone, or to take a deep breath and step out into the unknown. In the moment that we step into the unknown, we expand. We expand physically, in that we open new doors to physical possibility, but also mentally: We expand what once was a limited way of thinking or viewing a particular situation.

In Baptiste Yoga, we have three foundational practices. There are the physical poses (asana, the practice); there is meditation, which gives access to being present and awake; and self-inquiry, where we are always in the dance of the contraction and expansion.

The practice of self-inquiry

Self-inquiry is a powerful tool for growth, from a physical perspective, but it also shows up in all areas of life. On our yoga mats, every breath is an opportunity to be in inquiry, to be open to what the practice has to offer, to be open to new experiences and sensations in the body and to be open to meeting thoughts that come up during the practice. Inquiry makes our practice fresh and interesting as a creation of our body, our breath and the present moment. Inquiry gives us access to each moment as brand new, makes us curious about what we are going to encounter there, and gives us access to expansive possibilities.

We get pulled out of inquiry at times when we decide that something is true about our body, for example: “I have tight shoulders, so I can’t do wheel pose.” That way of thinking immediately pulls us out of inquiry. It causes a contraction in how we view our body and, in that moment, we shut the door on any new experience in the pose because our mindset is “I already know.” So we shrink back.

But the practice of meditation (seeing things as they are and as they are not, in the present moment) and inquiry on the yoga mat give us the freedom to expand beyond our self-limiting beliefs about our bodies—and maybe, to expand our self-limiting beliefs about ourselves. This is where we can realize that our experience in a particular pose yesterday does not dictate the experience we have today. Off the mat, it opens us up. The things that happen to us don’t necessarily have to define us.

What expands must contract

It’s not sustainable to always be in a state of expansion. It’s a powerful practice to allow contraction. Contraction allows us to establish a foundation—physically in our feet on the ground, and mentally in what’s really important to us—and then make an intentional choice to expand out to new physical possibilities and beyond.

Your breath is a perfect example of this at every moment. Your inhalation is a contraction in, and as you exhale you expand out. Each is important, and each gives you access to a new and different experience. Yoga is the practice of experiencing both fully: The inhalation and the exhalation, the balance of effort and ease, and the experience of contraction and expansion.

So when you feel the pause, the slight restriction due to a contraction before you try something new, know that it’s not a signal to turn around or to give up. It is an opportunity to make a choice with intention. Do you stay in the contraction? Or do you expand? Yoga is an amazing stand-alone practice, but it is also a great way to cross-train and complement other work that you may be doing. It cultivates functional strength and functional flexibility of both the body and the mind.

Join us at Baptiste Yoga for a class or at a training soon!

Photo credit: Rob and Julia Campbell, Stocksy