“And this is one of the major questions of our lives: how we keep boundaries, what permission we have to cross boundaries, and how we do so.” – A. B. Yehoshua
When I step onto my mat at the start of our yoga class each week, I feel as if I’m stepping into sacred space.
The edge of my mat forms the boundaries of a place where I can take risks without fear of failing, explore the inner workings of my heart at my own pace, and exhale in harmony with my breath, knowing that I am in the safest of places.
This sense of safety is cultivated by our teacher, who invites us to arrange our mats in a certain way–mats in the front row aligned with the mats in the back row, each mat set so that the front of each mat lines up with the front edge of the mats on either side.
He sets up safe boundaries between teacher and student, as well. If he wants to demonstrate a pose during class, for instance, he won’t simply barge onto a student’s mat. He’ll ask permission from the student first and wait for an invitation to step onto the mat.
Establishing these boundaries of respect is an important element of our yoga practice. And I was surprised when I attended a yoga class at a different studio to discover how casually students (and teachers) stepped on the mats of other students as they made their way across the room, unaware of their intrusion into another person’s space.
Over the past few weeks I’ve found myself thinking about boundaries–boundaries between students and teachers; boundaries between leaders and their communities; personal boundaries; familial boundaries; communal boundaries–and how these boundary-lines impact our lives.
What’s the purpose of boundaries, I’ve asked myself, and what does yoga have to teach us about boundaries and the consequences of crossing them?
What, exactly, is a boundary?
Here’s what the dictionary says:
Boundary – 1. a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line. 2. a limit of a subject or sphere of activity.
Limit – a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass.
So, the essential nature of a boundary is an unspecified area marked in some way as limited, divided from other areas by a line (visible or invisible). And if you cross that line, you exceed the limit (of expectations or behavior).
But this definition only raises more questions about what yoga can teach us about boundaries and what we need to learn. How can we establish clear boundaries, for example, and preserve limits? And how can we know when we’ve crossed an invisible line into prohibited or forbidden territory?
And more questions: Do boundaries help preserve our sense of identity and provide security, or do they merely make us feel trapped, isolated, enclosed?
In our daily lives we’re surrounded by limits–speed limits, term limits, weight limits, height limits, sentencing limits. The moment we step in a car, board a plane, or serve on a jury, we confront limits, and it’s for our benefit that we must learn to live within them.
The same is true for boundaries. We’re surrounded by them, although sometimes boundaries–personal boundaries, communal boundaries, familial boundaries–are indistinctly drawn and a bit shadowy, which makes them harder to see, and, hence, more difficult to observe.
How does our yoga practice help us explore boundaries and limits? Our mats may help us establish boundaries in terms of personal space, but what about the poses? How does a pose like Downward Dog or Half-Moon, for instance, help us create–or more clearly define–the boundaries that are meaningful to us?
The next time you hear someone encouraging you to test boundaries, push the edge, exceed the limits, perhaps you’ll take a moment to pause before pushing forward, and ask yourself if the boundary is an arbitrary limit or a helpful reminder of how you want to live your life.
Each week in our yoga class, I welcome the boundaries that my teacher sets for the class because, ultimately, these boundaries help us create a place of safety, a sanctuary within which we can explore our practice week after week.
The questions below are offered in the hope that they will help you explore boundaries in new and meaningful ways. Why not take a few minutes before you begin your asana practice today to review the list, pick one (or more) to consider, and then spend some time thinking about the question as you do your practice. Afterward, spend ten minutes exploring the question (or questions) in your journal.
1. Can you identify five boundaries or limits within which you live your life? Why are they necessary (or superficial)? What would happen if you didn’t have these boundaries in your life?
2. What are communal boundaries and how do they function? Describe the boundaries of your yoga community. Are they necessary boundaries? Why or why not?
3. How is being part of a kula like being part of a family? What are the boundaries that you expect to be observed within your kula/family?
4. How would you describe your personal boundaries? Can you define them? What would it take for you to change these boundaries? Or cross these boundaries into new–and possibly forbidden–territory?
5. Are boundaries helpful or do they pose a hindrance? How do you preserve or re-establish your boundaries when someone intrudes into your space?