I sometimes think of yoga as the practice of exploring the nearly impossible.
All these crazy postures: they seem impossible, but someone has achieved them, so that means they actually ARE possible. One of my first big conceptual breakthroughs in my yoga practice was replacing "can't" with "haven't" when referring to my abilities both on and off the mat. "Can't" means to me that it is outside of my abilities, now and forevermore. "Haven't" implies that it just hasn't happened yet. When "I can't go into the splits" became "I haven't gone into the splits" a door of possibility opened that I could pass through.
Henry Ford said: "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right".
I like saying "can't" either means "I don't want to", or "I don't know how"
Through my practice I've learned that I pretty much always hit a mental limitation before I hit a physical limitation - which on one hand is a good thing as it's kept me from getting injured. On the other hand it's kept me from full freedom. Many of you have seen me assist someone fold into a pose "as far as comfortable." After checking they believe they're at their limit, I ask them to back out strongly, then again invite them to fold back in - where they reliably find a much deeper "as far as comfortable." This demonstrates that their mind stopped their body in the first attempt well before they reached what their body was actually capable of experiencing easeful comfort in - leaving them with the appearance of a limitation where it didn't exist.
I'd like to mention the opposite case as well: people who hit the physical limitation before their minds cotton on to the reality of the limitation. Their minds might say something like: "oh, I'm used to that tearing sensation in my shoulder, it's no big deal." Their body is trying to send them a signal to watch out and their mind is overriding it and giving them the go-ahead.
It is important to understand the dangers and be mindful of them as we practice. Here's how:
Consider a stop sign. It's job is to warn you about the possibility of cross traffic. A British comedy show once had a man pose as a traffic warden approaching people stopped at stop signs: "You can't park here," he'd say, as he started writing them a parking ticket, keeping them at that stop sign unnecessarily long.
Our muscles wisely grip to prevent injury. Those signals from your body - the resistance - stop there, but don't park there. Stop and feel and let that moment teach you about potential danger.
- Perhaps there's a fear of falling: Find your balance, does that ease your body's concern?
- Perhaps it's a fear of injury from pulling, tearing, straining your muscles. Double check: are the bones seated well in their joints? Does that ease your self-preservation system?
Yes? Have fun. No? Still have fun right where you are from within your comfort zone. Let go of your attachment to achieving anything that day and meditate on how you are responding to the moment life is offering you right in the position you're already in.
To paraphrase Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: "asana (posture) is comfortable stability in the body, free from tension, where you can meditate on the infinite". The posture practice exists for you to expand your range of what's comfortable and stable, not push you outside of it.
Mediating where you are, whether or not you achieve the ultimate form of the posture (as if there was one), is great yoga.
SO - attempt the nearly impossible, it's great fodder for your yoga practice.