After years of study in several “styles” of asana and pranayama practice, I have become increasingly aware of the problem/trap that many of these standardized systems present. People come to yoga class for different reasons, but the experience that we have when we do and our ability to receive benefit from it is determined by the teachers we choose and how we use what they teach us. As the yogic forms are being adopted by the physical fitness industry and used for their purposes, the essence of practice is often being lost. This concerns me greatly.
Krishnamacharya teaches that yoga can be found in any chosen direction, course of action or object of observation, whether that be a seated meditation or a chocolate Entenmanns donut. Asana and pranayama just happen to be particularly fruitful vehicles for yoga because body and breath are our most tangible realities (granted some vehicles are more fruitful than others). Often it seems that people are practicing asana that do not serve them and in fact impose struggle and injury on the student.
Anyone who has practiced consistently for some time begins to recognize that how we work with our breath and body is very much a metaphor for how we go about life. If in our practice we are constantly struggling to attain something that is always in the future, carelessly throwing ourselves into positions that make us feel inadequate, then this is the pattern we are cultivating. If we teach ourselves to be measured, patient, and to experience joy in our breathing and moving exercises, then we create a model by which to do anything in this same way.
If an asana does not encourage grace, ease and well being in the student then perhaps this is not the right asana.
Again and again students come to my class after years of practice having never received any instruction on how to go about facing the challenges that asana presents or having received instruction that actually encourages them to hurt themselves in the name of “tapas” or “opening.” Often it is described as a cathartic experience to simply get through their practice and what a torture it is some days to do so and how this is all part of the practice, to use force and will to plow through overwhelming obstacles, striving to receive clarity or peace. This is not an asana experience that is leading one towards yoga. How we go about overcoming the obstacles in the present moment is the practice not where we will end up at some point in the unknowable future.
There is no linear progression to asana. No one pose is more advanced than another. To do a simple thing with ease, precision, and joy is infinitely more advanced then doing something complex without. To do something that hurts your body or in some way makes you feel inadequate is perhaps the most beginner thing you can do.
Rigorous work is useful, struggling and straining is not. Breath is the indicator. Is the quality of the breath calm or anxious, slow and smooth, or fast and furious? Ooh-jai pranayama (ocean-sounding breath) is an absolute must. Also facial expression can be helpful in determining appropriate practice. Is the face happy and playful or stern and self-defeating? Is the practice serving to facilitate patterns of behavior and thought that lead to happiness and well being or is it reinforcing existing patterns that keep us from it?
It is impossible to injure oneself practicing yoga. It is very easy to do so performing a posture. If one has injured oneself in practice then no yoga was happening and one ought consider modifying if not completely changing the asana or practice that caused the injury.
There seems to be a lot of misinformed teaching going on. It is often being taughtthat the body needs to be purified before it can receive enlightenment, and that the way to do that is to subject it to rigorous exertion. This implies that the body’s natural state of simply existing is in some way inadequate, that something is missing that must be attained through austerities. To make such an implication is an incredible act of arrogance, to call into question divine intelligence thus.
Advanced yoga practice actually has very little to do with breathing and moving exercises. The practiced yogi is nothing more than a person who is at ease with themselves and content in life. If one can achieve this then one is a yoga master. The purpose of Hatha practice is simply to maintain the proper functioning of the physical body, allowing for health and well being, and to provide a vehicle for developing the thought and behavioral patterns that allow us to be the people we would like to be.
If you are a disagreeable and unhappy person, who cares if you can do 3rd series Ashtanga-vinyasa?
By working in an incremental and gradual way , we teach ourselves to be less attached to achieving any particular outcome and instead learn to enjoy the process of what we are doing more. By learning some principles of practice and being given an opportunity to develop an attentiveness and intelligence of one’s own, the student no longer depends on going to a class to experience yoga. He/she becomes their own best teacher. It is then possible to find the practice that is best suited to one’s individual needs, situation, and desires.
One’s asana program must be allowed to breathe and change with the phenomena of one’s life. To stick to a set system as if it were a formula for “enlightenment”, to be enjoyed by only those capable of withstanding the torture of an unforgiving and inappropriate practice, is horribly silly and ultimately destructive.
The word “Yoga” is specific. It is not something we do, there are not different kinds, it is a simple fact. We experience it all the time. When we are kind to someone, we smile and say “hello”, this is a bahkti/karma yoga. When we read a book, play a sport or instrument or just sit around thinking, this is a raja yoga. When we put our mind on breath and body, this is hatha yoga. Nothing need be done in the external world in order to then deserve the title of beautiful or worthwhile for it is already given by birthright. The challenge we face in life is to honor this truth. The way we do this, honor our own inherent beauty and worth as humans, our yoga, is simply to find ways of enjoying ourselves while we are here. Whatever ideas, activities, or people that seem to facilitate a genuine experience of joy to you would therefore be preferable.
When we can recognize the inherent beauty and joy to simply being alive, obstacles are easier to overcome and life becomes a more celebratory phenomena.
May all beings be free from suffering,
May our practice contribute to peace,
May we have the strength and the courage to overcome any obstacles that lay before us.
OM TAT SAT