This week’s post is going to be an exploration of how the current controversies in the yoga community have impacted my personal thoughts and most importantly, my own personal practice. As I believe that asking questions is the best tool to learn and improve, the current conversations have proved to be nothing less than thought provoking.
The more I read and learn about what is happening within the yoga community, the more I have begun to question the parameters of my own definitions of, what is yoga? So many hot topics- from the examination of the function and purpose of poses and whether to even practice many, to instructor cueing issues and lists of injuries that long time yogis have reported. It is like yoga is having a sort of revolution within itself.
What is yoga for me?
Over time, my thoughts have changed and evolved in many ways, which I think happens naturally for any seeker of knowledge through experience and learning about a particular subject matter. What is yoga is sort of a big question and for me it has included bits from fitness, physiology, biology, philosophy, to experiential, existential, spiritual, and many sprinklings of meditation, questioning poses, purposes, I think you get the idea. It has become more difficult in my mind, as I see my own set of yoga “values” has been called into question. There are a certain set of tenants at the base of a belief in something that, if they come up for reevaluation, can cause a certain sort of anxiety and discomfort. Let’s define asana and what that has been for me, as you will see, the style I have identified with is really on one extreme end of the spectrum.
What is asana practice?
As a practitioner of Ashtanga yoga for about ten years now, there is generally a more rigid set of practice rules and ways of working through the practice in this method. Ashtanga is not the free flow, follow your heart, find your chakras kind of yoga. It is the same sequence, every day, only lengthening by adding on poses with strength and ability. You will experience many lessons, challenges and mind altering effects by way of practicing regularly over time. But it is a much more serious and rigid style than most. This is what asana has been for me, in a basic sense, and for the most part.
Like many things in my life when I started, Ashtanga was black and white for me. It has taken much time for the grey areas to emerge and here I am now pondering a very grey area. Seems a bit ironic, don’t you think? As Einstein said, “Information is not knowledge. The only source of knowledge is experience”. How do I take what I’m learning about and infuse it into my own practice? I’ve had to try out different things and see what works, experience them, to know what I can do.
How do I reconcile what I am learning with what I have been doing?
To be honest, the heart of my discord is the potential for injury. It has been a huge topic of debate, the “why” we do certain poses and linear movements in yoga. I have read that backbending is unhealthy, lotus leg poses are damaging to the knees, far too many poses are bad for the SI joints, bakasana is hard on the shoulders, the list goes on. I know that any sport or physical activity of any kind, done daily, has an increased potential for injury. Does this mean that my yoga is bad? I know that yoga is supposed to be healing, it is supposed to help make a strong body and respiratory system. It is supposed to help prepare our bodies and minds to then bring us closer to the devine, whatever that may be. Does it mean that we should only be doing meditation? and maybe the other limbs? and for asana- poses that are the least injury prone, so to speak? What would an Ashtanga practice look like with these rules? It seems difficult to imagine.
I have experienced injuries in the past. Most notably a back injury, mild neck strains, hamstring strains and wrist movements that didn’t feel right. Overall, what I noticed more recently was that if I really paid attention, which is actually very difficult to do every single day, I could observe when a movement I was doing would create a “weird” feeling. Like it didn’t feel quite right and at first it could be very slight. Each day it would get more noticeable until I did something about it. I would try different movements to correct the problem and each time I approached it this way, I think I basically avoided an injury. The times I have experienced minor aches since, has really been due to my inability to be completely mindful every day. In realizing this, I see that it has really been yet another lesson I have learned about myself and what I should be doing in my practice.
My practice is only at home at the present time. I am able to get an average of 5 practices in a week which is good enough for me. I have been slow to advance my series back to the last pose I have been given. Sometimes I go back and work up again if I feel a consistent weakness somewhere. I take time with poses if I get a feeling that I need to shift something in it. Basically, I have the perception that there is more freedom being on my own than being under the watchful eye of a teacher in the mysore room. I try to be really present and I think it has to do with the fact that I am alone. There is no teacher observing me. Just me. If I don’t observe me, no one is.
Here is how I reconcile the issues at hand~ I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong in doing any poses. This is my conclusion based on my own experiences. I have decided to pay closer attention to the actions of a pose than the “state of the asana” which tends to be the focus in Ashtanga. This is where the general shape of a pose is most important. For example, triangle pose: you must grab the big toe on the front foot. For me to do the action of the pose, which includes lengthening the lower side body and keep my body flat in a lateral plane (between the two sheets of glass) I can’t grab my toe. For years I have grabbed my toe and have gotten no closer to the final “state of the asana”. Now I feel some changes happening in this pose, focusing on the action instead and letting my pose look, well technically, wrong. I don’t really care. I have taken out things like chakrasana (a backwards somersault) for a period of time because I was tweaking my neck. You can’t do that in mysore! Well maybe you can, but I have never tried. There is nothing wrong with being mindful. I don’t think this changes my practice from being Ashtanga either.
I know that my ideas on this will change and evolve further, as I learn more about what is happening in the conversations about yoga and experience how I adapt and change my own practice as I see fit. The part I like best is that there are these types of questions freely being asked. More fuel to feed our inner fires! For us to grow and adapt yoga to our bodies and minds! Certainly no complaints will be coming from me! I love it all!
“The success of yoga must not be measured by how flexible your body becomes, but rather by how much it opens your heart.” — T.K.V. Desikachar.