There’s a big furore in Yoga-Land, over that NY Times article about how yoga can wreck your body. Well, sure it can. Anything done badly can. I am, as you know, walking proof that yoga injuries can happen. When I was young and inexperienced, and did the initial damage to my SI joints, I can say my teacher was partly to blame: she, too, was young and inexperienced and couldn’t ‘see’ what was going on in my body. Ditto that teacher in Bali. But I allowed that situation, and I take responsibility there!
I really enjoyed Bernadette Birney’s response to the NYT article. In it she talks a bit about yogis & advanced asana:
I also like to do advanced asana sometimes. It’s joyful. It’s challenging. It’s fun. I don’t do it to stay strong and limber. I do it simply because I want to, for the love of it. Advanced asana practicioners are–among other things–elite athletes. Elite athletes sometimes get injured.
She reminded me of a quandary I faced a while back, when a student told me she wanted to learn to do Wheel Pose.
‘OK,’ I’d replied, ‘I will teach you how to get there. But you know yoga’s not just about that, right?’
‘Yes it is.’
I didn’t even know how to respond.
Noooooooooo! I wanted to say. It’s an EXPRESSION of the joy of a healthy, happy, strong body. Expression, not goal.
But how do you differentiate, when you are swamped by images of yogis doing the flashy sh*t? Yogis like me!
Here’s the thing: the practice of yoga is a very effective way to bring on the ‘flow-state’.
According to Wikipedia (bless their awesome):
Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.
To get into flow, there needs to be an element of challenge, and learning to do poses you can’t yet do can provides that challenge.
(So can learning to breathe properly, but that’s subtler and less exciting.)
It’s got me to thinking.
Well, if I’m honest, it’s got me to worrying. Does doing flashy shit give the wrong impression? Does it lead people to believe that that’s what we are all about? Despite having the ‘wrong’ body for yoga – just ask my friend Ananda – I can do some circus monkey stuff, and sometimes I do. It’s fun, it can be creative, and it looks cool in photos.
I will teach fancy poses too, if the class warrants it.
I always tell my students that although the circus monkey poses are fun, they are not necessarily going to get you into an experience of YOGA. Often, that happens in the quiet times when it’s just you and your breath, and you are in Child Pose.
So how about that student who has a long way to go before doing Wheel safely, but who thinks that the gymnastic part of yoga is the whole point?
I asked her to write an essay about what yoga meant to her. I figured that would clarify for us both what she wanted out of her yoga practice, and I would then know whether I could be of any use to her.
She wrote a beautiful piece about intention, and realised that Wheel is representative for her, of a place she was once, but isn’t anymore. A place she wants to return to. Ahhhhh. Magnificent.
So it wasn’t about actually doing the pose, for the sake of the pose, but rather about what it represents, and the discipline, challenge and practice it takes to get there. Flow, basically.
This message,I think, gets a bit lost when you are looking at the photos of the flashy poses.
I love looking at pictures of other people in fancy yoga poses. But to me, they are just pictures of people with unusually bendy, strong bodies, doing cool stuff. It’s not necessarily something I aspire to or that impacts my world. I often practice very gentle yoga, because that’s what I need.
It’s the same with fashion magazines: I do read them, I enjoy their vacuity sometimes, but those models? May as well be giraffes for all the similarity they bear to me. Therefore, I find them neither aspirational nor threatening.
What do you guys think?
Do the pictures of fancy yoga (possibly in hotpants) make you feel inspired? Alienated? Something in between?
Do you wish yoga was portrayed differently?