“We begin practicing yoga postures in an effort to relieve suffering and find a way to meet life with less effort and more flexibility. Yoga is a path out of suffering. But what we find after our initial foray or honeymoon period is a matrix of psychological and physical holding patterns that have captured our minds and bodies within tightly conditioned parameters.”
A casual glance of the yoga scene paints an alluring picture: people in expensive clothes sweating to the beat of the teacher’s inspiring cues, simultaneously striving to achieve the “full version” of the posture the person next to them is making look easy. As the class ends, everyone comes off their mat smiling, commending the teacher for “a challenging session” and before leaving a few shout “thanks for pushing me.”
In this picture, yoga strikes a remarkable resemblance to a HiiT or spin class with the student expecting the teacher to push them to their edge. The class is laced with empowering verbal cues yet underpinned by the expectation that one must try, push in order to be better than what they are right now. The flush of serotonin is mistaken for inner peace.
Most people practising yoga have entered through the door marked ‘physical workout’. We arrive looking for something to make us feel physically and emotionally better. In yoga there’s a well-known honeymoon period that besieges all regular practitioners: the glossy, novel partner that makes us feel so good then starts to expose the sides of ourselves we don’t like. We start to see how competitive we are, how much we strive, or our lack of commitment to our emotional self. This is what yoga as a tool is designed to do, yet not all yoga is created equal.
Why is yoga different to say, running? Fundamentally, there is no difference for the same you is running through the woods and practising yoga, however, the technology of yoga has different aims therefore philosophy to running. Yoga is designed to reveal the inherent wholeness of our being and our interconnection with the universe. Asana, which is a small yet important part, is a practical way of working with our bodies to understand our inner terrain better. As we understand our inner terrain, we begin to notice a whole myriad of things: the movement of the elbow joint, the dormant anxiety in the gut, the restricted breath, and the critical inner rhetoric. It cannot be underestimated the power of yoga to reveal shadow sides - both positive and negative - that have until now remained unconscious. Yoga is a tool of awareness.
Yet, when our physical practice is too intense, we are unable to feel our whole self. The emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects are drowned out by the loudness of our physical exertion. If our aim is physical release, or avoiding our feelings then we’re in the right place, yet if we’re looking for a better understanding and embodying of who we are, then we need to tone down the physicality. Our practice becomes less self-flagellation and a space in which to weave together our multi-dimensional being with practices that nourish us. I’m reminded of a recent class whereby a student remarked “In my usual class, savasana is where I think about the glass of wine I’m going to have in the evening to chill out. After this class though, I’m relaxed at the end and want to read a book on the couch”. If our yoga class is leaving us craving a glass of wine because of its intensity, we need to ask: “Is this what I want from my yoga class?”
The wide-ranging understanding of yoga has seen varied manifestations of what it means to practice to yoga. One thing is clear though: the physicality of the practice is growing. What often constitutes yoga to most students and teachers is the amount of sweat generated and gymnastic feats accomplished - the degree to which its yoga is contingent upon the degree in which one pushes themselves.
If I sound critical, it’s because I am. I believe there’s a place for a sweaty, serotonin-filled workout yet in a yoga context it strikes me as dishonest. Dishonest because the class will be filled with ‘accept yourself’, ‘you’ve got this’ sentiments by the teacher who is more instructor and is then saying “the full version will look like this” which leaves those who can’t do it feeling less able. Dishonest because it’s more about handstands than feeling into oneself. Dishonest because it’s about how hard and fast one can go than finding out what our own rhythm is. Many yoga classes strike me as dishonest because it’s about how physical we can be as opposed to how can we jump off the constant pushing and discover our inner voice through mindful movement.
Yoga practiced in a manner that honours oneself is less about achieving the latest Instagram fad - I wonder what will replace handstands? - and feeling at home in our resplendent body, and bearing witness to the changing inner atmosphere that takes place on a day to day basis. We begin to separate the swallowed voices of our parents and society from our authentic voice. We become less what we’re expected to be and more of who we are right now in a genuinely more accepting and loving way.
“Self-study (swadhyaya), uncovers our strengths, authentic swadhyaya also ruthlessly uncovers our weaknesses, foibles, attachments, habit patterns, and negative tendencies.”
Donna Farhi, Yoga, Mind, Body & Spirit 2000