Challenging the Challenge
How far hatha yoga actually balances the individual depends on the willingness to see which aspects are embraced and which are denied. The essence of yoga is longevity and energy sustaining, whereby an asana practice balances out the inherent yang and yin energies to create harmony within the personality.
In a culture where ‘work hard or go home’ is prevalent, it’s not surprising to see that many asana practices are becoming increasingly fast-paced with scant attention paid to stabilising what is unstable. Cultivating stability is traded for pushing boundaries. I speak from personal experience as I had such a practice; when I began to develop my own sequencing, influences naturally came from ‘one movement, one breath’. I taught how I thought people expected to be taught. The result? Little emphasis on the subtle, more emphasis on what can be achieved through gross effort.
Physically, this can be viewed through the large and small muscle groups. I see in my shoulder stability how I try to use those already strong large muscles (pecs, trapezius, lats) to overcompensate for the neglected small muscles (rotator cuff). In a fast-paced, multiple inversion, arm balance extravaganza, there’s little appetite or time to focus on what’s actually going on and ask: Where is this coming from? If I turn down the volume on my trapezius, can I still do the movement? What other movement would be more beneficial right now?
Mentally and emotionally, slowing down is usually more of a challenge than revving up. The culture demands bigger, better, harder, and physical culture – of which yoga asana is part of – demands the same progressive attitude. Naturally humans want to progress and adapt, but progression as an ends in itself? There’s a contradiction to hatha yoga’s actually aim which is to peel away to allow the individual to live harmoniously and for self-realisation.
To realise Self is to peel away all that is not Self. Identity, norms, values, likes, dislike, attachments, aversions – this is what the tool kit of yoga is there for, not to further entrench that which is already a strong inclination.
Within my own practice, I got to a point where I thought ‘Why am I imposing this upon myself? Where is this attitude underlying this practice stemming from?’ My answer: doing and perfectionism, two traits I already excelled in. Of course yoga had allowed my to come to this realisation, but the tools I was using were now only entrenching and not releasing.
In teaching, I understand that students want to be challenged. Of course they do, we all like a bit of challenge. But wrapping a leg behind your head, or/and dangling from one arm or powering through the hundredth vinyasa are not the only means of a challenge. Boot-camping the way through a class is not the only, or dare I say, most effective way of peeling away the layers for it’s fraught with expectation of what the end product is. It is the ego mind that is expecting, yet it cannot understand Self for it can only be experienced when the ego-ic mind is suspended.
Listening to how movements prompt an internal rhetoric, feelings of silliness or inadequacy through a wave or pulsation of the body can be incredibly challenging to our ego, coordination, and beliefs of what yoga asana ‘should be’. As can including additional resistance through light weights exposing underused muscles, reliance on flexibility, and once again, challenging what constitutes yoga. Or the breathing pattern can be looked at. There are many ways to keep the challenge but change the emphasis, and loosen the ties of expectation as it is expectation that keeps the possibilities at bay, the eyes closed, and the person in a locked-down version of who they are, and what they do.
And I can’t say it’s not been a challenge to confront expectations of what an ‘advanced’ class looks like. Numbers drop, people come and go, and yet I can only teach yogic principles that are weaved through sound biomechanic, non-linear, functional movement with utmost regard to meeting the body where it is now. Not where the mind wants it to be, but where it is right in that moment.
Yoga is about knowledge (Jnana) and self-inquiry (Svadhyaya), but this becomes impossible if the same mindset and practice is applied. A different destination will not be reached if the same route is always taken.