At a yoga retreat a few years ago, a woman was humorously explaining that her 70 year-old dad had just “discovered” yoga. Apparently, he had a type AAA personality, very analytical, a physicist or engineer or something, and had found a yoga DVD and had became suddenly obsessed with doing all the poses “correctly.” “Can you do ‘The Downward Facing Dog,’” he said to his daughter who had announced casually that she was about to go on a yoga retreat. “Sure,” she said. “Well, let’s see,” he challenged. Without a mat or stretchy clothes, she got down on hands and feet and busted out her best Downward Facing Dog pose. “You’re not doing it right,” he corrected. “Your heels have to be touching the ground.” “Who Says?” she retorted. “The DVD! Look right here,” he said, showing her “proof” of a photo on the DVD’s case demonstrating some flexi-dude in Downdog with his heels on the floor.
To some degree I think we are all a little like this guy. When we discover something, begin a new discipline or philosophy, we try hard to define it by narrowing it down and distilling it to its essence: what it is and isn’t. But the more we learn about that discipline, we realize that it’s often inaccurate to define something so narrowly. When I discovered yoga, I felt that unless a yoga class had certain essential poses, it couldn’t be called yoga. I’ve matured a bit now. Now, my working definition of yoga has had to expand large enough to hold everything that I feel is encompassed in the word “yoga.” Now, my definition of yoga doesn’t mention poses at all. Here’s my current working definition (subject to change):
Yoga noun yo·ga \ˈyō-gə\
The process of discovering who I am through the method of listening.
Yoga cannot be defined merely by doing poses. It’s so much deeper than that and yet we need to discover that depth for ourselves. The poses (however they are done) are merely the vehicles to access something deeper and yet in and of themselves, they are a wonderful way of keeping us purified, strong, and focused. The poses are beautiful and fun and make you feel great. Perhaps in our experience with yoga we will discover that though the poses are fantastic, the practice is much deeper than just doing poses.
In fact, our ability to evolve and grow beyond our narrow definitions, I believe, ensures our viability as both as life-long students and teachers of all disciplines. B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the preeminent yoga teachers to ever influence the west, wrote what many feel is the definitive text on yoga asana principles called Light On Yoga. Once, when he was teaching and advanced workshop, a student pointed out to him, “That’s not what you said in your book.” To which Iyengar replied with a wry smile on his face and a glint in his eye, “That fool? He knew nothing!”
The idea of being able to accomplish a certain proficiency or depth of a pose in order to qualify as “succeeding” in yoga is misguided. Often you see pictures of yoga in the media of people doing outrageous poses, things that require inhuman flexibility or strength. There is nothing wrong with doing advanced asana (poses); they can be challenging and fun. But I’d like to redefine “advanced” poses and make a distinction between technical poses and advanced poses. A technical pose may be physically challenging, may incorporate several principles of alignment or muscular strength, balance, and or flexibility. The definition of “advanced” isn’t whether or not you can do an unassisted handstand with your knees bent and your feet touching your head, but rather how you self-direct each pose to match what you need. You could easily do a pose that is technical but not advanced or advanced and not technical. Challenging or technical or deep isn’t the goal for doing poses. We don’t need to stop doing outrageous poses for fear of showing off or because we don’t want people to think we are doing yoga for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, this is the also practicing for someone else. Simply we must not confound ability with enlightenment.
Every pose is a tool or medicine. The craftsman uses the right tool for the job. The finishing carpenter doesn’t brag that he can nail trim around a door using a sledge hammer. And who cares if you have to take 400 mg or 800 mg of Ibuprofen to manage your headache? It doesn’t matter as long as you get the job done without making yourself sick in the process. Poses as medicine is a great analogy because your “dose” of a yoga pose depends on who you are, what you are doing it for, your experience, your preferences—all of your needs. You don’t go to the doctor and expect to hear, “yeah, you’re messed up but the guy who came in here before you was REALLY messed up. You should take the same kind of medicine that we gave that guy.” Stupid, right? Why, then, would we perform our yoga poses the same pose as the next guy?
In other words, we don’t need to accomplish any poses to succeed at yoga. But we are competitive, with each other and with ourselves. And unfortunately, I often see or feel others practicing yoga in response to what they “should do” or what they could do last time they practiced or what they could do 10 years ago, or what their friend can do, etc. I suppose that’s what really gets us into trouble—when we confound our being with our doing. I heard once the phrase of a mistaken identity as a human doing rather than a human being. Yoga is about coming into the realization of our being. Nearly every time I have been injured in my yoga practice it’s because I’m not listening to my body or my being and I do a pose too deeply or at the wrong time or without sensitivity to what my body and being is saying. I’m injured because my dosage or my purpose is messed up.
I always say that we aren’t practicing poses, but rather we are practicing principles in the form of poses. We practice principles of alignment, muscular engagement, breath and energy work, principles of mindfulness—all as tools to slowly reveal the perfect being both in the outer form of our bodies as well as that mysterious part that lies beneath. This fact lets us off the hook from having to “perform” the poses. It says that there is no “right” way to do a pose. A teacher once told me that there isn’t correct or incorrect, only skillfull and not skillful based on who you are and what you need. Who cares if you can “do” a pose? I’ve been on both sides of the equation. When I began yoga I could not touch my toes. Now I can and I’m here to tell you that life isn’t any better now that I can; the heavens didn’t open and angels did not sing. And yet if there is a pose that I love to do, there’s also no reason not to if it brings me joy and makes me feel great.
In yoga class, I teach principles not so students will take my word for it or feel that they have accomplish something, or to know how to do a pose correctly. Rather, I teach these things as a way of helping each student tune in with increased awareness and clarity, so that they might pay attention and hear the voice of their true teacher, the one that is quietly speaking within their own heart. I find my role is to constantly point the student’s attention back to themselves.
So the next time someone tells you by mere fact of how your pose looks “you’re not doing it right,” you can turn the phrase back on them. If you are worried about how the pose looks then you’re not doing it right.
Here are a bunch of little phrases I came up with that I like to throw around in class.
- There is a yoga bill of rights and there is one right on the yoga bill of rights and that’s the right to suck at yoga.
- The only way to do this incorrectly is to do it the way your neighbor does it.
- We are not practicing poses but rather principles in the form of poses.
- I’ve decided that any pose I can’t do is overrated.
- Let the metric of a pose be “Awesome.” If it feels awesome, do it. Otherwise, find another way.
- It is not by effort that we find what we are searching for in our yoga practice. Rather by the judicious balance between steadiness and ease we place ourselves into the flow, into the current of our own evolution of body, mind, and spirit and find that through it we arrive somewhere much more profound than simply a deep pose. We arrive at the profound realization of our True Nature.