I often say, Yoga is so much more than Asana (the postural practice). I felt this after the very first class I took in college back in 1991. We did many Sun Salutations, many of the Warrior poses, and we balanced. The teacher guided us to move with our breath. At the end she had us lay on our backs in Shavasana, corpse pose. For a very, very long time. I cannot recall everything in detail, but I do remember the physicality of the class and having time to actually rest at the end. (What a concept!) Most importantly, I remember HOW I felt afterwards.
Overall, we are becoming more sedentary; we sit at our desks more, watch more TV (thanks a lot, Netflix), and sit/drive in cars for longer periods of time. So, it definitely behooves us to move our bodies and sweat. But are we missing the point if we turn our Yoga Practice into our daily exercise? With the continuing upward trend of social media, we can see how people come to see Yoga as much more of a purely fitness-oriented activity. There is this emphasis on exercise that misconstrues what the true purpose of Yoga practice is.
People come to Yoga classes (or don’t come for that matter) with an expectation of it being very different than what I’ve come to understand it as. For those who have practiced for a long time, Yoga often becomes a more compassionate, self-awareness, contemplative practice.
There was a huge, transformative, freedom when I separated these 2 activities: Yoga and exercise. I don’t know when or how it happened, but I’d say it was a gradual process that began about 3-4 years ago. There was a realization that I can exercise as a separate thing entirely (and still be a “good Yogi.”) I can move my body with a completely different intention in mind: to get my heart rate up or to simply sweat! I started adding other activities into my week that bring me joy: walking as the sun rises, jogging (again after a 7-year hiatus!) and hiking when I travel. This separation allows Yoga to be my little oasis where there are no preconceived notions of what a successful practice should be. Yoga gives me the opportunity to be more present and that means my practice is successful.
Last May, I was forced to come to terms with the aches in my lower back and hips. They began as subtle sensations which I pushed through and ignored for YEARS until I could no longer. Learning that it was sacral iliac joint instability (very common, by the way), I was in need of rebuilding strength in in areas of my body I believed I was doing in my daily Yoga (Asana) practice. What I came to learn was that the type of Asana practiceI was doing was actually making my situation much worse. I worked with an incredible Physical Therapist and am forever indebted to her. I had already begun a long hiatus from my regular Vinyasa practice as it just wasn’t feeling good in my body any longer. It’s funny how my body intuitively knew I needed to shift how I practiced. (Therefore, my teaching shifted). The actual reprieve from the type of Asana I thought I should be doing WAS my Yoga practice.
Now, my daily exercise is a handful of PT movements and walking 2.5 miles, whereas my Yoga practice is something else entirely. Since I took the pressure off that it also needed to be my physical exercise, Yoga is so much richer. It is a way to tend to my body’s needs, yet so much more.
I love how Yoga teacher, Cora Geroux talks about it:
Relate it to a relationship: (similar to) that you cannot get everything from one person. So, stop putting pressure on one person to be everything and when I stopped putting pressure on it to be everything, my workout, my spiritual practice and my way of cultivating strength and flexibility and I took the pressure off it and allowed it to be whatever it was in that moment, it became something I looked forward to. It wasn’t something I needed to check off my list.
Keep in mind, I AM an advocate for physical Asana practice. I do it myself, I teach it, but it serves a purpose. I now recognize that my Asana practice is done on a need to do basis. This boils down to discipline. (Also known as Tapas, in Sanskrit). My discipline, then, is to only do the right amount for that day. The start of my Yoga practice is assessing what I need. One day I might feel good, so it’s to my benefit to challenge myself. But there are many other days where that is not the case. It’s important for me to practice without irritating my SI joint so the discipline is being able to set a boundary and work within the boundary that I set. Not so easy! Sometimes, I’ll reluctantly admit, I’m not taking the adequate time to pause and really figure out what my body needs and I push more than I should. This is my work. Setting the boundary becomes the discipline, my Yoga practice.
Every day I practice Yoga and each day it looks different. Some mornings (after my PT exercises) I may work on moving my spine in all 5 directions and other days I restoratively support my body with bolsters and blankets. My body may call for very little movement, yet covets only breathwork and meditation. Like I said, I am an advocate of the physical Asana practice. But when it’s about challenging your body to accomplish the physical forms it is no longer Yoga (to me). In class, I often talk about how I know many people who can bend down and touch their toes or who can balance in the most intricate and aesthetically pleasing poses, yet still be miserable human beings!!! Just because you can do poses, simply means: You can do poses.
Judith Lasater says, Cultivating a deep listening is what Yoga is about. My practice is very much about my mind and myself in this life. It’s the bigger questions. It’s what makes Yoga unique. It’s about not feeling as if I’m doing it right or wrong. I have learned that it has to be more about what doing the poses does for you as a person…and that can’t really be measured by anyone but YOU.
My hope is to contribute in my own small way, to convey my understanding of Yoga; not just Asana, but the understanding of the deeper truths that Yoga attempts to answer.