Don’t be put off by images of yoga, with impossible postures and exotic locations. The real purpose of yoga is not to gain gymnastic ability, and air miles, but to access deeper truths about who you are, and to develop a strength of being that is attainable by anyone, regardless of age or physical prowess….
There is a common misconception that yoga is for the flexible, the fit, the slim and the beautiful. There are so many people in the world today who could benefit from the practice of yoga, and yet they are afraid to try, already defeated by the glamorous images they see on magazine covers, or social media feeds. Images of young, thin, muscular, people in expensive yoga clothing, their bodies contorted into gravity defying postures. If only they knew that this is not what yoga is all about.
While it’s true that advanced postures can be a result of yoga practice, many of the images you see depict postures that are achievable for some bodies, but certainly not for all bodies. They also show only one side of yoga, the side you can see. The truth is that yoga is primarily about something you can’t see, about something you can only feel, and to be fair, this doesn’t make for a very engaging Instagram feed!
Sadly, this tendency to focus on the visual end result of years of dedicated daily practice skews the image of yoga. It begins to look like something that is unattainable, or worse, it sells an image of yoga as something to be achieved, and not simply something to be done. In attaching conditions to practice, in making it feel like you are not “doing yoga” if you are not constantly progressing towards, or mastering, harder and more challenging physical postures, is to do yoga a great disservice.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali outlines the basic teachings of yoga in a series of sutras, or observations about what yoga practice is. Within these 196 observations on yoga, the practice of asana, or physical posture, is mentioned only twice. That’s right. Two sutras out of 196 are referring to actual physical yoga postures. Even more interesting is what they say.
The first of these two sutras, II.46: Sthira sukham asanam, encourages us to find a place in our practice that is filled with ease while being steady and stable. Basically, don’t try too hard! The second, II.47: Prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam, advises that if we apply a correct amount of effort, in time our practice will become easier, and contemplating the infinite will stop our minds from focusing on whether or not we are succeeding. In other words, with yoga there is no succeeding, only doing, and in applying the wrong amount of effort, for example too much, things may only appear to become easier.
What the glamorous images don’t tell you is that behind many gravity defying postures is a world of physical pain – too many practitioners with back pain, shoulder pain, hip, knee, or wrist pain. It’s not unusual for injury and, or pain to result from physical activity, particularly activity that uses the body in challenging, repetitive, or extreme ways – and of course the same is true of yoga. The difference lies in perception. Where it is fully acknowledged that injury can result from engaging in running, football, martial arts, or dance – or any other physical activity, for some reason the same logic does not always apply to yoga practice. We think that yoga, with its image of healing, is not capable of harm. Yoga practitioners often blame themselves for succumbing to pain rather than accepting that pursuing advanced yoga postures may be somewhat responsible!
So, don’t look to images of impressive yoga postures for examples of enlightenment, where all too often the practitioners are so focused on achieving that they miss the very point of the yoga they faithfully practice. If we revisit the yoga sutras for a moment, we will find at the very beginning sutra 1.2: Yogas citta vritti nirodah which tells us that yoga is practiced to still of the fluctuations of the mind. The fluctuations of the mind refers to the uncontrollable whirlwind of thoughts that we are all familiar with, to our tendency to worry about past or future events, to the uncontrollable desires that stop us from appreciating what we already have, or the giving in to ego that restricts our ability to be humble and compassionate. These fluctuations can be visualised as the ripples in a pond, moving outwards from the point of disturbance and fading, over time, until they become still.
When approached with careful, and non-results oriented consideration, yoga is a wonderful healing tool. It moves the body through a range of movement that it would otherwise not receive, mobilising joints, releasing muscular tension, improving muscular tone, and working connective tissues that have become unhealthy through over or under use. If, when moving the body through a healthy range of motion, we can keep our minds from thinking, instead staying focused on the simple sound of our breathing, then we are truly engaging in the practice of yoga.
If you are wondering whether you can do yoga, please be assured that you can. Just find the right class, and the right teacher, where you are provided with space and encouragement to explore and grow. Beginner, or advanced you will learn that the movement is secondary to the subtler elements of breath and meditation. As a beginner, your movement will match your ability. As a more advanced practitioner your movement will also match your ability. Your ability for movement will change progressively the more time you spend in practice. Who knows, maybe your journey will end in handstands, or maybe it won’t, and you know what, that’s ok.