In my last entry I reflected upon some of my own unconscious motives for practice and my recent insights about my own blindspots in terms of the culture of practice, performance, pressure and even my own participation in aspects of the dysfunction. The funny thing about blindspots is that we can’t see them until they are no longer blindspots. Once seen, the former blindspots can become conscious patterns to work with, but until then, many of the ideas and behaviors that may be obvious to others are simply the things to which we are blind. The process of learning to see the fullness of who we are takes time and as they say in the 12-step communities “more will be revealed.”
Sometimes the revelation of “more” is personal and sometimes the revelation of “more” has to do with the cultural or communal aspect of our lives. We may get more information about our physical limits and capacities. We may gain insight into our emotional workings. Intellectually, we may outgrow our ideas and gain new understandings. Failure to see something at any given time is not a failure of insight and reflection as much as it is a natural part of growth. Evolution typically involves being merged with one’s beliefs and ideas, breaking the ties of identification and indoctrination and then learning to both transcend and include the old ways in new, hopefully more integrated ways of being and functioning. (Identify, dis-identify, transcend, include, integrate.)
Who we were before and how we saw things along the way was not necessarily a mistake, even if, as time goes by, our former positions change. If I had a growing child who needed new clothes for school this year, I wouldn’t shame them for having needed a smaller size last year. In the same way, as I grow, I do my best to look fondly, rather than critically, on the terrain I have traveled, even if that terrain or my approach to it is no longer right for me and even if I have come to disagree radically with my former stance.
One of my current pet peeves is the phrase that goes “Well, if they were a real yogi then (insert some ideal standard of perfection here) such as “they would have seen these issues sooner” or “they wouldn’t be so desperate for approval” or “they would be nicer, more compassionate and less complicated.” I can’t tell you the number of times I hear variations on the theme of “If they were really doing yoga, then (insert some ideal standard of perfection here)” as though having a yoga practice and daring to teach people some aspect of the practice means that the yoga practitioner/teacher would no longer have their own very real, complex and highly-messy-at-times process of growth and development. I know I came to the practice because I needed it, not because I was well-suited for it or because I was very good at it.
So there is that.
And as far as advanced poses go, I have no real issue with them or with practicing them. (After my last post, I got more than one email from students on this point exactly.) First of all, we can not even define “advanced poses” adequately because what is extreme to one body is not extreme to another. One person may be perfectly “safe” with trikonasana and another person may have massive hip aggravation from this seemingly basic posture. Even innocent instructions like “sit comfortably on the floor” or “rest and relax lying down” are fraught with troubles because many practitioners find sitting on the floor difficult and lying flat on their back even worse. So, the issue gets complicated and exhausting pretty easily and we haven’t even put our legs behind our heads yet.
Personally, I think it is somewhat safe to assume that yoga is dangerous and somewhat dangerous to assume that it is safe. I do not think that “good alignment” or “great instruction” or “smaller classes” or “more mindfulness” is any guarantee that anyone will be 100 % safe in a yoga practice, although those things probably help in most cases. I personally wish we could move the conversation away from the safe/not-safe discussion to a discussion of risk-management, cost-to-benefit ratio and personal goals in yoga.
And while I am wishing for things, I wish we could eradicate the claims that these poses are actually good for us. I mean, they might be. But they might not be. For many people the poses have great therapeutic value. For many people, the poses have proved harmful. Sometimes harm came immediately. Sometimes harm came over a long period of time, which is even harder to unravel. Old-school thinking often suggests that if the practitioner gets hurt it is their fault somehow or the teacher’s fault or the postures’ fault. In my opinion, injury is not something to look at from the vantage point of blame and fault because many factors contribute to both healing and injury. And in my observation and experience, blame and fault-finding tend to stop intelligent inquiry. A lot more could be said on this.
The poses have risk. That much is clear. Of course they do. Life has risks. Activity has risks. Not moving has risks. (But I digress. Sorry, small rant.)
So- before you read this entry as yet another treatise on the “dangers of yoga” and as another person “worried about people getting hurt in yoga” I want to be very clear that I am not saying that at all. I am just adding my two cents to the narrative as a follow-up to my last post. What I meant to communicate in my last post had nothing to do with whether people should or shouldn’t practice advanced postures, I was simply musing on some of my previously unexamined reasons for pursuing them in the first place and the dynamics of “advancement” in which I was blindly participating and perpetuating.
For the record, I don’t intend to stop balancing in handstand or start pretending that I do not like to practice drop-backs. I am not going to frantically delete pictures of me in difficult postures from my Facebook profile or start peppering my Instagram feed with photos of me looking blissful in tadasana and savasana as a way to make up for the many ways my own process has inconsistencies and contradictions. I have said it before and I will say it again, the kind of teaching work I do is a bit like growing up in public and I look better in some moments than I do in others. And let’s face it, no one will look that great under a microscope in bright light. Seriously, if nothing else, I hope that by sharing my own blunders I can enter a plea for compassion among the ranks of fellow students and teachers out there. And again, while I am wishing for things, my wish for us as a larger community is that we can relax the scrutiny and fault-finding so that a deeper inquiry can emerge. Of course, none of that is easy.
And while I am going on record, I personally feel like my asana practice has been highly beneficial. And it has had costs. I would examine the cost-to-benefit ratio at this juncture as a pretty good trade-off, with the benefits far outweighing the costs. That is me. My last post was to say plainly and clearly that after many years of practice and teaching it is abundantly obvious that my story is not the story of everyone. Some people, in examining the cost-to-benefit ratio of their own efforts had a different outcome. And the difference in the ratio is generally not because they didn’t try hard enough, they were not worthy or that they were lacking in some fundamental sincerity or skill. Same efforts simply do not yield same results. All too often I have heard teachers say “If you just try hard enough you will be able to….” or “If you had paid attention you would not have gotten injured ….” or fill in the blank with some other ideal of practice-based perfection as though outcomes from efforts are consistently guaranteed.
Even my own reflections on getting my teacher’s attention might seem to imply that I think there was something wrong with those motives when in fact, I think nothing of the sort. Sure, I could wish that I had been more mature than I was at various times along the way. I could pretend that I had this deep, abiding relationship with myself that was unshakeable and that I was able to be self-validating from the git-go. It would sound awesome to say that I was able to come to my teacher’s classrooms full of self-confidence.
But that wasn’t me. I came to these practices broken, needy, and desperate. And I was willing to work hard. And I made a lot of sacrifices. And my teachers poured their attention into me and helped me grow into who I am today. The point of my last post was to say that other people also came to those same rooms broken, needy, willing to work and sacrifice and they were overlooked. And there are many factors that contributed to both outcomes and as good as I might feel my fortune was, other folks were neglected. And it is not fair. And while my relationships with my teachers have been full of their own complexities and complications, I am grateful to have had people who inspired my efforts and who invested in me and whose own limitations became part of the learning process we shared. And I have been a great teacher to some and I have been a problematic teacher to others. People have felt I was unfair and have felt neglected by me. So, before it sounds like I am blaming my teachers, I should be clear that I I know this dynamic from many different angles directly--good and bad, praise and blame.
A lot more could be said about that for sure.
What much of this conversation boils down to for me is that there are no guarantees in life and therefore, in yoga. In fact, my hackles come up these days when I hear anything in yoga that sounds like a promise of security- whether that promise is physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual. Show me a “new paradigm that is healing chronic injuries” and I will show you a system whose evidence may not be in yet. What might heal the body today might harm it tomorrow, not because today’s information is wrong but because the body is a plastic medium and our needs change over time. Whether it is physical or psychic healing we are talking about, I believe yoga’s value to us is in helping us navigate life’s uncertainty more than it is in delivering us to guaranteed outcomes or promises of security.
So by all means, make hay while the sun shines and use what works when it works but my advice is to be ready to shift when more is revealed. And if your process is anything like mine, the shifting of which I speak will most likely require some courage.
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