iMy social media feeds are full of stories about yoga injuries and commentaries about the intense pressure people feel— or have felt in the past— to go into extreme physical territory in asana. I know that in some yoga communities, the pressure of which people speak is overt and straight-forward with instructions to “breathe through the pain,” to “go for the cramping sensation” and so on. Some systems go so far as to suggest that physical pain is “all in the head” or that “physical resistance is the resistance of the ego,” etc.
Since I didn’t have those kind of overt pressure-filled experiences in my yoga education I have often discounted that such environments actually exist and, as a result, I have failed to adequately realize that a.) the unrealistic, damaging messages get internalized in hard-to-shake ways in yoga students everywhere, b.) the pressure to perform also exists in subtle ways, even in well-meaning communities with safety in mind, c.) like it or not—and for the record, I do not like it at all— I have participated in the dynamic unknowingly and d.) this dynamic exists in most sports or activities where “playing an edge” is engaged--from mountain biking, to surfing, to scuba diving, to rock climbing and so on.
I have always stressed the need for maturity and responsibility on the part of the practitioner. Accountability is of prime importance for longevity as an asana practitioner. After all, no one is doing yoga to us or for us. We are adults spending our hard-earned money and precious time to learn how to practice yoga asana. Extraordinary resources of attention and creativity go into our practice. No one forces us to go to the classes we take or to learn from an abusive or crazy teacher. No one makes us roll out a mat, sit on a cushion or watch our breath go in and out. I believe that the marker for progress in yoga is not that we are able to bend into increasingly more extreme shapes but that we are increasingly able to participate in our life of practice and in our practice of life in conscious choice, rather than in unconscious reactions which leave us at the mercy of unrealistic expectations, projections and even overt manipulation.
That being said, perhaps I haven’t validated how difficult it can be to get to the place of choice in the culture that so often dominates the practice of yoga. The culture of “advanced postures” has a lot of shadow elements to consider, a lot of potential pitfalls and dangerous detours that can distract even the keenest of seekers. Leaving aside the overt abuses that can be categorized by “Variations on Go for the Burn,” and “The Deeper the Bend the Closer to God,” I think the basic indoctrination in asana that I received still had the same implications, just delivered in more subtle ways. I would have registered the insanity of “Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body” but I didn’t register the insanity of “Deeper Bends Get Your Teacher’s Attention” because I was so psychologically predisposed to seeking outside attention, approval and validation. And my guess is that most of us have a blind spot for some kind of potential crazy in yoga based on our background.
One of my yoga teachers has made over thirty trips to India to study with her teacher. At a recent workshop she told the group how part of the reason she worked so hard throughout the years was that her teacher was primarily interested in working with the people who could do the more advanced poses. It seemed clear to her that since she wanted his attention and his help, she need to be one of the people he was interested in helping by advancing her postural practice.
As luck would have it, she had the kind of body proportions capable of the binds and bends, she had the kind of willpower needed to engage in zealous practice, she had the kind of predisposition to prefer long hours on the mat alone to long hours socializing and she had the tenacity to stay with the process of practice over the course of her life. She slowly, steadily and with great devotion, turned herself into an amazing practitioner, teacher and leader in her community who enjoyed and benefited from a very close relationship with her teacher.
What I haven’t thought about until now— and I am not sure about this but it stands to good reason— is that there are probably a number of equally-invested, passionate people who got different results from their efforts. Perhaps their bodies got injured from their zealous efforts or perhaps they weren’t noticed for some reason unbeknownst to them that might just boil down to their teacher’s personality preferences. But what if we assume that for more than a few people, in some way, their attempts to be “one of the people the teacher was interested in” through ardent practice didn’t result in the same unfolding physically or professionally as the first person I was describing. Different body proportions, capacities and life circumstances meant that they are now not seen as “as good as” this other person and not as “close to the teacher” and even “not as successful” and so on. Again, this is conjecture, but it is a distinct possibility based on my observations in the communities of which I have been a part over the years.
I never really questioned why I wanted to do harder poses. I came from a sports background and gymnastics before that and I never questioned “working through the levels” in asana. From early swim lessons to gymnastics to violin lessons and the like, “getting better” at something was what doing the something was all about. Clearly, I am achievement-oriented pitta personality type. But here is the thing— for many years in asana, I had the kind of body, at a time in life where working through the levels was possible and largely beneficial. And I got positive attention for it. I got my teacher’s attention. It was “working” and I am bit embarrassed to say, I never gave the “why” much thought at all, past the ways it was working for me. I am not saying I never thought about asana. Obviously, I thought about asana a lot but the deep questioning of why I wanted to do increasingly harder poses was not at the forefront of my mind.
At any rate, what I have been thinking about now is that the culture I was swimming in was a culture of advancement in which it was possible for me to advance and so I never questioned the narrative. But what if that model of advancement hadn’t been possible for me? What would participating in asana have been like for me? What is it like for other people for whom progress manifests so very differently? What if that model of advancement was injurious for me? Truth be told, at a psychological level, I think the model was quite injurious in many ways that I am beginning to unravel with greater degrees of clarity these days, but that is another story for another post on another day.
What I am learning these days is that the asana practice exists in many domains. There is the measurable domain of our individual practice where we can say we are stronger or more flexible (or not) as evidenced by our ability to assume different shapes or hold postures for longer periods of time (or not). There is the individual, interior aspect of the practice where we feel the depth of our Being, the dawning of our Light, the expanse of our Self. Additionally, there is the social aspect of our practice and the various protocols of practice we engage and ways of play allowed in any group. And there is the cultural aspect— the way that we interact within the community of practitioners at a more interior level that includes narratives and values that live deep in the shared psyche of the community.
It can be hard to see this cultural aspect because when the cultural paradigm works for us it manifests mostly as a sense of unconscious support for our efforts. When it doesn’t work for us, depending on our psychology, we may blame ourselves for not fitting in, rather than seeing the system as faulty or unrealistic. Making matters more difficult, often when we communicate the way the culture is not working to someone for whom it is working, they will typically not be able to validate our viewpoint. They can’t validate our viewpoint, not because they are bad people, not because they do not want to be understanding, but because they truly do not see what we are talking about.
I know, because I have been that person.
I have a good friend who is a lovely asana practitioner, a sincere student of consciousness and the inner life and a fantastic vinyasa teacher. And she can’t balance in handstand. And it really bothers her. While she is one of the most intelligent and creative vinyasa teachers I know, she can not claim the “feather in the cap” of balancing in handstand. In the culture in which she largely participates, that particular trick seems to carry a lot of weight and functions as a kind of hallmark of competency, often with it a perceived edge in the marketplace.
One day she and I were talking about her frustration with not being able to balance and how much pressure she felt to be able to do it. I was shocked. She can do great arm balances, amazing hip opening postures and lovely back bends. As a teacher she has a devoted following. She really helps people. A lot of them. For years. I told her, “Who cares about handstand? It is just one pose of many.” She is pretty self-critical, like so many of my amazingly inspiring women friends and so, while I hate to admit it, I wrote off her worry as another one of her self-critical judgements.
I failed to recognize something very important about perspectives in yoga during our conversation all those years ago. From my vantage point of being able to balance in handstand in the middle of the room, there is no pressure to do it at all. Handstand is one of many poses. No big deal. But from the vantage point of not being able to balance in handstand, in a culture that prizes and rewards the ability to do so, even a very experienced and accomplished yogi can feel tremendous pressure to do the pose and feel diminished when they are not able.
As a teacher, I can tell everyone that balancing in handstand doesn’t matter at all. I can even in my heart-of- hearts know that handstand is not an indicator of anything other than handstand itself. Handstand means nothing about sincerity, self-worth, capacity to love and serve others, etc. However, if I am relentlessly posting pictures of myself hand-standing on beaches, picnic tables, shopping carts and mountaintops and spending 15 minutes of every 75 minute class teaching people how to do handstand and arriving in class 20 minutes early to handstand unobtrusively in front of everyone as they walk in then my actions are not in alignment with my words. In fact, my actions—not my words— become my message and determine the background culture of my classroom.
Obviously, handstand might not be your thing. It might be something else. But the point is that the pressure to perform is certainly on the side of the individual. Each one of us as our own set of quirky idiosyncracies and expectations for ourselves that we bring to the mat. But the individual is not separate from the culture in which they are practicing. There is a back drop of practice that can be hard to identify but which is influential nonetheless. The pressure to perform also exists in the shared narrative of the group and in what it rewards and how.
And so far this entry has stayed pretty close to the surface level of the dynamic as I have been talking poses and our ability to perform them. But the cultural backdrop is deeper than that- encompassing race, age, body type, temperament and social conduct. And never has this been more the case than it is now with so much of the yoga practice being so popular and so well-documented via social media.
So—more needs to be said about so many things but my word count just told me I have passed the 2000-word mark and so I will quit for tonight.
Follow This Blog
"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."