I frequently tell my students, “You know, you can live a happy life without ever kicking up into handstand, pushing up into urdhva dhanurasana, or getting your feet off the floor in an arm balance.” I give this teaching so often because, from my perspective, asanas are not life skills. Asana is not a substitute for clear communication, empathy, or accountability. Asana will not apologize for you when you have trespassed against another, or make it easier for you to forgive others when they trespassed against you. Asana will not balance your check book, clean your house, or cook your dinner for you.
So, on one level, the postures — how they look, what one can and cannot do, whether or not one is progressing in any visible way, etc. -- do not matter. In fact, many students tell me, “Oh, I don’t really care about doing x,y, or z pose.” And I believe them. They are telling the truth. They would pass a lie detector test.
In all the years I have been teaching, I have yet to see someone do something one day that they could not do the day before and not be excited about it. I was recently reminded of this aspect of asana practice when several of the students in my class pushed up to urdhva dhanurasana for the first time. (All 4 of these students were over 60, by the way.) As a teacher, I can talk all I want to about strength, grace, and empowerment, but the act of accomplishing something for the first time generally speaks for itself. After all, an empowering experience of strength and grace often makes words seem a bit empty and/or unnecessary.
Of course, a shadow always lurks near accomplishment. If we feel good when we achieve, we tend to feel bad when we don’t or can’t. Welcome to the joys of duality, where every up has a down and where success always lives next door to failure. And, let’s be honest, for most of us, there are far more asanas we can not do than there are poses we can do well. Even the bendiest, strongest among us have limits they will eventually reach or that life will deliver them to.
One solution to the thorny problem I have outlined is to detach from caring about doing or not doing and focus on the work there is to do in the posture, not the outcome of the efforts. I watch many teachers and practitioners take this route. The perspective makes sense, to be sure. And, with just a little philosophical training, you can even back up this approach with lofty discussions of the Sutras or the Gita and sound quite enlightened.
But then, the blasted success comes again and it remains exciting, empowering, and is, occasionally, even exhilarating. Or a loss of ability or a perceived failure comes our way in practice and, even with our lofty spiritual outlook, we are ensnared and feel less-than. What then, is a person to do?
For me, I have long since stopped expecting myself to be a bland, detached, I-am-beyond-success-and-failure- kind-of -person. I am achievement-oriented, competency-based, and striving in nature. All the yoga in the world has not changed that basic programming. I like to work hard, make progress and achieve. I also think that being able to feel happy in the face of success and disappointed in the face of failure is crucial to healthy psychological functioning, and the detached approach seems to run dangerously close to spiritual bypassing. Of course, that might be a different post for a different day.
So, what has yoga done for me if it hasn’t changed this basic temperament of mine, you ask? Good question.
All the yoga has helped me see my disposition for what it is and not for more than what it is. After almost 30 years of consciously considering yogic teachings on the mat, the cushion, the couch, and in my life, I see the part of me that cares about success and failure, etc. is not the whole story of my practice, and certainly not the whole of who I am. Simply put, my basic predisposition lives within a much larger sphere of reference than I previously knew.
The I can/I can’t, I understand/I don’t understand, I am better/I am worse, I am improving/I am backsliding dualities are all valid on the level that they are valid. Practice has yet to eradicate that level of my consciousness and I have ceased expecting to one day wake up free of my personality with its quirks, knots, and idiosyncrasies. What sustained practice over time has shown me is that there is more to me than that level only. Yoga practice — asana, meditation, mantra, therapy, studentship, teaching and a host of engaged relationships — has helped me find a larger, more expansive, and infinitely more compassionate domain within me. While I still have my endless, ongoing narratives of contract/expand in their many expressions, all of that unfolding now happens within a domain of self-understanding that is not so tied to the endless ups and downs I have been describing.
To me, I can/I can’t, I’m up/I’m down lives right alongside this unbounded wholeness that is untouched, unencumbered and free. The thorny dilemma of “I feel good when I do and bad when I don’t” is resolved, not through detachment and not caring, but in seeing each domain for the truth it holds. On one level, the poses matter. On another level, they do not matter one bit. Holding the tension of this paradox is a means by which we practice a yoga that I think matters very much: discernment, self-acceptance, self-understanding, self-validation, and self-acknowledgement. And, as I see it, these inner attitudes, or postures, are most definitely life skills.
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photo by Andrea Killam
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"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."