Being in a Pose Isn’t Yoga

I didn’t mean to surprise so many of you with that last entry. In fact, I was surprised that so many of you were surprised that I struggled with arm balances for such a long time. I guess I did a pretty good job faking it out, or probably, more accurately, we are all so entirely absorbed with our own practices and what is happening on our own mats that we don’t bother looking around the room to see what else is happening, or isn’t happening. Go eka grata!

When I first started practicing, I used a videotape and then graduated to going to gyms or to Bikram. In all those settings, I never encountered arm balances, inversions or any deep backbend. It wasn’t until I started going to OM Yoga in New York City that I was aware these Cirque Du Soleil-esque postures existed and that “normal” people practiced them. Until then, my yoga practice was pretty basic: standing postures and sun salutes and some belly down backbends, which, by the way, is a great place to build strength and flexibility, so I’m not knocking those kinds of classes. They are crucial to any yoga practice and provide the exact body awareness we need to attempt the fancier, party trick poses we see in yoga clothing advertisements.

Unless you were a gymnast or a dancer, most people cannot just lift into an inversion or arm balance or bend into upward bow. These poses take practice and patience. It’s not supposed to be easy. In the beginning, I remember getting frustrated with how hard such a practice was. I vividly recall holding a lunge pose for what felt like at least twenty minutes and just as I was about to quit, the teacher said something about the whole class hating her for holding the pose so long. It was then that I realized this was hard for everyone, that yoga is supposed to be hard and challenging, and that the harder we work the less likely we are to think about dinner or the to-do list. We can escape the tedium of the monkey mind.

Of course, the more you practice the easier some poses get so this other group of frustrating poses is introduced. Again, I distinctly remember the thought pattern when I was first taught pincha mayurasana, forearm stand: “What the [bleep]. There is no way I can do that.” Yet, with practice and patience I figured it out. Sure, it helps that I’m on the more flexible side of things. For some, if both the shoulders and upper back are really tight, then a pose like pincha may take years or even decades. On the flip side, if you’re too flexible it may take just as long to build the strength you need to support such a pose. But it’s the practice that is important, not the pose. Being in a pose isn’t yoga. It’s some hybrid of gymnastics and ballet. Keeping an even mind while you attempt the pose is yoga.

If you’ve ever been to a class I’ve taught, I’m sure you have heard me say many times that these poses are useful because they reveal things about ourselves. We can see how we approached a challenging pose and how we reacted to it. Were we competitive, angry, perfectionist, defeatist, fearful, fearless? Usually, these characteristics are prevalent in our life off the mat, too. So we can use them to learn about ourselves. Don’t lament if you weren’t ever a gymnast or ballerina, or don’t let whatever your bete-noir pose is get you down: the poses are simply a vehicle for self discovery. It’s svadhyaya, one of the five niyamas, which is defined by many as the study of the self, or the true nature of the self, self-reflection.

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