“Listen, the minute this became something you could do casually, and a style of pants with was made for it… the wheels came off.” – Anonymous
Ok, that’s a reasonable statement. Most of us who have grown wary of the pop yoga scene can see the validity of that point of view. If you go backwards in time far enough along this yoga superhighway you’ll find where the modern thoroughfare veers away from the old gravel roads. The old gravel roads are made of solitary, single lane, repetitive routines that are the hallmarks of the hyper-disciplined physical styles of Ashtanga, Iyengar, and the Hatha practices that preceded them. If you continue to dig, you will find that this modern superhighway was paved with the very best of intentions. Yet in what was a completely valid attempt to repackage the practice to make it more digestible to the average person, the most vital component of the practice became obscured by it’s own packaging. Sadly the external form of asana was mistaken for the substance. The real substance was never the shape of the pose externally, but rather, the manifestation of a one pointedness of mind, of which the poses themselves are merely meditative facilitators.
Imagine a group of teenagers with no musical talent or training dressing up like glitzy rock-and-roll stars in the garage. They might look the part, but their music tells a different story. Generally in the music business, pretenders like this are weeded out by the industry itself. While people’s taste in any given category of music might vary widely, the true musicians in those categories are usually pretty easy to spot. They play the music that makes you feel good and they do it well. Looking the part is not usually enough to get a record deal. Unlike the music industry however, in the modern yoga industry you CAN fake it simply by looking the part. Unfortunately there are similarities as well because much like the music industry, if you can make people feel good in the yoga studio, you’ve got them hooked. Once they’re hooked they make their pilgrimage to the yoga class sanctuary within the yoga studio church for their dose of feel good, sweat it out, move and breathe, worship.
As these churches of empowerment began to preach the feel good gospel, the effort toward a singular one pointedness of mind was no longer the focus. The focus was now the clever pairing of this feeling to this pose, and that empowering idea to that pose. The very crux of pose based meditation became lost in the wave of entrepreneurial yoga inspired fecundity. It was at this point that vinyasa became unhitched from its predecessors and branded as its own unique all encompassing style. In the absence of the simplistic yet rigorous discipline inherent in Ashtanga and Iyengar traditions, there was a scramble to fill the void and make the now wider road more fun and exciting.
We began to supplant that which needed no embellishment, with conceptual trigger words like “power”, “hot”, “flow”, “bliss”, “yin”, “burn”, “sculpt”, “fusion”, “rock n’ roll”, “chill”, “rejuvenate” and on and Om. We then made it even more appealing to the consumer by sending those concepts through the free association marketing machine to come out the other end loosely linked to a mystical motif and voila! In this way, the modern yoga industry accomplished a Cool Whip style coup. To the average consumer, modern yoga-asana is just as good as the yoga-asana that came before it in the same way some people perceive Cool Whip to be just as good as actual whipped cream. It may not have the same ingredients, but through nifty branding and a product that looked close enough to the original, we purchased shelf space in the industry of our own making.
Why do we have to add the archetypal extras on to a practice that’s purpose is to systematically remove the extras? There is nothing mystical about asana or the yogic state of mind that it facilitates. Unless of course, in your state of single minded consciousness you experience mystical revelations. Even in that case however, the salient purpose of the practice was not to induce the mystical visions/feelings themselves, but only to un-fog the mirror. What you do there, and what Gods you see there cannot be shared. If you’re wanting others to share in your visions of pixies and rainbows, you’re missing the point. Your samadhi is your biz yo.
In the classical sense then, the purpose of yoga-asana is to facilitate the aim of yoga-yoga. In the most practical and classical terms yoga-asana is the science of awakening to the here and now by maintaining a steady balancing act between effort and ease. In this state we are able to still the chatter in our minds that distracts us from our natural state of being. Again, it has nothing to do with good feelings or being happy in the Hallmark sense of the word. Absolutely nothing to do with self esteem and growing beyond your self imposed limits so that you can manifest a new job or a Range Rover. Yoga-asana has nothing to do with your appreciation of nature or the acceptance of your own degree of personal adipose distribution. It definitely has nothing to do with craft beer, and nothing to do with toning your abs.
While SOME of these things can be great in and of themselves, they only serve to confuse the public when they are arbitrarily paired with yoga-asana. At its core, yoga-asana functions as a de-convolution device. When we surreptitiously layer self-help and personal empowerment concepts on top of this de-convolution device, we make the device itself convoluted! The irony!
Not only have we guided the lily, we have jingle-jangled it, new fandangled it, put whistles on it’s warriors, and bells on their toes! No part of it is safe from our vain meddling. We peddle it’s all encompassing allure to anyone that will listen. Like carnival barkers we rouse the rupees out of the common folks pockets, promising a peek at the very thing they’ve been looking for all their lives. Step right up! Step right up! You want fitness!? We’ve got it! You want relief from the stresses of modern day life!? We’ve got the thing just for you! Modern yoga studios have become catch-alls for every fitness fad, pseudo science, and self help scheme out there.
Like teenagers rebelling from our authoritarian parents’ rules, we dress ourselves in a fundamentally antithetical ethos of Hindi-hipster chic. In essence, we’re using the exotic appeal of yoga cultural roots as a hook, and once you’re in our boat we’ll do anything to keep you there. Why? Because actual yoga and yoga-asana don’t cater to your ego and in an industry that relies on bodies through the door, ego baiting is a must. What better way to hook into the mass markets ego fetishism than to present to them the idea that by simply powering through these poses in a group class, that they are also somehow checking their own ego’s dominance? Ego abating is so in right now y’all!
The problem is, the more we hear our enlightened fitness instructor tell us that our ego is winning if we do, or do not do one more chaturanga, the more we battle with the concept of ego itself. Ego, or the lack thereof, are concepts. The science of yoga seeks to free you altogether from getting hung up on concepts in the first place. How many concepts have you been inundated with in yoga class? How many times have you been told to open up to a repressed feeling in a group class? To release self limiting doubt? How many armchair motivational speeches have you had to incorporate into your crescent lunge? The list is endless.
For all of it’s dogmatic faults, Ashtanga knew who it was and transmitted that message of single mindedness to its students. In this way it preserved the purpose of yoga-asana in relation to yoga-yoga. That purpose again was to facilitate the yogic process by restraining our mindless reactions to bodily sensation fluctuations, in order to better unfetter the mind. Modern science has shown that many a mental and psychological process arise from bodily and physical processes. The old yogins inherently shared this understanding on an experiential level. They knew that if they could not yoke their physical animal to the purpose of meditation, that that they would never fully experience its benefits.
Asana is a seat, and what does one do in a seat? Sit. In this case, we are instructed to not only sit, but to sit still. It doesn’t take a degree in neurobiology to understand that given the demonstrable evidence now out there showing the effects of mind on the body, and the body on mind (I hear a Snoop Dogg remix in there somewhere), that a method of checking, or yoking the bodily processes (nerve impulses from the central nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system included), will in turn aid in the checking/yoking of the mind.
Just as it doesn’t take a neuroscientist to understand the influence of stilling the body in relation to stilling the mind, it doesn’t take a yoga anthropologist to understand that in relation to today’s everything is yoga atmosphere, that the essence of the practice has been obscured and the trajectory has run terribly askew. This becomes even more evident when you remove from the context the qualifiers associated with yoga-yoga and focus solely on yoga-asana. If yoga-asana is indeed the seat in which you are to remain steady as sensations rise and fall, then swinging from Trikonasana to Parivritta Trikonasana with mini kettle bells in your hands while jamming out to Katy Perry’s, Roar, would seem to be a bit of stretch away from that definition. Unfortunately under those conditions, a bit of a stretch is about all you can hope to achieve.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! As history will show us, Krishnamacharya successfully paired the meditative aspects of classic yoga-asana with modern gymnastics AND Patanjali’s yoga sutras to form a new tradition. This new tradition, if approached from a place of wisdom and dedication, can facilitate the purpose of the seat in relation to yoga. The mindful application of the gymnastic poses are the perfect prep-work for the yoga-asana based seated meditation that comes after. This was especially so in relation to the young energetic boys who were the relatives of the Maharaja, for whom Krishnamacharya, originally developed the Ashtanga routine.
Yoga-asana classes are not platforms for an instructor to work out their own psychological hang ups or push their own personal agendas. Even the most well intended agendas can be poison. Remember, the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions. If you feel that you are being instructed to think, feel, or do anything in a pose other than safely exert effort while maintaining steadiness, you’re no longer under the umbrella of yoga-asana. Buyer beware.
What is the point to making all of these distinctions? For us, it’s to know what it is we are doing and why. A triangle pose isn’t yoga, therefore triangle pose in front of mural or along a hiking trail is not yoga either. Triangle pose in front of your local micro brewery? Still not yoga-asana and probably not yoga. That’s the image we are perpetuating though, and if the pose itself is not the yoga, then why use the word at all? If everything is yoga, then nothing is yoga.
Finally there’s the point.
We could have summated this entire piece in a few sentences. But that’s not flashy, catchy, or fun, and most people wouldn’t really stop and take the time to meditate on just those few sentences alone. So now that we’ve hit you over and over with words and concepts, we will break it down in plain English.
Yoga-asana is a posture or seat, a still point so to speak. In this posture, or seat we are to experience the here and now from a place of stillness so that we can watch all of it’s impermanent fluctuations. This seat must contain a pairing of opposites, most notably effort and ease or steadiness and comfort, impermanent experiences that come and go. Once you realize within this seat that effort and ease or steadiness and comfort are actually one in the same you’re no longer afflicted by the painful clinging that happens because of your mind has preference towards one side of the coin versus the other. That’s it.
How on earth would you ever get to that steady point from holding warrior 2 for three minutes with music blasting and the teacher preaching about self love and your heart chakra. Or by moving quickly through postures where you have no idea what you’re doing or why you’re even doing it. The truth is, you won’t. Plain and simple. You will find endorphins no doubt, and endorphins feel good! Feeling good however is inconsequential in relation to the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The mind clings to both good feelings and bad. It is one of its greatest tricks. Yoga-asana is a specific technique for restraining your reaction to the bodily fluctuations in order to achieve the yoga of the mind.
If you are going to teach or practice yoga-asana, know what it is by definition and how the physical modality you choose as yoga-asana fits into that definition. Know what you’re doing and why from a deep level. Question everything. Always. If you have to ignore or squash your own nagging wisdom and discernment to be part of the club, then is that a club you really want to be part of? The modern yoga club as a whole is often guilty of serving up big greasy Bologna sandwiches, so don’t be afraid to say, no thanks, even if the crowd is stuffing their faces.
Join us on the Yoga Physics Phorum where we’ll continue this chat…..