William J. Broad is at it again. And I would like to thank him for it. His article called Wounded Warrior Pose in The New York Times just passed my radar. It is worth a read. Particularly if you are a Yoga teacher, a studio owner or a Yoga practitioner. He raises, and insists on raising an important discussion around the topic of Yoga and injury.
I love Yoga. I have practiced it for over 30 years and taught it for over 20 years. And there is a disturbing tendency in the West to utilize yoga as "fitness" training rather than the wholistic and integrative practice it was originally designed to be. This sort of experiential transliteration is a normal part of taking in influences from cultures, practices and customs different from our own. And so, this discussion that William Broad continues to thrust upon the Western Yoga community is an important one.
What he describes as " competitive Yoga" is an oxymoron. This means that it is a combination of contradictory words. Yoga cannot be competitive and still be Yoga. When Yoga practices are used in a competitive manner it is no longer "Yoga," but something else. Yoga is inherently non-competitive, and its goal is to still the whirling mind so that it can see clearly into the unseeable universe that is the foundation of our material existence. The point of yoga is quieting all the mental ruckus so that we can live our lives as an act of meditation, fully conscious and aware, at ease and in healthy relation to the universe around us.
From my own experience, I would say that a physical Yoga practice works to clear out blockages and move us toward an optimal alignment, while helping us to become more conscious of who and how we are. We start by combing through and clearing, physically, the tangle of blockages we hold. Because the mind's energy (its attention) and our life force energy (our prana) flow together, this means that working physically to clear out blockages leads to a parallel clarifying of mental energies and flow. (The inverse is also true.) This happens over time, as we become ready to get out of our own way.
We in the West tend to be raised with a competitive, individualistic and strongly materialistic focus. Yoga contradicts this, from its very roots. One of the hardest lessons we Westerners face in the study and practice of Yoga is to work with our limitations honestly and with compassion. In competitive practices, we learn to push through pain. This increases the body's threshold for pain over the years to the point that we may no longer be able to interpret the body's signals as pain, and are therefore unable to respond to those signals that warn us of damage or injury. Many people don't feel like they are doing anything if they don't sweat, if their heartrate or breathing rate doesn't increase, if they feel no pain or struggle. In this same competitive environment, other people face the opposite challenge, tending toward laziness. Either approach misses the point.
For myself, I find that Yoga is very much about responsibility. About the ability to listen and respond appropriately to all the information we have access to as a complex living being. The constant relationship between discipline (tapas), honesty (satya) and non-harm (ahimsa) is a living process that is played out in every Yoga class I have ever attended or taught. Starting with just these three principles, bringing them to a level of active and engaged consciousness in our practice, leads the way to deep and powerful transformation both on and off the mats, at our our rhythms, and safely.
The work we do in Yoga is deep. We don't stay on the surface of things. A physical Yoga practice affects not only the muscles, tissues, ligaments, bones and joints of the body -- it also affects our bodies' systems. This means the respiratory and cardiovascular system, the hormonal and neurological systems, the digestive and reproductive systems... It works on all aspects and all levels of our being: physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual. When we practice Yoga like we practice sports, not only are we likely to injure ourselves but we are also missing the listening of that quieting mind that returns us to wholeness. A wholeness that is powerful and resilient and joyous, and includes our weaknesses and limitations as well as our strengths.
December 24, 2012