“When you come right down to it, all you have is yourself.
Yourself is a sun with a thousand fires in your belly.
The rest is nothing”.
The recent New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/magazine/how-yoga-can-wreck-your-body.html?pagewanted=all and the conversation that this article has generated in the yoga community has got me thinking about discrimination. My thoughts are only that it seems to me that in this instance no-one is right (at least no-one I read). We seem to be on one side or another and missing the point of yoga altogether. Which is to say…just like any other day.
When I was a kid we used to stay at a ski lodge in the Laurentians called “Alpine Inn”. A fun place for a kid for certain: playing Pac Man, sneaking champagne and freezing my hair solid in the mountain air after swimming. Later the inn was sold and turned into a new age spa called, “Écoute ton corps”, which I’ve always felt was an utterly ridiculous name for anything (I wonder if we even know how to listen to the body, without the mind being in the way). But it does reflect how I think yoga has primarily been approached in the west. Then, on the other side you have my teacher who is known to say, “Nothing breaks!” which I have come to see as the more eastern approach to yoga. So here we have a certain duality (I’ve chosen this word carefully). Do we “Listen to the body” or do we forge ahead fearlessly, to some extent ignoring the small protests of the body? Which is yoga? Well, neither.
You will not hear the words, “do not go beyond your comfort level” at an ashram in India, however you will also not see (among Indians, I am not speaking of foreigners) an excessive pushing of the body, or focus on the physical perfection, strength or beauty in the practice that you see in the west. Of course, things are changing, and in more superficial ways the eastern and western approaches are shifting and switching as we influence each other. I still think that there remains a solid tradition in India untouched by all of this. When the dust of the yoga craze settles, there will be many in private, still standing on their heads.
I think if we look to yoga for the answer, and not to our cultural ideas about yoga, we can see that to “Listen to your body” is right, and also that “Nothing breaks!” is right. Yoga is both, or rather yoga is found in-between. At every moment in practicing yoga we are faced with duality, at the deepest level the duality inside ourselves (sun/moon, male/female, yang/yin, sympathetic/parasympathetic, exertion/relaxation, expansion/absorption, outer/inner, reason/intuition, analytical/creative, acceleratory/inhibitory…you get the idea). Yoga is the fine balance between the two. It seems that this debate about whether yoga is harmful is more about the outer experience or the trappings of yoga. The only thing that yoga asks us to do is to focus on the inner experience, and to try to discover and let go of our mental conditionings. Suppose I am the sort of person that likes to push myself too much, I need to work against that mental conditioning by learning to listen inwardly. If I am a little lazy by nature, then yoga will ask me to work against that. And, of course there are many more types of conditioning that we may have. But this is just the physical, which is a very small part of what yoga is.
I don’t think any practice is as symbolic of the true nature of yoga as is the pranayama ‘anuloma viloma’ (or nadi shodhana). Loma means ‘grain’, and we are working by playing with the opposites embodied within (two opposing energy channels) to go against the grain and to uncondition from old mental holding patterns. This is yoga.
With respect to a teacher causing harm to a student; absolutely they should not. However a good teacher should have the intuition and personal experience to help you to push beyond your mental conditioning. The pushing is up to the student, the teacher needs to have enough sadhana under their belt to be able to discriminate, and if they are not sure, or see their own ego interfering, to take a step back and leave it. The only issue I have with the article in NYT is that it creates more of a climate of fear around yoga, which is most decidedly un-yogic because it does not help us to see how to correct an error in our approach and to learn how to trust ourselves. The author has examined only the potential for injury within the physical aspect, and broadly labelling it as ‘yoga’ without examining what yoga actually is. I absolutely agree with the points about not practicing with ego or obsession. If we do not practice with awareness, and are not taught how to do this, it is possible that we will apply the same mental patterns as we do in other areas of life to our approach and risk injury by doing so.
I often say that the longer I practice yoga, the less I understand it. What I mean is that it is the unexamined mind that thinks I have a handle on it. Yoga is much bigger than me…I do know that. And while I think it is important, it needs to be practiced with a sense of discrimination (viveka) and non-attachment or dispassion (vairagya). I may not have to let go of it, but I need to be able and prepared to.
“All values must remain vulnerable, and those that do not are dead”.