Yoga, Injury and Safety Q+A / Survey Answer #1: Perfection in our Imperfections

Yesterday I posted a survey to my Facebook page for both students and teachers of yoga:

What are your burning questions about yoga, injury and safety?

I got some juicy questions. Today, my first answer:

—–

This question came from a dear soul who is returning to yoga class after perhaps a decade and a half. This history is important because the full context of her question (I am privy to the larger story) includes a perception of competitiveness, Westernization, perfectionism, necessity of teacher adjustments and other quizzical behaviors that stem from the massive changes she sees between yoga today and the yoga she knew and appreciated years ago. (Full question posted in the comments section).

I am sure she is far from the only one with this complicated question.

“Is it alright for people to go only as far as they can, even if the version of the pose they are able to achieve does not appear “correct”, graceful, or attractive?”

(Warning: long, rambling answer)

Abstract: Heck yes.

Full Text: We are perfect just as we are. There’s also no singular correct way to practice yoga. Each of us can only do what we can do. In fact, sometimes what we “can” do is more than we should do. Sometimes yoga teachers must reign in students from over-doing.

Yet, the practice of yoga — whichever path you choose from the physical (hatha), devotional (bhakti), knowledge (jnana), etc. — is also about exploring your edges (of muscular engagement, balance, concentration, patience, capacity for love and compassion…), especially the edges that come up around challenges in our lives on or off the yoga mat.

I’m largely addressing hatha yoga below, since that is my main path.

This relates: I remember taking yoga in the early 90s. Iyengar, Sivananda and Integral yoga were the most common styles in my neck of the woods. The classes were gentle, and if my memory serves me correctly, the teachers did minimal hands-on adjustments (though they might make suggestions about how to adjust a pose). Cues were often about overcoming tightness. Stretchiness was king.

In the late 90s, I “met” Kripalu yoga. At the time (and this has evolved), classes at the Kripalu Center were full of writhing, rocking, “micro-movements”, free-form hip circles, copious sighs and even moans.  Whatever’s clever ruled.

Vinyasa yoga became popular in the early 2000′s – at least that’s when it bloomed on the East Coast. Not as defined of a style as Sivananda or Iyengar, the fast moving and creative classes (sometimes coupled with fun, danceable music) attracted a new generation of young, healthy yogis. Many new styles that popped up from the mid-to-late 90s (Anusara, Bikram, etc) were reaching thousands of new practitioners. Yoga teachers were becoming savvier.The best knew (know) mind-blowingly good cues for alignment as well as possessed deep powers via hands-on adjustments. Suddenly yoga could mean sweating or core work and pushing through your edges. And yoga became much, much more widely practiced.

More recently, I see many yogis (usually a little younger than me, usually posting visually stunning feats on Instagram – perhaps the next generation) approaching a practice that starts to resemble gymnastics. Practitioners are not embarrassed about that association either. This includes some of the crowd attracted to advanced Ashtanga, Rocket, and Dharma yoga.

There are so many styles of yoga in existence; I can only make wild generalizations here (and BTW, I love them all!).

Some styles of yoga are strict, some are free-form. Some will make your muscles sore or drench your mat in sweat. Some will focus on soft breath, gentle stretches and simple opening. Some will be stealth, you won’t realize how hard you were working until the next day.

All are good. All are included in the umbrella of yoga. All have the same potential for what really matters in the practice: to connect you more to your body, mind and spirit.

Yoga has evolved.

Yes, some yoga is highly “Westernized.” The West, especially the U.S., adopted yoga like a quirky auntie with a pliable teenager and in this different cultural context, shaped its growth in a dramatic way.

These are not bad things:

The plethora of options for yoga styles means a plethora or practitioners, teachers, and a plethora, no doubt, of future styles of yoga that appeal to new generations and new practitioners and more yoga in general. Conversely, yoga teachers and students themselves are growing older. Our bodies and constitutions change. Some find themselves attracted to slower styles as they age and experience the yoga evolution I witnessed above in reverse order.

Change is the only constant.

I firmly believe there is a yoga and a yoga teacher out there for everyone. Not everyone will have the patience to seek theirs out. (This is also ok). This one doesn’t appear to be the teacher for you.

Circling back to the question: given the vastness that is called yoga, how do you know whether to push harder to follow cues or soften into the what you can gently do right now? What if you disagree with the teacher?

With deep respect to the teacher that is in front of you and open exploration of the style you are trying, I suggest following your heart, yet balancing your personal tendencies.

I love free-form compassion-centered yoga from the bottom of my heart. I could stretch and crawl around on a sticky mat for a lifetime.

But I might never get any cardio. (The American Heart Association recommends 30-60 minutes most, if not all, days of the week.)

I might never build muscle mass. (Muscle mass is a major predictor of bone density).

And I guarantee you I’d blow out my back (from lack of core and strengthening and forced hypermobility in my joints).

So I need to balance my slothful tendencies. Thankfully, I also adore the vinyasa practice. Music uplifts me, and a skillful teacher can guide me through an endless number of wonderous creative sequences into shapes at a pace that I’d never achieve on my own. Good core / bandhas instruction and action make for a healthy happy spine.

If you don’t like when a teacher tells you to align differently, or move faster — or the converse: to slow down, to stop the incessant vinyasa — ask yourself honestly “what’s not to like?” (or apply The Work of Byron Katie).

Ask yourself if, even though you may never willingly choose to return to that class, is there any possible lesson, benefit or balance for me in this?

Am I overly attached to one style or one idea of what yoga can be?

Am I overly attached to getting my sweat on? …to a lazy stretchy hour?

Yoga by definition means union.

The only purpose, THE only purpose of this practice is to create more union. Unity includes mutual respect between practitioners of different styles or different paths. Unifying your mind, body and spirit. Re-uniting with your true self, which is limitless in its capacity.

Union with the innate perfection of you. Just as you are now, imperfections included, regardless of physical capacity, regardless of instructions pouring out the teachers’ mouth.

So next time you find yourself in a class or with a teacher that doesn’t fit your needs or expectations, simply observe, allow your horizons to broaden, play with your edge. Try out new alignment ideas and challenges. Try on a new hat. Or practice sweetly staying true to you. Drop into more of your fullest self. Stay present, in union, with the moment. Whatever you do, release any instructions – internally or externally generated – around of correctness, perfection and prettiness. Striving = strife.

Yoga is bigger than anything you and I know or knew.

Yoga is expansive and expanding.

I hope it stays that way.

One thought on “Yoga, Injury and Safety Q+A / Survey Answer #1: Perfection in our Imperfections

  1. Full question: I had a conversation with a yoga instructor recently about how it seems yoga has become like a competitive sport as the US has adopted it. I told her I took yoga classes over a decade ago from a gentle, motherly, artist woman (my friend’s mom) who taught yoga out of her home, and since then I had been doing yoga on my own. The teaching philosophy of my first yoga teacher had been that no one should ever try to stretch further than they can. For example, a first time yoga student will probably not be able to touch their toes, especially if they are overweight. My first instructor would tell us it’s okay to do a pose as close to what she was doing as they could, but would caution not to overextend, and only to do what is comfortable for them. She would say it’s alright if you can only get halfway into the full pose. This allowed us to focus on enjoyment of the gradual changes that take place toward becoming more flexible (“ah , feel that [gentle] stretch”), as well as breathing and relaxation. After a few courses, I was able to bend as far as the instructor, without any prodding or pushing. The philosophy I learned from her is that it doesn’t matter how you look when you’re doing yoga. What matters is how you feel when you’re doing yoga. Yoga is supposed to feel good.

    Nowadays, when you go to a yoga class– even a prenatal yoga class– you get the impression that the instructor is focusing on getting the students to achieve “proper form”, even if it is their first time coming to the class. This is especially difficult for pregnant women, who are at increased risk of injury due to loosened joints. The emphasis seems to be on how you look when you’re doing yoga rather than how you feel.

    The instructor I had the conversation with the other day agreed that the emphasis on appearance was off base. She mentioned a yoga workshop she went to recently that was extremely fast paced where stretches were done quickly like warm ups and aerobic exercises. She felt that it was the westernization of yoga as adopted by American culture that made yoga seem like a competitive sport that is packaged and sold like any other commodity.

    My question is, do you agree that students should not attempt to do a pose exactly as the instructor does it, unless they feel comfortable doing it? Is it alright for people to go only as far as they can, even if the version of the pose they are able to achieve does not appear “correct”, graceful, or attractive?

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