What a Yoga Practice Looks Like

“To be a miner of diamonds, take care of your picks and shovels.  To be a miner of your spiritual Self, take care of your body, breath, and mind.  But don’t confuse the tools and the goals.”   -Swami Jnaneshvara

This is the second part of my yoga social media experiment that I talked about last week.  The below opinions are purely born out of practice, experience, and what  philosophical knowledge I do have, and they have also inspired me to learn and practice more in the future.

Adherence to “The Rules”:

I didn’t completely follow all of the rules set out for myself.  I wasn’t able to post every single day, because, I forgot a few times.  I mostly stuck to writing the simple question “What does a yoga practice look like?”  I made witty comments a few times out of my own need to reduce my own tension.  It was interesting to witness my reactions to posting a video of myself without giving context or explanations for my body, ability, and asana alignment.  It showed me just how often I apologize for existing.  (*Sorry, my right shoulder is different than my left.  Sorry, I’m sweaty.  Sorry, I’m taking up space in the world while being imperfect.*)

I seriously contemplated quitting this several times altogether because I was afraid that my experiment would be seen as weird or have social ramifications.  So far, I’ve had good feedback and even experienced a gain of about 15 followers in spite of eliminating hashtags.  Maybe everything on the internet is so extreme that boring has become the new interesting?  I at least stuck to the “no editing and no re-shots” rule.  It was a good practice in taking up space in the world while being imperfect.

Personal Observations:

I appreciated practicing one pose almost everyday.  Examining my body in one asana over the course of the month showed me a lot about my own body and habits.  Warrior 2 on my right side looked different than it does on the left side at first, but after several breaths my right shoulder would ease down and my rib cage would rotate.  I knew breath changed the body’s shape before, but to take the time to intimately feel and experience that over the course of the month, showed me how important it is to slow down, breathe, settle, and even wait.  To me, this was such a beautiful ritual in patience and compassion. Instead of directing and pushing the body to a certain shape, I could breathe and allow my body to take shape as it could.  In fact, I would like to continue this study of a single pose over time, as I found it fascinating.

Asana vs. Yoga:

In the course of my social media experiment, I started to learn this separate distinction from asana and yoga.  If you’ve read a little of the Yoga Sutras, you know that asana (physical postures) is one of the 8 limbs of yoga.   While many teachers in the West, myself included, claim to include the other seven limbs, I really think the majority of what we know as “yoga” in popular Western culture is actually asana.   Yoga and asana can be two separate things while also being the same.  I’m not saying an asana-only practice is not yoga, but when I am looking at a picture of someone on social media, I can only concretely know I am seeing asana.  I can’t really know if they are practicing yoga.

In my understanding, yoga is a state of being, our true nature.  When I go to a gym to get a workout in yoga class, I am most likely practicing asana.  That doesn’t mean I don’t end up practicing yoga by the end of class, which is good because other than home, the gym is the second most likely place Americans go to learn about yoga.  Combining this fact with the huge fitness culture in America: how could we NOT have this asana obsession?  I can see how one could see asana as yoga instead of two distinct (yet related) things.

What Does a Yoga Practice Look Like?

I don’t know. 

When I scanned my Instagram feed, I felt pulled in two directions.  I could acknowledge that the physical practice wasn’t everything, but I also thought executing flashier, well-performed asana would make me a better yogi somehow.  This cognitive dissonance within me resulted in my playing the ever so popular, “That’s not yoga,” card.  I started categorizing practices as good or bad based on my own preconceived notions of what I thought a yoga practice should look like.  Yet, I realized that I can’t even know what one would look like without intimately knowing someone’s mind, body, and spirit.  In fact, every time I look at Instagram with resentment and say, “That’s not yoga,” the only thing I can be sure about is the one in that moment not practicing yoga is me.

After this experiment, I have more acceptance of others’ practices, but I don’t think this means yogis should be wildly accepting of all actions.  In Yoga Sutras 2.26-29, Patanjali explains that we practice the 8 limbs of yoga to bring about attention as a tool for discriminative discernment (viveka).  Yoga brings about attention and discernment between me and what I observe, what is actual wrongdoing and what is selfish attachment.  We should disapprove and take action, if possible, against people who are causing harm.  Sometimes, I see something on Instagram that looks harmful, physically endangering, or offensive to an entire culture of people.  That is where our own individual discernment comes in.  Before taking action (in the context of the online world is usually insults or long rants and diatribes on blogs), we have to discern for ourselves if the perceived offending party is doing something actually wrong or if we have some sort of selfish attachment to how other people behave.  I didn’t want to see someone do a headstand on the beach in their bikini because I couldn’t–a selfish attachment.  However, seeing abuse of power in a yoga community is something one should judge and take action against.  There’s a difference between judging and being judgmental.

Becoming a Yoga Teacher:

I’ve looked at other translations of the Yoga Sutras, and I’ve seen that some use the term  “rungs” instead of limbs when describing the parts of yoga.  Like a ladder, one rung has to be grasped before moving onto the next.   Maybe we are all on the same ladder but on different rungs.  Some of us are just meditating, breathing, or simply just trying to be more honest.  Others are doing all of those things and practicing asana, too.  We all have a different view of our surroundings depending on what rung we are on, but we can’t look at anyone and say that they aren’t climbing.  People practicing rage yoga, fitness asana, dog-a, and pot yoga are all on the ladder, too.  (And if that sentence makes you really uncomfortable, it’s something to pay attention to.)  Everyone is doing what they are capable of at the time.

Just because we’re all doing what we are capable of, it doesn’t mean that yogis should take a very hands off, “minding my own business” approach to the yoga culture in this country.  After this month, I feel a responsibility more than ever, to seek more knowledge, open my practice up to more than just asana, be more committed to my own practice, and to be of service to others.  It started with admitting my wealth of ignorance, examining my own attachments and motives, and implementing a regular practice for myself.  It ultimately ended with a desire for more of all of those things.  I didn’t learn what a yoga practice looked like, but I think I did learn what a yoga teacher looks like:  a person living and sharing the teachings.  If we really have a big problem with asana-only practice or asana obsessed culture, then all we can do is be a yoga, not an asana, teacher.  If we don’t know enough about yoga to teach it, then we have to learn.

 

 

 

 

 

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