Ceri Lee, one of our teachers talks ‘modern’ yoga and the importance of staying connected to the roots of the practice.
Yoga is everywhere and it’s popularity is on the rise. What a great thing! There is, however, a growing misconception that yoga is about strutting incredible poses and looking more like a contortionist straight out of Cirque du Soleil, rather than feeling a Zen like calm, at peace with ourselves. Undeniably, modern yoga showcases the delight of a beautifully sculptured body; aspirational for many are the dexterous accomplishments achievable with the more physical practices of yoga.
So, let’s look at what the word ‘asana’ means. ‘Asana’ translates from Sanskrit to mean ‘seat’ or ‘posture’, as opposed to ‘pose’. Pose to me conjures up Madonna and her song Vogue, which burst into the pop world in the 1990s with catchy lyrics ‘…strike a pose, there’s nothing to it...’ A song and video that fit perfectly with the fashion industry, sultry and expressive, demanding our attention, rather than something to be found in the quiet and non-demonstrative world of yoga, something to be done privately in a meditative state.
Originally the only ‘true’ posture in yoga was a comfortable seat taken for long periods of meditation. The purpose of all asanas being to flex and strengthen the body solely in order to hold a meditative seated position for long periods of time. Now beautiful ‘yoga poses’ modelled by aesthetically beautiful bodies are the ubiquitous fodder of social media marketing, creating a very distorted impression about what yoga is – which is certainly not gymnastics, acrobatics or contortionism, although that might become a by–product of regular practice.
For sure, wanting a better body is appealing. Who doesn’t want to feel strong and look great? There may be a motivation to lose weight or heal a part of the body and the physical ‘asana’ part of yoga is a helpful tool to encourage us to improve our general health, strength and flexibility. Taught well, it will encourage the student to go beyond the physical. For what yoga offers is a gateway into Self.
If the sole focus is physical prowess, really the point has been missed. Yoga offers something for all. Let’s not alienate those who may greatly benefit from a regular, genuine yoga practice with an intimidating media driven ‘show-reel’ that the yoga industry seems to pedal.
On first enquiry about yoga, often people’s main concern is that they’re not very flexible, they worry it will be too physically demanding for them. There is a proverb in yoga, it says that thinking you’re not flexible enough for yoga is like saying you’re too dirty to take a bath! So, let’s clarify what yoga really is.
Yoga is the path of balance, a way of establishing mental and physical balance and therefore absent of extremes. It is a system of purification, removing blockages in the body to enable a free flow of energy. Yoga is holistic. A toolkit for a healthy and happy life. Extreme yoga asana practice is not necessarily healthy, if it is something to which we become too attached. Any extreme attachment may shift the human psyche out of balance. Practicing yoga is a discipline, and managing that discipline is a balancing act.When does the discipline serve us or enslave us? For some it can be a fine line.
I have witnessed practitioners as their bodies start to change in the way they desire becoming addicted to the asana (posture) practice to the expense of everything else. I have seen how this itself has become yet another distraction, another pursuit to mask the void and shadow of self. Instead of ‘truly’ going deeper ‘within’, they may choose more extreme postural classes, which often results in injury and damage to their body. It takes them away from, as opposed to closer to them ‘Selves’.
So how is mental and physical balance achieved in yoga?
Through a regular practice that includes asanas, pranayama (breath work) and perhaps most significantly the active engagement of a state of relaxation.
Under the guidance of an experienced and knowledgeable teacher, who has developed a heightened state of awareness in their own body through years of honest self–enquiry. It is how we approach the practice that is key. In the mastery of anything, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it that matters.
Sometimes it’s not possible to maintain a regular practice, ‘life’ may simply get in the way. With the knowledge that yoga is the path of balance and that it is teaching us non–attachment, we can see that it’s another opportunity, possibly even a gift, to practice letting things go. When we permit ourselves the freedom to pick it up with as much mindfulness, as we let it go, we are certainly on the road to true liberation, moving into a mindset that allows mastery of our own life. We are the architects of our dreams.
Ceri Lee teaches throughout the week at The YLC