How appropriate is your yoga?

I see a lot of yoga mats these days. Tucked under arms, tossed into bike baskets and backseats, nestled into slings that probably cost more than the mat itself. It’s good to see yoga mats. Huzzah for the mat and that lofty message it sends: I’m trying!

But. With this many yoga mats out there, I wonder about 1) all that darn PVC; and 2) how carefully all those students are applying asana to their one and only body. I think I can cover point one by addressing point two. Let’s see!

To get there, let me introduce you to Viniyoga. It ain’t Vinnie’s yoga, though bless that greasy guy in New Jersey who is definitely going to open a shala to capitalize on what’s coming. The term is taken from the Yoga Sutras, at 3.6: ‘tasya bhumisu viniyogah’ and it isn’t another form of yoga. With apologies to Sanskrit aficionados out there, the sutra proposes the care required to progress toward a goal, specifically meditative awareness. Vi might be translated as intelligent or deliberate; Niyoga as continuous application. (Bhumisu is stages or levels.)  So, in the context of the sutra, deliberate and intelligent steps must be taken to head toward meditative awareness. But what about the context of life? What is viniyoga if we aren’t aiming toward meditative awareness?

These days, I’m thinking of Viniyoga as a challenge to the purely physical practice of yoga. What we commonly call yoga out on the street– what many of those who accessorize with the mat might call yoga– is actually asana. (Asana means posture— all those poses we do– and it is only one of eight rungs on the ladder of yoga.) If you’ve practiced any asana, you’ll remember those groans that issue off a really good stretch or the sighs when you find a moment of stillness. It’s good for you– the asana. It means you’re connecting with your body, asking it to move strangely, trusting it to abide this weird fancy.

But sometimes, those movements we ask our bodies to do in asana aren’t the right steps for us. Not in life, or on the mat. They might be viniyoga for someone else– you’ll see in my pics that I was born hyperflexible; it ain’t all it seems, I promise– but not for us. At worst, an inappropriate pose can lead to serious injury. At best, it might pique our curiosity but with a list of side effects that rivals a bad drug: diminishment of confidence, aggravation of postural imbalance, inflation of the ego, desertion of the mat.

Viniyoga tries to address all that. Like, say, you’ve got stiff shoulders? Then what are you doing cranking them into a downward dog? Making a lame dog is what. (Sorry.) Or, maybe you have pain in your hamstrings? Probably not a good idea to be constantly folding forward. Just sayin’. Instead of pushing our bodies into poses that can hurt us, we prepare ourselves by taking careful, deliberate steps. For stiff shoulders, we work on finding mobility. For overstretched hamstrings, we work on building strength and stability in the pelvis.

This is yoga that integrates the person into the practice. That respects the individual and honors its path. I don’t believe that a person should try to fit the asana. I prefer to see the asana form to the person. That’s an appropriate way to practice. And to live. And, finally, guess what? This kind of appropriate yoga is what will ultimately take you toward meditative awareness! (I just got all loop-de-loop on you.)

The loop leads me back to point one. The point about the PVC. These days, you can spend heaps on eco-friendly mats. You can get cotton mats. You can buy blankets. Or plastic paws for your hands. So much! You can buy so much! (Just this week, I discovered a shop in Encinitas called Jois. Seriously? After Pattabhi Jois? My former, now dead teacher? Yes.) ‘Everything is 30 percent off,’ said the nice lady. The studio is almost an afterthought. It’s in the back. Please enter and exit through the gift shop.)

So how’s this for an alternative to mat toxicity? Keep yours and WASH it! I’ve recently learned from some students that they get a new yoga mat every year because they didn’t know it can go in the washing machine. (Cold water, very little soap.) I’ve had the same mat for five years. I wash it. Line dry. And if you need a new one, ask around. Someone usually has a spare they aren’t using.

Same goes for your body. You can’t get rid of it though. So, you know, gentle cycle. Mindful of your component parts, please.

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