Inevitably, when people learn that I teach yoga, I get this: ‘Oh god, yoga is crazy hard.’ Or, ‘Yoga! I’d do it if I wanted to, you know, rip up my joints.’ Or this: ‘Sometimes I worry I might break my neck. Is that normal?’ Finally, the most common of the common doozies: ‘I did P90X yoga. Whoa. Killer.’ Yikes.
Also perversely funny. Is a marketing campaign successful when the public perceives the product as potentially homicidal? Maybe these days, yes? In place of bolsters and blocks, should we stock our studios with helmets and pads? Maybe we should introduce tigers to class? And gladiatorial guest teachers?
So what’s going on here? Are the people attending yoga classes junked out on adrenaline?
And what does that say about people like me? Me and my friends who teach? Those of us who practice daily? Are we the executioners? The kids with suicidal tendencies?
Well, this turned grim in a jiffy. (Here I thought I was nurturing a little happiness in some handy pockets.)
No question that yoga asana, done safely, offers some decent challenges. Poses present little tests for the body. Sometimes you need strength you don’t quite have; sometimes, it’s balance. Or flexibility. Maybe you need to learn how to relax into something; or to let go while remaining stable; or to contain mobility while remaining soft. Generally, all of this guided by a healthy helping of the breath.
It’s a bundle of action, that’s for sure.
But it isn’t death-defying. And it shouldn’t be risky. The key to putting all this together is a focused mind. And that, my friends, is the greatest challenge of all. Preparing yourself for Bird of Paradise or Sirsasana might seem like a task demanding life insurance but I’d argue that an appropriate response to that fear might be: ‘I’m not ready.’ Not, ‘let’s give it a go, then!’
Which is where the focused mind comes in. A clear mind—one that listens to the depth and quality of the breath and the alarm bells in the body—is a mind that will put the brakes on before you launch into Visvamatrasana without adequate knowledge of your undertaking. A clear mind knows when to say, ‘no, thanks,’ and ‘not yet.’
And this, with respect, is what those yoga classes poking at the mental hive of mortality are failing to cultivate. At the very beginning of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, he writes yogas citta vritti nirodha. Yoga is the ability to direct and sustain the mind’s attention without distractions. Or, yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind. When this happens, tada drastu svarupe avasthanam. Correct understanding happens.
In other words: when you understand, you don’t perceive the poses as inherently dangerous. You know your limit and respect it. You play carefully before you reach it. You’ll have the vision to see why you don’t need to launch into that bird of paradise or headstand. You’ll have the courage to sit the pose out. You’ll realize that the true challenge of yoga is the maintenance of this focus, and not the silly poses, some of which, are nothing more than ego boosters in an esoteric disguise.
There is yoga for everyone, you know. It is mindful yoga—modified for the body performing it, appropriate to the background and experience of the person. If a teacher is making you look around for the reaper, I’d argue you’re in the wrong class. Listen to your suspicions, ask for help or roll up your mat and find someone who will help you. Or, if you’re looking to really experience yoga and what you’re doing is just throwing weights around in poses with battlefield-ready names, I’d suggest you look around for something different. Go ahead and brave the quest to understand. I dare you.
Yoga is out there to help you discover peace in your mind. So you can discover the consciousness behind it. And your truest, joyful nature.
What a gift. Thank you, Patanjali. To correctly and clearly understand. Imagine the burden this kind of clarity removes from your life beyond the mat. Imagine how much easier life will be when you work on the truly challenging part of yoga: the focusing of the mind.