Breathe, move, be

What should yoga look like?

Being somewhat critical of the commercialization of yoga, I often think about how members of the yoga community portray yoga visually in various places – mostly in marketing materials for yoga classes, apparel, accessories, and so on, but also in yoga classes themselves. In the strain of “fitness style” yoga we practice in North America, much of our work in yoga classes can revolve around achieving a peak pose that is in some ways aspirational. It can be a pose that some of us may never achieve, despite our best efforts.

I’ve been in classes (my own included) where the instructor’s demonstration of an advanced pose is met with raised eyebrows or nervous chuckles from the majority of the class. I suppose it’s similar to holding a published work of fiction up to an undergraduate English class and telling them that, one day, they too will publish a novel. Perhaps one or two will – but the majority has no interest in doing so.

Of course, each time one of these kinds of poses is demonstrated, we are told again and again that it’s okay if we never get there. It’s about the journey, the progression. We are exactly where we need to be. This is all, certainly, true. I suppose my question is – why are we aspiring for that pose at all? What is the true function of a ‘peak pose’ in yoga?

I’m going to break this down, while also dealing with some of my own discomfort around this idea.

The first response is obviously that, although yoga is not a goal-oriented activity, many people set out to begin a yoga practice with some goals in mind: getting healthier, feeling more mentally stable, losing weight, or managing stress, among others. Although we all agree that we practice yoga for the sake of practicing yoga – in order to have time that escapes the desires, challenges, and pulls of the ego – inseparable from the very tradition of yoga since its origins, is a quest for transcending the dualities of body and mind. It is a striving without striving. In the practice of knowing ourselves better, we become more authentic versions of ourselves and we also start to open outwards – to see beyond ourselves.

I suppose the terminology is a bit misleading. When we call it a peak pose, it begins to seem like a challenge for the ego to meet. And I feel like, in some ways, that’s how these poses come off when they’re represented in the visual culture of yoga. Headstands, handstands, complicated twisting arm balances, and all manner of pretzel-like shapes become the face of yoga. And, to me, that’s a problem. The last thing we need if we’re trying to make yoga more inclusive – and WE ARE always trying to make yoga inclusive – is more pictures of skinny white girls doing dancer’s pose on a mountainside. (No judgment, my skinny white sisters. Once upon a time, that was me being photographed in Warrior 2 on a stand-up paddleboard.)

I love seeing new images of yoga emerging quietly apart from the eco-boho-new-agey-chic of Lululemon and the covers of Yoga Journal. Yoga that celebrates all kinds of bodies and revels in their beautiful differences. Yoga that is accessible to different ways of being in the world, inclusive of disability and neurodiversity.

Part of my reason for writing this post today was hearing yoga instructor Dana Falsetti share her own personal journey with yoga. Even after achieving her desired physical appearance, Falsetti realized she hadn’t achieved true inner happiness – she may have looked fit and beautiful according to our current social paradigm, but deep down inside, she hadn’t found self-love. Accepting herself meant practicing yoga in a body positive way and embracing herself, inside and out. I love seeing this video of her rocking her own personal yoga.

The video got me thinking about body positivity in yoga, and the delicate balance we in the yoga community must find if we are to be responsible carriers of the tradition. And then I saw a second video featuring Falsetti and it got me thinking even more about what strength-building means in the context of yoga. (Watch “Strength Within,” below.)

Falsetti says that the reason we are doing yoga – and not gymnastics, or a fitness class – is the spiritual, internal dimension. While we are building physical strength in our progressions toward poses that may, in some ways, surprise us (i.e. the poses we never thought we’d be able to do), we are, at the same time, building inner strength. The two are in something of a feedback loop. In contemporary western manifestations of yoga, accessing the strength of our physical bodies becomes a gateway to exercising the spiritual and emotional dimensions. The stronger our bodies become physically, the more faith we may have in our own abilities. While our physical bodies will inevitably change, the goal is to maintain the spiritual strength, clarity, and knowing of which the pose is simply a physical expression.

Here, I think Falsetti raises an important point that our physical strength is temporary and fleeting. I think what I’m trying to get at by critiquing the notion of a peak pose is that the idea of ‘strength,’ as embodied by the pose, can be a bit misleading. Of course, one must be physically strong to do a handstand, but this is not the only indicator of strength, particularly when we pull out the true meaning behind the concept of ‘strength’ in yoga.

First, we must acknowledge that yoga looks different for everyone and, indeed, has looked very different over the ages. For the practitioners of ancient India, yoga was all about attaining mental control (yogaḥ citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ) – no physical postures, poses, sequences, or progressions. It was about cultivating the inner life. Hatha yoga, the tradition that we are most familiar with today, developed much later to incorporate more physical techniques.

Those variations in how yoga is practiced remain important today. Acknowledging the different ways of getting to a state of yoga (or “union”) is important for all of us as our bodies change, as we age, or as we acquire disabilities. Most of us will reach a point where our bodies no longer allow us to get into certain poses at all – where our physical safety means not doing the pose. Or where our body’s unique set of abilities or disabilities simply doesn’t mesh with what the pose is asking of us – yogis with amputations, wheelchairs, arthritis, or herniated discs, for example. We must recognize that there is no one “peak pose” but each individual’s personal physical limit. And perhaps, at that time, yoga is about the inner strength of respecting and honouring one’s present physical state.

Likewise, some mental health factors or cognitive disabilities may present obstacles to emotional and spiritual growth in yoga, so that sitting quietly with oneself in meditation or working through the emotional obstacles that come up during yoga are not accessible practices. Telling someone with attention deficit disorder to quiet their mind and focus on their breath may be a futile task! The physical body can be very strong, while the mind continues to run loose, untamed.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that the language of “strength” and “weakness” connected to the mastery of poses in yoga might be a bit counterproductive. Or, maybe misleading. The concepts too strongly connote a polarized opposition of positive (strength) versus negative (weakness). The practice of yoga is not about ridding oneself of weakness or vulnerability (because that is impossible), but getting to know that weakness better.

We are absorbed in a culture where strength, force, and power are idealized, and it’s easy to let those ideals infuse the practice of yoga as strength-building. We need to be specific about what strength means in this context – because, often, it means the opposite of what we expect. That is, simply, self-love, self-trust, and self-respect.

Sometimes softness, vulnerability, and the acknowledgment of weakness – which sometimes means not ever getting to the peak pose – is the strongest and most difficult response. Perhaps that is the lesson we are meant to learn.


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