The Obsession with Yoga Asana

A friend recently shared a photo with me on Twitter of a young woman performing a very elaborate yoga posture, she was doing a headstand while in full lotus. As if this wasn’t enough, she was also doing this whilst only balancing on her head with her arms not touching the ground!

Over the years I have attended many classes and workshops and, as part of the wider yoga community, I have come into contact with many teachers of different yoga traditions. One of the things that I have noticed in the modern world of yoga is that it is very fixated on asana, the physical postures. It seems to me that the implicit aim or goal of a lot of modern yoga classes is one of physical gymnastics which, enjoyable as this may be, kind of misses the point. Perhaps it is helpful to be reminded that in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra of the eight limbs of training, asana is only one limb – there are actually another seven that explore ethics, meditation, etc. Patanjali places a lot more emphasis on using the body as a vehicle to support and explore meditative states of consciousness than he does in mastering an impressive back bend.

This over-emphasis and obsession on physical yoga postures can be seen regularly on social media. The majority of the photos shared by yoga teachers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are showing mastery of elaborate yoga poses. I feel there is a danger in this, as it gives a strong message that the attainment of physical asana is the goal of a yoga practice.

Like a lot of yoga practitioners, I enjoy a physical yoga practice and the benefits that it gives, so my comments are not an attack on yoga asana, but a call for balance and an awareness of the wider context in which it is held.

The modern hatha yoga tradition as we know it originated in ancient India and was heavily influenced by Hindu Brahmanism. There was also a cross-fertilisation of ideas occurring over hundreds of years between Hindu thought and Buddhism. The problem I feel is that the modern yoga we may come across has been removed from the context that supported it. The original goal of yoga is a far cry from what we find in most yoga studios today. I would go as far as to say that what passes for yoga in most gyms and yoga studios is a physical gymnastic body routine, with a liberal sprinkling of vague new-age ideas or a dash of Hinduism.

I often give an example to my students that if you are in a busy supermarket after a day at work and you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, being able to balance on your head is not much help!. But if you are able to work with your mind and connect to a quality of spacious, open awareness and relax, then you are going to be more able to respond creatively to the challenges that life offers us.

“In recent times the practice of asana or hatha yoga has become synonymous with the practice of Yoga. This is unfortunate. The perfection of asana was never meant as the goal of Yoga, nor will standing on our head for an hour signal some major achievement on our spiritual path. This misconception is understandable given our obsession with form and our desire to have some kind of concrete evidence of attainment.”

Donna Farhi – yoga teacher

The pursuit of Happiness

When was the last time you felt an emotion that you did not want to feel? 

In a recent TED talk, “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” Psychologist Susan David explored our flexibility with the emotions we feel in our lives.  She mentioned a survey she conducted with over 70,000 people where a third of those people judged themselves for having, ‘bad emotions’ like sadness, anger or grief, or made attempts to push these emotions away. She went on to say, “…normal, natural emotions are now seen as ‘good’ or ‘bad’…”  Susan argued that by becoming emotionally agile and allowing ourselves to feel, acknowledge and talk about the full spectrum of our emotions we allow ourselves to live more fully than if we are rigid.  For example, trying to push away less appealing emotional states or distract ourselves from them by embracing a false positivity. Susan said something I really liked, “…being positive has become a new form of moral correctness.”

I found it really refreshing to hear this. I feel as a society we have placed a strong emphasis on having a positive attitude. I have noticed this to be even more prevalent in the modern yoga world, where there appears to be a heavy focus on the goals of happiness and positivity (and their corresponding emotions) almost as if they are solid and fixed states.  My experience of life however has been that these states are a more ephemeral experience; maybe they last a few hours, a day or week, even a month, but at some point it changes and something else emerges.

As my practice of yoga and meditation deepened, I noticed that by being in the world and in relation to life itself our states and emotions are in a constant state of movement.  We hear news that touches us, and we feel sad; then maybe later a friend makes us laugh and a lightness enters our experience; a little later on we hear something that makes our blood boil. So, I am inclined to believe that these aspirational states of emotional positivity (we might be able to achieve if we just work hard enough) can be a very misleading view and I wonder if it might cause us to reject our more challenging emotions, wanting certain feelings to just go away.  Susan described this as ‘Dead People Goals’.

“Only dead people never get unwanted or inconvenienced by their feelings. Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life.”

Learning to deal with the world how it is and not how we want it to be is challenging. You could say in a nutshell, life is very much a bitter-sweet experience and the emotions we feel on a day to day basis reflect this.  The sooner we can truly begin to understand how important it is to be emotionally agile instead of chasing a fixed idea of ‘positivity’ or ‘happiness’ the easier our way in the world may be.

 

Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life

Susan David Psychologist

 

Vision & Belief

Sir Roger Bannister, died peacefully in Oxford on 3 March, aged 88, surrounded by his family.

On the 6th May 1954 as a 25 year old medical student Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Pandemonium broke out within the crowd of 3,000 spectators when news spread that he had officially beaten the four minute mile. What is interesting about this story, apart from his athletic achievement is that up until that point it was considered impossible for a human to run the mile in under four minutes. After that day things changed and a new belief was held that it was now possible to do so. After a while it became normal for world class athletes in competition to run the mile under four minutes.

What this story beautifully illustrates is the power of belief and the nature of our minds and capabilities. The idea that somebody before has performed a certain action allows us to feel that maybe we could do the same. I feel that when we glimpse a vision of our potential, we are then able to move towards that vision knowing that others have done so before us.

There have been many times in my life when stories about people overcoming great difficulties and obstacles, together with a belief in my human potential, have given me the confidence to step into the unknown and embrace my potential. Maybe you can think of events in your own life when you have done the same? It may be giving up smoking after many years, or leaving a job to explore something that feels more of a vocation to you.  However big or small our steps are in life we can hold the vision that we are much more than we could possibly imagine.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Joseph Campbell, Mythologist

The last time I saw Richard

“The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ‘68,

And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday

Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe”.

The haunting opening line of Joni Mitchell’s song, “The last time I saw Richard” from her 1971 LP ‘Blue’.  Anyone familiar with this album will know it contains doses of both confessional longing and romantic disillusionment. I once heard it described as, “…beautiful pain.”

When I was in my twenties, a friend of mine used to like to tease me because I was a hopeless romantic and they joked that one day I too would meet a similar fate to the character in the song. In more recent years I have begun to wonder if maybe they were right?  I may have avoided becoming a drunk but I have noticed developing in myself a deeper sense of disillusionment and at times, cynicism towards life.

In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe, Mitchell said of ‘Blue’:

“There’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.”

The emotional rawness on ‘Blue’ is something I can relate to. After the death of my girlfriend Elaine, I found it was an album that I played continuously. It was as if the songs on ‘Blue’ mirrored my own desolate inner landscape of feeling broken hearted and disillusioned by life.

As we engage with our lives we will all undergo a journey from naive innocence to mature experience and this seems part of a natural process of becoming an adult in the world.  As I look at my own life, I often ask myself the question: Can I stay open hearted in relationship to the world, or is living with a certain level of disillusionment and cynicism just a part of getting older?

The answer is, I like to believe it is possible to carry the wounds that come from being in the world, but that we can also simultaneously step into life feeling connected to others.  Allowing ourselves to be seen, to love and be loved, to be vulnerable, strong and to get things right and make mistakes.  Embracing our lives more fully, building a deeper relationship with what it is to be fully human and alive.

Tara & the Lake of Tears

There is a moving story in the Buddhist tradition about the birth of the goddess Tara. It is said that Avalokiteshvara the bodhisattva of compassion looked upon all the suffering in the world and as he did tears fell from his eyes.  The tears then began to form a lake in which a lotus developed. As the lotus opened, a beautiful woman appeared, the goddess Tara.

Tara is a manifestation of compassion and gentle kindness. Her name can mean ‘star’ but it is usually understood to mean ‘saviouress’. Tara is one of the most popular figures found within the Buddhist tradition.

Reflecting on this story I was reminded how often I am confronted by the huge amount of suffering and pain that exists in the world and it can all seem so overwhelming. In recent years I have found it helpful to hold the perspective that there will always be some suffering in the world and no matter how hard I try, I cannot alleviate it all.

Does this mean that we should then give up? Not at all, but instead come into relationship with our own suffering and that of others in a different way. I am reminded of the saying, ‘Think globally, act locally’. This means that we try to hold a larger perspective of the world and humanity whilst seeing that our small acts of kindness and compassion towards our family, friends and community all have an effect on the world we live in. We can have trust and confidence that, like a small stone dropped into a pond, our acts of kindness and love can ripple out touching the lives of many people and creating a kinder, more loving world in which to live.

“Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with intention. So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally. The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you”.

L.R.Knost

It’s A Wonderful Life

Many years ago I found myself in a cinema in Manchester during the festive season. As the lights went up at the end of the film, I looked around to see people wiping tears from their eyes, and likewise during the course of the film I had been moved to tears myself on several occasions. I had gone to watch a film that you can guarantee will be showing on TV or at your local cinema as part of the Christmas celebrations. It is Frank Capra’s classic ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. Made in 1947 and starring a great cast including James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, Capra’s film has a Dickensian quality to it. James Stewart plays the role of a selfless man George Bailey who is much loved in the small town of Bedford Falls; it’s a story of redemption that follows his suicidal despair one Christmas night. Clarence the angel appears and shows George how much of a dark and sad place the world would have been without him.

I believe that the reason the film is so loved by so many people is (not only due to Capra’s masterful direction and story-telling) because it illustrates a deeper, fundamental truth about the nature of reality. The truth is: that every life is of value and is important. We can often feel powerless in our lives and insignificant, even isolated and alone. But we are all interconnected to each other and to all of life – the threads that connect us to others and the world are not always easy to see. Even after many years of practising Buddhist meditation and yoga I still find myself at times struggling to see and accept that my actions touch other people’s lives.

A small act of kindness or a harsh word or action can have a profound effect, beyond what we can imagine. We have a responsibility for the world we live in; we are not separate from it but embedded in a network of complex patterns of connection. It can be helpful to stop and reflect on our lives and all we have done through our actions – great and small. The small acts of kindness shown to others bring us into deeper relationship with the world. Think of all the different people in your life and how their lives would be without you, and then you will begin to see the profound ordinary beauty that is your life.

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?’
Clarence The Angel from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’

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