So I’ve been reading a lot of yoga commentary this week, some critical of fitness-focused, US-style yoga, others critical of specific yogis (namely, fat people). I had strong reactions to both viewpoints, and the more I think about it, the more I think they’re the same reaction.
The first category of opinion said that in order to truly respect yoga, a yogi should learn more about the practice than simply how to enter asanas, gain strength, or increase flexibility. I agree with that. The word yoga means “to yoke” or “to join.” As I’ve been taught, the “joining” has always been in the context of joining oneself with the divine, with something larger than oneself. Regardless of how an individual interprets “the divine,” it’s almost certainly going to be more mentally and emotionally involved than repeating mundane body movements in order to change one’s physique.
Some writers went on to say that an asana-focused practice is necessarily a warped and incorrect embodiment of the principles of yoga.
I’m going to leave that statement alone for a moment and move to the next set of commentaries. The nuances varied, but I kept reading over and over that a “lean” body correlated to a “dedicated” practice. (And the implicit inverse, that if a yogi is not lean, then ze is also not dedicated.) Even if they’re assuming yoga to be a totally fitness-focused, physical practice, I don’t find that to be inherently true, at least not for me.
And my asana practice is about so much more than my body.
It’s true that core work, to use a close-at-hand example, has some physical benefits, both aesthetic and functional. But when I’m cultivating that core fire, I’m sort of building up willpower there, challenging myself to do something in spite of the fact that it hurts. I’m learning to distinguish healthy purifying work-pain from damaging overwork-pain.
When I release my abdominal muscles with a backbend, leading with my heart center, I’m taking a supported, controlled risk. In learning to accept what I (in the form of my body) can and can’t do, I’m also learning to accept that my body can do some things that scare me.
It’s true that in a balancing pose, I’m incredibly aware that there is no such thing as balance. There are an infinite number of other energies (people, air currents, emotions, farts) in the universe. When one crosses paths with my energy body, sometimes more action is the correct response to remain balancing, sometimes the correct answer is less action. I’m also figuring out that whether my reaction assists me in balancing or topples me on my butt is immaterial; the important thing is to know.
Every time I take a twist, any twist, it requires me to be conscious of societal expectations about what my body “should” be. My waistline — fuck, my torso, from hips to shoulders — is thicker than what many folks would suggest that a yogi’s “should” be. And me, in that asana, I can see that this is the correct body for me, or I can see it as the result of imbalanced choices that I want to change, depending on what is actually the truth at that time.
And that’s really the big thing. Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired (though I’m sure I’m far from the only one who works this way), but my asana practice compels me to be with the truth of my existence. It’s never the whole truth, I don’t think, and I’m sure there are times when I don’t even see all of what is there, but… having my body as a medium is crucial to getting the point across to my mind and soul. Which is why my asana practice is valuable to me and why my body — just as it is right now — is key to that value.