Why do you practice yoga (asana)?
This is a question into which I strongly encourage any yoga practitioner to inquire. It is a question to which I’ve repeatedly returned over the past few years. In particular, moments in which I’ve experienced injury and in which I’ve been unable to enjoy my asana practice have compelled me to take a long, hard look at this question.
The reasons that I brainstormed were many but most of them boiled down to a simple answer: health. Physical, mental, and emotional health.
Coping with injuries made the answer to this question quite obvious. I then took a second look at some of the physical practices into which I was putting so much energy and time into mastering and I considered the extent to which my actions aligned with my goals. While most of what I was practicing in a yoga class did align with these goals, some of them struck me as somewhat questionable. When I was unable to move my head because I had seriously hurt my neck in a headstand I have to admit that I started to wonder about the extent to which a pose like headstand, or an extreme shoulder opener (a position in which I injured my shoulder), aligned with my intentions for my practice.
Let’s be clear: there is great value in pushing yourself to attain something which you previously thought was unattainable. It strips away layers of self doubt. It builds a sense of self confidence. It empowers you to fulfill your potential. This is not something that should be dismissed or taken lightly. But I’m also simply proposing that people consider this question–”Why do I practice yoga?”–and factor in the value in pushing oneself (physically, in asana practice) along with two other important points to consider:
1) What’s most appropriate for you?
In his later years, Sri T Krishnamacharya, and his son TKV Desikichar, emphasized that yoga should be tailored to meet the needs of each individual practitioner. If you’re the kind of person who veers towards complacency, towards tamas, then adopting an asana practice that’s pushing you physically might be just what you need, not only physically but psychologically. This practice might help you to develop qualities and characteristics off the mat that might have a hugely beneficial impact on your life. However, if you’re the kind of person who is more rajasic, who is consumed with energy and perpetually leaning into everything that you do, always saying, like in the classic film Spinal Tap, “This one goes to 11”–then perhaps your real practice is learning to step back and find that life can still be quite pleasant when you’re not pressing the gas pedal firmly into the floor.
Of course, there are other important considerations such, as body type, prior experience (did you start yoga when you were 40 or when you were 20–after spending the last 15 years as a gymnast), and, most importantly, your intentions for your practice.
2) The risk/reward trade off
It’s worth reflecting on our asana practice and considering: “What are the risks involved in what I’m doing and are they worth it, given my goals?” This calculation is based ultimately on what you hope to gain from your practice. So there is no right or wrong answer to this question; it’s unique to each individual. But the act of being very intentional about how you approach your practice is essential. After all, any physical trainer would ask you these questions before he/she develops a plan for you? But, curiously, many of us don’t take the time to consider these factors, sometimes even after years of practicing asana.
I know that I didn’t do so for many years. I could list reasons that I did yoga. But my answer didn’t have the depth and clarity until I’d been practicing for about five years. Shortly after completing my first 200 hour teacher trainer, I hurt my neck doing headstand. The entire way that it unfolded in the class was an eye opening experience into some of the safety red flags in large yoga classes. But much more immediately and viscerally, I started to think about this risk/reward tradeoff in terms of my own practice. This consideration still holds true even for experienced practitioners and even with poses that we feel that we’ve mastered. You might do a pose like headstand correctly 10,000 times with no problem and then one day…suddenly…there is a problem. The simple physics of the posture invites serious potential harm, if not done correctly, each and every time you go into this pose. And the way that this posture is often taught in large, packed yoga classes, to relatively inexperienced students, raises serious red flags.
But it’s not just a pose like headstand or the injuries that people feel immediately. There is also the kind of feedback that the body doesn’t receive until 10 or 20 years down the road. The wrists injuries that might come through repeated sun salutations or through intensive series of arm balances. We could go on down the list through shoulder injuries, hip injuries, etc. that we know that dedicated yoga practitioners have developed over time.
I share these thoughts with only one motivation: to encourage others to seriously consider for themselves: “Why do I practice yoga (asana)?”
And based on a considered answer to this question carefully think about “What risks am I willing to take, given my goals?”
Nothing in life is risk free. Any form of physical activity involves the risk of injury. This is certainly true when we increase our velocity, as we do in the more flowing “vinyasa” classes. On the other extreme, if we do nothing we atrophy, which is also a serious problem. So we strive to find that balance between pushing ourselves and stepping back. Frequency is another relevant variable: perhaps your body thrives on a vigorous Ashtanga practice, but whereas it used to be great for your body 6 days a week now it’s more like 3. Or you practice Ashtanga 6 days a week but on three of those days it looks very different from the other three days.
As wonderful as the physical benefits of asana practice are, yoga is above all a means for waking up, for the benefit of ourselves and for everyone else–none of whom are, we come to realize, separate from us. It is a practice by which we uproot the causes of our own suffering, the first of which is the most consequential, avidya, or ignorance. As we become more conscious of our motivations for our asana practice our yoga becomes more about cultivating intelligence rather than attachment to any particular posture or form. As our self awareness and intuition develop through the various practices of yoga–asana, pranayama, meditation, mantra–we become more skillful in answering this question–“Why do I practice yoga?”–in a way that is true for ourselves.