I received a phone inquiry today about my yoga class. The woman on the end of the line was hesitant, stumbling over her words as she rattled through a slew of questions that seemed to lead up to her real reason for calling. Finally she blurted, “I’m just so nervous about doing this. I’m not at all flexible.”
I’m as guilty as the rest of the yoga community for perpetuating the myth of bendy-flexy practitioners at the expense of spiritual growth. I’ll often post photos of myself in stretched-out, tricked-out poses, smiling serenely as I casually toss my leg over my head. I’ll admit it: yoga PR wouldn’t be as sexy without the promise of physical perfection in the form of a tight yoga butt.
But the truth is that asana (physical practice) is only one small part of the full yoga experience; in fact, some would argue it ranks among the least important aspects. Pantajali, in the Yoga Sutras, describes eight limbs of yoga in the following order:
- Yama: Universal morality (how we deal with those around us)
- Niyama: Personal observances (how we deal with ourselves)
- Asanas: Body postures (the common Western view of yoga)
- Pranayama: Breathing exercises and control of prana (life force)
- Pratyahara: Control of the senses
- Dharana: Concentration and cultivating inner awareness
- Dhyana: Devotion and meditation on the Divine
- Samadhi: Union and connection with the Divine, bliss
Check it out: Asanas lie near the beginning of the path toward Samadhi, not the end. The real reason for developing a strong asana practice is to prepare the body to focus the mind. Poses deliberately become more challenging in order to keep the mind fixed upon the task at hand. Those who practice regularly know how easily one falls out of a posture as soon as the thoughts wander. Still, under the tutelage of a good teacher, asanas can eventually be learned and their full benefits received, even if the execution never quite achieves magazine-perfect showiness.
Far more difficult for a teacher is passing on yoga’s enormous spiritual and emotional benefits. What makes it especially tough is that internal growth simply can’t be demonstrated graphically. I can post of photo of me in headstand, but I can’t post a similar one of me cultivating my inner awareness. There’s no visual cheat sheet. And truthfully, spiritual development eventually becomes a self-guided journey no matter how good the teacher; each of us must find our own way in our own time.
When I tried to convince the caller that physical flexibility didn’t matter, I touched a bit on yoga’s spiritual aspect. That seemed to throw her off balance because she hung up fairly quickly. I doubt I’ll see her in my class anytime soon.
No matter. The fact that she called, reaching out to explore a new experience, is a sign that she is seeking and questioning, consciously or not. One day, she will discover her personal inner and outer gurus, the ones that resonate with her, and she will, I hope, follow their call.
In the meantime, I’ll meditate upon how to effectively convey the significance of the other seven limbs of yoga – without showing off my own.