Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A note to my yoga class


I've received some good feedback regarding our yoga class. I spoke about it last Friday, but I'd like to share it with those of you who weren't able to attend that day, as I think it's an important reminder for all of us.

As many of you have heard me say on one occasion or another, what sets yoga apart from just good exercise is the connection between the mind and the body. One way to keep the mind engaged is to work at the edge of our abilities. Some poses challenge our ability for balance, others challenge our strength, flexibility, or coordination. But whatever the particular "edge" may be for each of us in a particular pose, one thing is almost certain: the "edge" will be in a different place for every person.

For some of us, Downward facing Dog presents a huge challenge to our shoulder strength; for others, it's a real test of hamstring flexibility; and for yet others, the real challenge of the pose is the coordination of keeping the spine long while still moving the heels toward the floor. The more we practice a pose, particularly working at our "edges," the more we will wear away those "edges." Shoulders will get stronger. Hamstrings will lengthen. Greater awareness will increase our coordination.

On one level, those developments seem entirely like a good thing. We all want to be stronger, more flexible, and more coordinated. But on the level of Yoga -- the connection between the body and the mind -- those developments are decidedly mixed blessings.

Why? Because as we increase our strength, flexibility and coordination, the Downward facing Dog pose that previously presented lots of different mental and physical "edges" becomes too easy for us. When that happens, the pose loses some of its value as an "edge," and our minds get free to drift. We lose the mind-body connection of Yoga. Fortunately, there is no such thing as "the final" Downward facing Dog pose. So when one pose starts to lose its "edge" qualities, we can always modify the pose to re-find those working edges.

Sometimes in the past, I've coached classes to try a more difficult version of a familiar pose, or to try a more difficult pose. On reflection and particularly with the benefit of recent feedback, I've concluded that I haven't emphasized enough that such modifications are only useful if you've gotten so comfortable in the pose without modifications that it's hard to find and work those "edges." I want to emphasize here that Yoga isn't really an exercise in stupid human tricks, though on occasion I've referred to various more exotic poses that way. What I'd most like to avoid is any situation that could lead to injury, which can happen when we attempt poses that our bodies or our minds aren't ready to try.

In the future, I expect that I'll continue to suggest modifications to basic poses, both to enable you to develop beyond a pose that has gotten too comfortable for you, as well as to keep you mindful of the amazing down-the-road capacities of each of you. But I can only do that responsibly if I'm certain that you understand that those complex-i-fying modifications are only useful if they help you to re-find your edge in the basic pose that you might have lost because you've gotten too strong, flexible, coordinated, or balanced. Sounds funny to say it that way, but it's really true.

And, as I try to emphasize every week, even if you've lost your edge in a particular pose, if I suggest a modification to a pose that you believe wouldn't be good for your body or yourself on a given day, please, please don't try it out. If it bugs you to not try out a modification even if you don't think it might be good for you, rather than trying the modification, just notice your mind and whatever it is that bugs you about not trying the modification. That is, in itself, a kind of "edge" you can explore. Your continued well being is more important than any particular pose modification.

In the end, it may be worth keeping in mind that there is no odd Sanksrit word for The Final Yoga Pose. There is only the body and the mind and the connections we create and perceive between them. Any yoga pose, no matter which, is only useful if it enables us to see those two elements and their relationship more clearly. When we engage in poses that do not meet our current needs and abilities, we inflict harm on ourselves, whether mental or physical. And I can attest that that leads away from the body-mind connection we're working for, not towards it.