Sometimes I’ll hear whispered (or shouted) in the yoga world the idea that a “more advanced” practice means mastering more complicated postures—poses that add the challenge of a bind or balance, that take the body into increasingly challenging shapes and contortions. By extension, I infer, one should prioritize, then—if they want to “advance”—trickier, more demanding, “harder” poses. Understandably, these people are probably looking for the sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing they’re “progressing on the path.” But what does that mean? To “progress on the path of yoga” would seem to have little to do with what our Western, body-obsessed, ego-insatiable culture would tempt us to strive for.
Yoga teaches that the goal of practice is not to perfect the pretzeliest posture possible, to have the most open hips on the planet, or to beat the body into submission. Though you can certainly find plenty of yoga teachers and schools and books and contests (God help us) that peddle that story, actual yoga teachings—those that are thousands of years old, rather than as old as American consumerism, which teaches that more is always better—ancient yogic texts ask us to always remember that the practice is ultimately a spiritual one. The goal is an experience of unity, harmony, bliss. That doesn’t necessarily mean mastering handstand (or Sirsa Padasana, pictured here). In fact, those of us who remain hellbent on putting ‘excellence of the body’ above all else are at risk of ignoring the more subtle realms of breath, mind, emotions, intuition, soul. And with that, we lose our way—and everything that yoga is trying to teach us.
The very first rung on the eight-limbed path of yoga is ahimsa, compassion, kindness. If we forget that in pursuit of the perfect arm balance, we may find ourselves growing in unexpected ways—increasing our capacity for self-harm, judgment, arrogance, contempt. In my experience, those do not lead to bliss.
The next time you find yourself falling into the asana trap—which is perfectly understandable given the world we live in (it’s a trap that I myself am not immune to!)—remember what your big picture is. Why am I practicing? What’s the ultimate goal? Am I hoping that my yoga practice makes me a more impressive human or a better one?
Jurian Hughes, jurianhughes.com © 2023