By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio
The Olympics are upon us, and we are ready to be amazed and inspired by athletes at the top of their game.
Believe it or not, yoga has been suggested by some as an Olympic sport, and there are small groups that would like to hold their own Olympics specifically for yoga.
For me, the question remains, how would this “sport” be judged? Wouldn’t that be the ultimate occasion where any possibility of a deeper understanding of yoga would be completely abolished in the Western mind?
At its best, yoga is not a “sport” of physical accomplishment. Mind-body connection and awareness leading to knowledge of the Self is its aim. So, how can we judge yoga by physical ability alone?
To be fair, this idea of Yoga Olympics is not a Western invention. Yoga competitions and demonstrations have been done in India for a long time.
The practice of this ancient tradition (especially asana) is no longer popular in its country of origin, so igniting interest and inspiration for the practice in the average Indian is difficult.
In the West, we have no problem indulging in the physical side of yoga. As a matter of fact, our understanding of the practice begins through images of fancy and “advanced” postures placed in a myriad of advertisements. Our challenge comes in moving from this external image to finding a deeper understanding of the yogic path — something other than “going for the gold” in a good-looking physical pose.
This is a difficult process in a culture where progress usually means something concrete and tangible. Like all other activity, we want to be able to log our yoga progress in time spent practicing and/or in achieving complex poses. We want to compare our achievements against that of others to know how we measure up. But the challenge in yoga is learning to measure progress in a totally different way. We must question the “how” rather than look at just the “what” when we practice our poses.
BKS Iyengar has a famous refrain that you can tell an “advanced student” by their ability to hold a “bad” pose for a longer time. Probably not the standard one would use for grading in the Yoga Olympics, but useful for noticing what is important about yoga. In this short statement, Iyengar recognizes the ego that thinks it’s “advanced” in some way by doing a pose, but he also scolds the ego for failing to recognize a “bad” (misaligned, contorted, unintelligent) pose. We put ourselves through the physical paces, but how are we really doing the pose: where is our mind, where is our knowledge, where is our Self?
Iyengar’s comment reminds us that the physical aspect of yoga is a doorway, not a goal. Every pose functions as a mirror to our own self.
As yoga students, we must learn that it is not the “doing” that is important. Whether we need props for support, or whether we can assume every position unaided is not the measure of our success. Our progress comes in terms of increased attention and awareness as we do poses — whether they are easy or complex. It is an encouragement of self-knowledge that makes yoga different from any other activity.
Take Trikonasana (triangle pose), for example, a pose taught in most introductions to yoga. Looked at as a “beginner pose,” it might not be chosen as a compulsory posture in the Olympics, and we ourselves might check it off our pose list and move on to more “exciting” things. But it is exactly a well-practiced pose like Trikonasana that can guide us toward a deeper understanding of yoga.
Once we have reached a point where we consider a pose physically “easy,” we have arrived at the time to dig deeper, to become more sensitive and more focused on what is happening within. The body seems to know the pose — but what has the mind learned? What is the mind focusing on while I do the pose? What sensations does the pose generate in my body and mind? What is happening with my breath? The answers to those questions are the medals of yoga to strive for.
We may be inspired by the sight of beautiful poses in competition, but let’s not be distracted by physical achievement in yoga. Limiting our “goal” in yoga to external prowess takes us off the path, and thinking of ourselves as “advanced” could be the moment we lose our way. Rather than continuing to hold a bad pose longer, let’s strive for the gold through awareness and knowledge in the full body-mind experience that is yoga.
For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit www.yogarockford.com or call (815) 968-9642.
From the July 25-31, 2012, issue