Okay, I have a problem with this photo.
So I follow a blog called YogaDudes here on Tumblr. It’s wonderful. It’s great to see a man in this photo. In the West, men are so underrepresented in the yoga community, it’s kind of intimidating. Yoga is a ‘women’s sport,’ a feminine, non-macho, (dare I say) ‘gay’ way to exercise. Suddenly just because you’re not in a t-shirt with the arms cut out, cursing and yelling while you toss around dumbbells, you’re obviously not a man. You’re obviously not in shape or strong.
I think you can look at this photo and see that’s not the case.
Yoga builds an incredible amount of muscle. Not only does it provide an intense cardiovascular workout (another misconception is that it’s all relaxed stretching), but it develops entire muscle groups: micro-muscles which are hard to isolate with just weight training, the larger muscles we’re all used to seeing thrown about in the gym and fitness magazines, and also connective tissues and tendons. It utilizes individual body weight to develop coordination and tremendous core strength. The continuous course through the body’s natural spectrum of movement helps to stimulate the production of synovial fluid that helps to insulate joints, massage the internal organs to increase their productivity, purge toxins, and soothe overactive nerves.
The pose in the photo above is obviously very advanced. Most people would not be able to achieve it (safely) without several years worth of consistent practice.
So here’s my issue with the photo: some people will never be able to achieve it.
We all know that our bodies are different. Some of us have wide hips, some of us narrow; some of us can lift 400 pounds, some of us can’t. In the case of the pose demonstrated in the photo above, some people are overly flexible and actually cause damage to their joints and muscles by hyper-extending in poses that they don’t have the muscles to support. Some people have the strength to support such poses but are limited from twisting their bodies in such a shape due to their bone length and physiological alignment.
You’ll notice that the banner at the bottom of the photo says “Hatha Yoga Championship,” and it’s sponsored by Bikram Yoga BC. Bikram Yoga is ‘hot yoga:’ a style of yoga developed in the West to artificially create conditions where the body is at its most flexible. Bikram Yoga is a fluid, vinyasa (constant movement) intensive style of yoga that’s practiced in studios heated to at least 105 degrees fahrenheit. The heat not only creates massive amount of sweat, thought to help and purge toxins from the body, but also allows the muscles to become more malleable due to the raise in temperature. I’ve also heard some people say that it’s a way to challenge one’s self and improve mental focus and determination to persevere in such an extreme environment.
I also think that, in some cases, it’s dangerous. To an advanced practitioner, it is completely safe, but too often, our desire for the typical ‘yoga body’ leads us to overdo it. Even professional athletes or those in the best of shape can hurt themselves if they’re not properly advised.
Heat is generated in the body during the first portion of any Hatha Yoga class. Hatha Yoga is the school of yoga practiced most often in the West. If you’re doing poses (or asanas, as they’re called in Sanskrit), you’re almost definitely practicing Hatha Yoga. The first part of any asana class is most often a sun-salutation, which serves as a warm up. It allows for the muscles to become receptive to the development and flexibility brought about by the rest of the poses.
In a Bikram Yoga class, this process is multiplied, leaving the muscles much looser than they would be naturally. The heat allows students unaware of their physical limitations to push their bodies farther than they would naturally go. This is what can lead to muscle tears, pulled muscles, dislocated joints, and other internal damage caused by consistently over-extending tendons, and connective tissues.
Even more dangerous, in my opinion, is that this style of yoga has become synonymous with ‘championships’ such as these, which suggest that there is a way that a pose is ‘supposed to look.' Students are tempted to push themselves beyond the healthy limitations of their bodies to look like the man above.
In reality, there is no such thing as the way a pose is ‘supposed to look.' The physical limb of yoga (the only one of eight, if you're curious), or asana practice, is about an equal balance of strengthening and purifying the body while respecting its limitations. I have seen yoga masters who have practiced for 40+ years that can’t put their heels on the ground in downward-facing dog. They can sit comfortably in poses like the one demonstrated above at age 65, but their bodies are not physically capable of ‘perfecting’ one of yoga’s most common and ‘simple’ poses.
They’re not doing it like it’s ’supposed to look.’
There can be no championship in yoga, because it supposes that there is an ideal form for the asana to take. And, there should be no championship in yoga, because it creates an atmosphere of competition. It supposes that one student can make a pose ‘look better’ than someone else can, even though it may be putting unnatural stress on the body or causing physical harm. I say again, this is completely against the fundamental principles of an asana practice and Hatha yoga. It removes one’s concentration from free flow of breath and proper alignment for one’s body to build strength and vitality and replaces all of it with the constant distraction of worrying about how one appears to the outside world and if they can make themselves ‘look better’ than someone else.
An asana practice is about you and your seat. That’s actually what asana means in sanskrit: seat. It’s a practice that’s meant to bring the mind, the body, and the spirit together. In the simplest philosophical terms as outlined by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, it’s about creating a strong foundation from which to build and support health and harmony between three channels of energy in the body. This harmony allows for the feminine energy (shakti) that the Yogi’s believe resides in the base of the spine, to coil up the spine like a great serpent to meet and join with Shiva: the masculine energy that sits in the third eye. This union is ecstatic. It leads to enlightenment. It is yuj (the word scholars believe grew into yoga): to yolk one’s self to God. To eliminate the distinction between the ego and the divine.
The beauty of yoga is that you don’t need to be Hindu to practice. While elements of the spiritual elevate the practice, you can be of any religion or no religion at all and still benefit from the resonance. But no matter what your religion, if you view it as just a workout, if you practice by yourself or in a class, yoga is an individual journey. You don’t base your rate of progress or your physiological abilities on a picture, someone else that goes to your local studio, or the winner of some ‘championship.’
Challenge yourself, build strength, learn to work through areas of difficulty, but respect your body. Listen to what it tells you, understand your abilities, study with an accredited teacher, and be very careful. Celebrate your body for what it is, for your drive to make it stronger and healthier, and the journey that yoga takes you on along the way.
Yoga is not a competition: it’s just you and your seat.
(Source: illustratore, via yogadudes)