If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, I could never do yoga—I’m not flexible enough!” There is a common misperception, promulgated heavily of late thanks to Instagram and the invention of the selfie, that a prerequisite for so-called “doing yoga” is to have recently completed a national tour with Cirque du Soleil.As a yoga teacher, I’m here to discredit this idea. I put to you an assertion in the words of my own teacher: Yoga is not for pretzels.
Consider: what do you think of when you think of “yoga”? Someone standing on their head, or doing a pose like triangle (utthita trikonasana) or downward dog (adho mukha svanasana)? Perhaps something more along the lines of Gumby playing Twister? Maybe someone sitting silently with their eyes closed and their legs crossed, touching the tips of their index fingers to their thumbs—international sign language for, “I’m meditating”?
Any of these things could be part of a yoga practice. But none of them is yoga.
Yoga, you see, deals with the body, but it doesn’t end there. It isn’t really too concerned with whether or not you can push up into a back bend, tie yourself into a pretzel, or even touch your toes. Especially in Iyengar yoga, the style I practice and teach, there may be very precise instructions about what to do with the body to help it to be aligned and function properly, but the ample physical benefits are a happy perk of the practice. What really sets yoga apart from simple stretching or complex gymnastics is the quality of attention it asks us to pay to what we are doing.
Let’s look at a few very, very old definitions of yoga to get a better sense of what that means. The primary definition of yoga comes from a text called The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the consciousness.” Yoga is a way to train one’s thoughts to stop running around in circles, in the same old patterns, that keep us tied to the same old patterns of behaving in ways that are reactions to the thoughts that most of the time we don’t seem to have much control over. It starts to show us that our most essential nature is not really the stuff that goes on inside our heads. A second definition of yoga from another ancient Indian text similarly says that yoga is “evenness of mind.”
What happens when we have a moment of evenness of mind, when we still some of the thought-waves that usually jump in like a programmed autopilot? According to Patanjali, “Then, the seer dwells in his (or her) own true splendor.” We get a glimpse of that deeper part of ourselves that lies underneath the autopilot, the part that is splendorous. We have a chance, then, to think of yoga along the lines of a third definition: “Yoga is skill in action.” Whether that action involves a twisty-pretzel pose, or standing simply on your two feet, or interacting with a challenging co-worker, or taking better care of yourself, yoga is practicing the ability to be fully aware of whatever it is you are doing, and doing it progressively more skillfully. Yoga teaches skillful living.
And along the way, you just might learn to touch your toes, stand on your head, or maybe even tie yourself into a pretzel!
Kirsten Brooks is a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. She teaches yoga at PRA’s Towncrest location. Like us on Facebook or stay tuned to our website for information about the upcoming summer session!