There Must Be More To Yoga Than A Headstand….

This simple line from a non-yogi friend of mine instantly put an end to my whining and moaning that, after 8months of regular yoga practice, I still was nowhere. When I started my regular practice last September, I was not expecting to fly into a handstand ever, forget anywhere in the near future. But, as I’m realising now, despite my compromised back (disc prolapse) and self talk that I was just looking at healing my back and not contorting my body into different shapes and sizes, at some level, I was hoping for all this- at least some part of it.

In retrospect, I’m realising that what I brought into my yoga class was not only my injured back, tight hamstrings but also a fragile self esteem. All the aphorisms about calming the mind with yoga, yoga being more about discovering the self than touching your toes sound fantastic. I am in no doubt that I am seeking more a reformation of my inner self than my physical body’s flexibility and strength, but the latter don’t hurt either. In any case, in a yoga class, asanas are all that there is to see and gauge your progress with.

That yoga is deceptively simple I have learnt, much to my cost, and written about the same earlier. But even more deceptive is the inner journey yoga is supposed to be. Calming the mind;  learning about oneself; inward journey; living in the moment– sounds great, doesn’t it? But how does one get there? Oh ok- yoga is not about destination but about the journey but HOW? How am I to still my mind when my entire focus is on defying gravity and getting my ass up in a shoulder stand? Or on consoling myself when the law of gravity still holds true for me and my ass while all others defy it?

93b6221378a1f79875687fb5193c18e1All this and much more unsettles me. Simply going into a downward dog or cobra does not automatically offer some great insights into the self. Somehow, inexplicably, asanas do throw up amazing physical benefits and calm the mind. The “inner journey” of yoga? That is a different question altogether. How is the outer manifestation of yoga , asanas, related with the inner, spiritual journeyof  say Bhakti yoga, Raja yoga? Yes, a physically fit body is required to sit for long hours in meditation but does a body that is fit enough for a handstand mean that the soul too is undertaking the spiritual journey? I doubt it.

What is it that makes yoga, in its true essence, different from any other physical workout? People, who have never done yoga but are otherwise physically fit, can perform advanced “asanas”. But are they “yogis”? Or even those of us who go to a yoga class but are oblivious of the inner, spiritual aspect, can we lay claim to the heavy title of a “yogi”?

internal-prcatice-yoga-picture-quoteAs much as I might hanker after gravity defying, glamorous looking asanas, let me face it that I’ll probably never get there. In a yoga class I’ll perhaps always be the silent one tucked in a corner, nursing a stiff back and struggling with “sukh asana” ( cross legged pose). If an asana is to be the yardstick for judging my success in yoga, I’ll not even get passing marks. But if there is indeed more to yoga than a headstand, I have hope for at least I seek. This seeking, however, cannot be answered in a class, cannot be gauged by any external, physical parameters. If there is indeed more to yoga than a headstand, I have to learn that myself- no class, no asana, no teacher can get me there. This inner journey in fact begins where the outward circus ends. Whether one is willing to take the plunge is the question.

                                                        The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.”― Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya



Why Yoga can be quite a bitch and being a “yogi” not so easy…


Yeah that’s very “unyogic” language to start with but if you thought yoga was going to be a panacea for all your life’s woes, I have news for you-yoga can be quite a b**** instead and here’s why-

  1. Like most things in life, what you get from yoga, depends on what you put into it. Only that yoga, essentially, is not simply asanas ( poses) or the strength or flexibility that goes with it. As ever newbie yogi knows, there are 8 limbs of Hatha yoga alone ( yama, niyama, asana, pranayam, pratyahara, dharana, dhyan, Samadhi) not to mention the other “types” of yoga- Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Gyana Yoga. Too much? And you thought that by “nailing” the shoulder stand and talking about vata, kapha and pitta  you had got it. Not quite. It follows logically from above that yoga isn’t simply asanas but a way of life- everything from your thoughts to habits to eating and sleeping patterns. It’s a holistic approach to life and living. You want to be a “yogi”. Lululemon pants and Manduka mats aren’t enough.
  2. Why did you join yoga in the 1st place? Health reasons when the doctors forbade everything except yoga or because you wanted to be able to get into those awesome looking poses ? The good news is that whatever be the health benefits that you seek to reap are not going to come by an hour of practice for a month. Yes, we all have heard of miraculous cases where people have recovered from broken backs or are leading a normal life despite MS due to yoga, but what we don’t see are the hours and years of dedicated, consistent practice that has gone behind. And you though your cervical pain would vanish with an hour of erratic practice!
  3. Okay so you are one of the blessed ones- you have no injury, have a strong, flexible body and after a few months can slide into a “lizard pose” or go up into a headstand with ease. Instagram and Facebook have been flooded with your “selfies”. So you feel quite justified in calling yourself a yogi? Have you gained any amount of control over your thoughts and mind or does yoga still end for you as your class ends? Or is this aspect of yoga nowhere on your agenda?

If you are one of the few interested in deeper aspects of yoga and not simply weight loss or sexy looking asanas, are you willing to adopt a way of life and thought that yoga asks for? Yoga, you see,can suck you in, suck you up in ways that you could not foresee. Instead of presenting readymade answers and solutions, it throws up more. Are you ready for a journey within and all that it entails? If yes, yoga has promise for you; if not, well, yoga can be a quite a bitch and keep you hooked just to a great looking ass in sexy lululemons !


Yoga – Its colonisation and decolonisation


Ever since I started regular and devoted yoga practice about six months ago, I’ve been reading a lot of blogs/articles on yoga ( not yoga theory  as in the Yogasutras and the like but just articles and blogs on yoga). Of course, I would probably benefit more if I spent more time practising than reading but yes, I enjoy reading these websites. As I read these articles, a lot of issues that are being raised forced me to think. The most intriguing line of thought that I’ve been reading talks about, to put it succinctly, how yoga has become the handmaid of thin, white, skinny females, has in fact been “hijacked” by the white west and there are talks of “decolonising” yoga.

While I would not go as far as saying that yoga has been hijacked by the west, my own wanderings and search in the field did make me realise some truth in this line of argument. Yoga is indeed in need of some serious reclamation, especially here in India and, interestingly, not from the west or from skinny, white females but from us. Let me elaborate. As I started my off and on yoga journey a couple of years back and my regular practice 6 months ago, the single biggest challenge was to find a ‘good, sensible’ yoga teacher. As I had said in an earlier post (here), we in India consider ourselves born yogis- both in the realm of philosophy and asanas. That we need to “learn” yoga, sincerely with years of consistent practice and that too on payment, is beyond us. Every other park has a ‘free’ yoga and pranayama class going on in the morning. What is taught and done in the name of yoga, is anyone’s guess. An average group class will cost somewhere between USD40 to USD 80 a month ( approx 5 one hour classes a week) which is rather reasonable seeing how much a yoga teacher training from a reputed place costs and how much studios abroad are charging, but we don’t want to pay. Those who “teach” for free need to learn much themselves.

There are a plethora of gyms opening in every nook and corner but yoga studios with a variety of classes and flexible schedules are just not there. In all my wanderings I have just come heard of one yoga studio, 136.1 ( in Bangalore and Chennai that offers a variety of yoga classes. Up North you’ll be lucky if you can find a teacher who takes a class in the morning and evening forget about a yoga studio. Yes, there are Yoga institutes like Iyengar Institute in Pune or the Sivananda Ashrams but for ordinary people who want to learn but cannot devote their life to the practice, options are few.

Furthermore, there is as much a dearth of seasoned, trained teachers as there is of sincere learners willing to devote time to years of steady practice. The reason we find skinny, white females exhibiting advanced asanas is simply that more of them have devoted time to learn and master asanas. In all my visits to yoga classes I am yet to come across a student who could go into a headstand. Of course this is not to say that these striking pictures should deter ordinary people like me from practising. As much as I hate to admit it, I feel quite awed and intimidated by these gorgeous women in gorgeous poses. That they overawe me so, is my problem not theirs- they are simply doing what they want to. If that deters me, it’s my problem not theirs.

When there is a dearth of good yoga teachers and students, in fact of a yogic community, it follows logically that the voice of a yoga teacher from India on the International forums will be missing. In all the articles that I have read, on websites like Yoganonymous, Yoga Journal, DoYouYoga, just to name a few, at best I’ve come across an article by someone of Indian origin practicing and teaching in the West, but sadly no one practising and teaching in India. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois are all time greats; but in the current scene I hear only names like Seane Corn, Rodney Yee, Shiva Rea, David  Life, Sharon Gannon etc . Maybe I’m not as aware as I should be but these are the names that I frequently come across and read about. Bikram Choudhury I have deliberately left out as, to my limited mind, yoga in heated studios is deviating vastly from the underlying principles of yoga.

When we are lacking in yoga teachers and students, the peripherals of yoga can’t be easy to find. Finding a good mat in India is a daunting task. Yes, traditionally yoga was performed on bare ground or at best on a rug and perhaps the yoga mat is a western trapping, but personally, I find it impossible to practice without one. Forget Manduka or Jade Yoga mats, the average yoga mat available here is around USD 8- 10 and leaves much to be desired. Sadly none of them will stay put while not making you slip. As my search for a good mat continues, my downward dog is in serious danger daily of ending up as a flat-dog-on-its-face.

So do I let my practice be “hijacked” by these shortcomings? Not really. Yes sadly odds are many but as I go on my slippery mat, attempting to hold a downward dog, I am in fact grateful to the West for honouring, appreciating and keeping alive a practice that might have otherwise faded into oblivion. Do I think we need to “decolonise” or “reclaim” it? Not really. All we need to do is to honour, appreciate and practice- rest will follow.