Lately the theme here is “your yoga practice: spiritual or circus tricks?” It started with Sharath’s admonition in the led intermediate class not to do handstand in all the surya namaskara (relayed to me via insideowl as “Noooooo balance, no handstand. No circus.”) He expounded in conference (I paraphrase): some practitioners have started doing handstands all over the place. Ekam, dwe, then trini you lift up to handstand. This is not correct. It’s a way of showing off. It’s not yoga. It’ll make you crazy (and on a purely physical note, it’ll make your shoulders tight). And the conversational waves have been spreading throughout Gokulum for the last few days. We joke about the extent to which our practice resembles a circus act. We talk about other styles — in which teachers give cues like “blossom your buttocks”, or teach all kinds of crazy poses regardless of the level of the student just because they’re fun— and assert that those are definitely just circus tricks, not yoga at all. And there’s a lot of “My practice started out on a purely physical level, and the spiritual part came later.” I’m in that last camp, for sure. But as long as we’re here: what exactly do we mean by spirituality? And why exactly does doing a bunch of crazy poses negate the spiritual aspect of yoga? Because if that is actually true, then I am *way* more advanced than those spiritual neophytes doing third and fourth series.
The way my meditation teacher, M.A. Narasimhan, explained it today is that our practice of yoga must develop tapas, svadyaya, and ishvara pranidhana (for those of you following along in your hymnals, it’s yoga sutras 2.1). Tapas is the drive, the discipline to burn away the impurities in our bodies through our practice. The hard work required. Svadyaya takes it a bit further; the urge to know more, to take it upon ourselves to study the scriptures. To go deeper. And ishvara pranidhana is devotion, or surrender to God. Shazam! Spirituality. But put another way: Narasimhan said that ishvara pranidhana is the removal of the ego. Same-same. There is something bigger than me. I am not the end-all. If there is too much tapas and none of the other two, then it’s just circus tricks. But if you approach your practice–whether it’s first series or twelfth– with an attitude of self-study and devotion, then you’re golden, spiritually speaking. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what poses you do (if it didn’t matter, we could just do a surya namaskar and call it a day)– the poses, the series, have important physical/energetic effects that are a huge part of the process. But our devotion lets us release control of that process a little bit: my teacher has taken me to this particular point in the series, so these are the poses I practice. Without attachment to what happens next, or when I will be allowed to balance on one hand while wrapping my leg around my shoulders and sticking my big toe in my ear*. I think that’s what Sharath was saying about these show-offy transitions: they take us (and by “us,” I mean people who can do them, i.e. not me) away from the experience of yoga as something bigger than we are, and make it all about who we can impress.
In the end, the spiritual vs. circus question should be sort of moot. We do learn how to do some amazing things with our bodies, and there’s nothing wrong with being in awe of what a human body can do with discipline and practice– as long as we remember that the yoga extends beyond our mat.
*any day now.