We bring ego into yoga in so many ways. There’s so much going on in the body, mind, and emotional self, so of course all these things complicate yoga.
It’s amazing to see all the yoga classes that qualitatively seem no different than workout parlors. I’ve even had teachers like this who studied in India, which was surprising – but again, motivation is everything. Those seem to be a response to the stereotypical classes on the other end of the spectrum that are totally lightweight and, as Nancy says, ‘woo-woo.’ Then there are those magical classes in between, where you’re pushed physically and emotionally (or spiritually, depending on where you stand) but come out feeling whole.
It’s very difficult as a teacher to marry the physical, mental, and emotional/spiritual elements of asana practice. Indeed, that marriage is the goal of yoga. It’s a difficult process that takes many lifetimes, so naturally we as teachers and students of yoga don’t get it every time! But the goal of yoga teachers should be to provide students with an experience that exercises every part of the body as well as the spiritual or emotional self. It should be an experience in line with the principles of yoga: compassion, ahimsa, honesty, prudence, and dedication. This means that we as students can and should push ourselves, but avoid injury.
I can relate to the problem of healing practices causing or exacerbating injury quite well. I’ve had scoliosis, a spinal curvature common in women, for many years. My scoliosis means that I can’t quite stand up straight, am more prone to back and shoulder pain, and am slightly crooked in many asanas. It’s amazing how deeply I, a fairly inflexible person, can twist on the left – and how little I can twist on the right. The issue I am constantly faced with as a yoga practitioner is to compensate or to adapt. I can work really hard to even out the posture, which may help my spine straighten a little bit, but inevitably strains my back. Or I can adapt, finding a balance and evenness that matches my unique body.
As a competitive person who wants to do things right, of course, I’ve strained my back at times. This summer, I worked in a very physically active setting at a mountain guiding company in Alaska. I also taught yoga to mountain climbers, a very demanding bunch. With all this, of course, I developed an overuse injury in my left latissimus dorsal (or, in layman’s terms, the left side of my back). Nearly any exercise I tried to do made my back even more sensitive. I discovered that I use my back even more than my core as a support, and even when I try to strengthen the other side of my back to compensate, the dominant side can’t stop helping.
This fall, when I returned to my university, I was prepared to teach a weekly yoga class.The class wasn’t meant for advanced practitioners, and indeed my preference as a practitioner and as a teacher is a little more to the spirit than the sweat side of the spectrum. But the effects of my own practice, my class prep, and teaching continued to take a toll on my back, and after a month or so I had to stop. I’ve been taking a break from asana practice altogether. Does this hurt other parts of my spiritual and emotional life? Of course. Does it set me back as a singer with a very physical connection to music? Of course. But it’s given me time to get over the anxiety about hurting myself in the practice that’s formed so much of my personality, not to mention physical body, and to hopefully allow my overuse injury to heal a little. I had to choose between my ego (and my clothing size) and my compassionate self. I could have healed while continuing to practice, but I didn’t have the time (as a full-time university student, student leader, and spiritual practitioner), the energy, or the guidance of a nearby teacher to totally remake my yoga practice around my injury.
I’ll find my way back to the mat, of course, perhaps a bit more sensitive to parts of my physical and emotional self that are more injury-prone. But I’ve valued the time I was able to dedicate to my spiritual practice instead of practicing headstands, wheels, triangles, and warriors, and the time to reflect on how I want yoga to fit in my life.
The practice of asana yoga is meant to make the practitioner more whole, but the practitioner doesn’t have to surrender to the practice. Asana yoga is a part of your life, not your whole life. For me, asana yoga is a support to my meditation, my music, and my health. For some friends, it’s cross-training for their other athletics; for others, it’s a complement to their meditation; for others still, it’s their main activity. But yoga doesn’t have to control your life, much less “wreck your body.” It’s all about motivation.