Last year during one of my teacher training programs, while I was briefly explaining how to increase range of motion with yoga, a student, Alain – who some of you may remember, asked, “To what end?”
I was blank.
Why was he asking me this?
Why wasn’t he just listening to what I was saying?
Wait. Why has no one ever asked me this?
Why haven’t I asked me this?
I had already started to look at yoga in a new light, exploring injury, etc… but this day was certainly an extra piece to the puzzle for me… for my practice, what I teach, and this brought up a whole slew of questions for me that I am currently exploring. I would like to concentrate here on one… what Alain essentially asked here is this:
“how flexible do we really need to be”?
Years ago, in a yoga class as a student, I was in Ardha Matsyandrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes or Half –Seated Twist) when a teacher came up and told me to go further with my arm – I had my palm on my knee and they wanted me to take my elbow over my knee to twist further back. Note – I am flexible enough to go further, but it causes me pain and I was always taught to not go to pain… but I didn’t want to disobey my teacher when I was told to “push through it – push through the blockage”… and so I pushed and popped a rib. It has taken years to get myself over the propensity for my rib to pop right out in a twist or even just while coughing.
As practitioners of yoga, as teachers, to what end do we push ourselves and our students? Why do we push at all? What are our goals? What is the price?
It used to be that you would go to yoga class to learn to be super-bendy – the goal has been extreme flexibility or what the author of Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff, describes as “the unbridled pursuit of unlimited flexibility”. When you bump up against blocks – physical or emotional – you are taught to push through them. In most cases… if you push… the results are/were/will continue to be, injury.
I have some suggestions about how we can change this:
• Be clear about what your goals are. (To yourself and if you have a trusted teacher be clear about these with her/him)
• Yoga is a tool. Yoga is not a goal. Don’t practice to further your practice or a pose… practice to transform your life.
• Ensure that you look at your whole self – your life – what are the patterns within your life physically and/or emotionally that are creating the pain or tension in your body. Use the guidance of a teacher to help you through these things – but not PUSH through them. Instead sit with them. (Sit here can either mean meditation or any pose/asana you are in)
• When in asana class back off a little. Yoga is not meant to be a struggle. My experience has taught me that by pushing to our edges – finding our edges – and then backing off a little… We go to a comfortable place where we are able to still look inward… Still maintain a focus on breath and body awareness. THIS is yoga. It is a slow transformation of the body, mind and spirit. Pushing yourself too far – is torture.