Gentle Yoga Leads us to the Heart of Practice
Throughout the past few years of the yoga boom, as I’ve become more familiar with the yoga blogosphere, I’ve been dismayed by some of the common, recurring themes. These include “yoga for weight loss” claims, the almost poetic praise of expensive yoga pants, the popularity contests among yoga stars, and especially, the pervasive belief that sweaty, fast-paced routines are for “serious” yogis, while the aged and infirm must resort to the much lesser “gentle yoga.”
Fitting yoga asana into our Western “no pain, no gain” paradigm has certainly contributed to its popularity. Mimicking our non-stop lives where constant activity rules, the new yoga moves us from one pose to the next with lightning speed. I fully acknowledge that making asana practice more cardio friendly has definite health benefits, especially for those of us who sit in chairs, hunched over computers for much of our days. And active practice can help balance kapha constitutions.
But is active practice really any more ”advanced?” (BTW, I don’t believe the word “advanced” has a place in yoga, but it does aptly describe a common misconception about practice.)
What Krishnamacharya Taught
In a workshop with Donna Farhi, a student asked Donna about T. Krishnamacharya’s three most famous students—B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and K. Patabhi Jois. Donna described each student’s experience with Krishnamacharya, and how this influenced the way they taught. Here is how she explained the differences in each teacher’s approach: Because B.K.S. Iyengar studied with Krishnamacharya as a weak, unhealthy teen, his yoga teaching emphasized therapeutics, and proper alignment and long holds to calm the nervous system. Patabhi Jois studied with Krishnamacharya as a younger, healthy teen. His quick-moving asana practice was designed to harness Jois’s ebullient male, teenage energy. (In 1989 when Patabhi Jois taught a workshop at a studio where I taught, his students told me he had not, in fact practiced Ashtanga yoga for years. At 73, he understood that the practice was no longer appropriate for him.) As Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar studied with his father most of his life. His yoga teaching encompasses all eight limbs of yoga, and a gentle yoga practice that caters to each individual.
These are three distinctly different approaches, all from the same source. How can that be?
Throughout its history, until the 20th century, yoga was always taught one-on-one. Because we all come to practice with different abilities, genetics, histories, insights and blind spots, a teacher needed to have the insight and depth of understanding to know how to address all our unique physical, mental and emotional characteristics. Krishnamacharya was simply addressing the needs of each student—from the young and healthy—and young and unhealthy—to the mature, nuanced student.
It is interesting to me that in this understanding of the roots of three popular schools, the gentlest one is an expression of the longest, deepest study with Krishnamacharya. This is just my opinion, but perhaps because the heart of yoga is contained in the last three limbs—dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (the completely settled mind)—it is slower, gentle yoga practice that calms the nervous system to prepare the mind for the last three limbs. Of course, there are exceptions. A sluggish mind can benefit from quicker movement, just as an overactive mind is balanced by stillness. Any of these approaches can be appropriate, depending on an individual’s present situation. The art, I think, is in knowing what we need in this moment, in this stage of our lives, to bring balance to our whole being.
But Gentle Yoga is Boring — Or is it?
As a culture, we are easily bored. We like our music loud and fast. We like our films action packed. We like our exercise fast and intense. But our sensation addiction takes a toll. Many of us—myself included—suffer from adrenal fatigue from running too long and hard without allotting time to rest. There are endless things to accomplish, after all. We get bored when things get quiet.
But what is boredom? Years of meditation practice have shown me that boredom is simply a lack of attentiveness. If we are truly present, paying careful attention to what we experience in each moment, there is nothing boring about it. When you gently hold a pose for a few minutes with your mind anchored in body sensations, the view beneath the surface of extreme sensation is rich and profound. There are treasures to be found in the depths of our being that can only be uncovered with patience and attention, and a willingness to give up our attraction to extreme sensation.
Change it Up
When I practiced Ashtanga with Richard Freeman back in 1991, I found I did not want to do fast-paced practice every day. I loved attending Richard’s classes, but at home I mostly practiced Iyengar-style yoga. Some days Restorative practice was what I needed. Be open to what your body needs. I’m sure you’ve heard countless times that yoga is not about accomplishing poses. It is about counterbalancing the things that throw us off center in our lives. Take a moment before you begin practicing to feel what kind of energy you’re bringing to practice. Then fashion a practice that balances your needs at that time. Keep a journal. And most of all, don’t be afraid to slow things down. Gentle yoga practice can lead you to the heart of yoga.