Years ago, I attended a yoga teacher training with a well-known teacher. The teacher shared lots of helpful information about alignment and adjustments. Early in the workshop, we practiced asana staples, including standing poses, backbends, forward bends, twists. In the last few days, we delved into “fancy” poses. You know the ones—crazy backbends, pretzelish arm balances and impossible leg stretches. Every time a few people out of the 100-plus students in the class would successfully perform one of these poses, the teacher would direct the rest of the class to come out of their poses and applaud the yoga masters. The theory was, if you worked hard enough and pushed through your body’s resistance, you could one day be a yoga master too.
Let me clarify that I had no resentment toward the yoga masters in that class. Several times during the workshop my hypermobile hip joints received applause, especially in hip-opening poses. Ankle behind head? No prob. In fact, all my joints are hypermobile. Virtually none of the poses that require extreme hypermobility have been out of reach. Still, I felt uneasy at the applause, even as I was receiving it. After all, I didn’t actually earn these bendy joints. I was born with them. And is distorting one’s body in service of achieving a fancy pose the point of practice?
Yoga Moves West
When yoga practice came to the West, we adapted the practice to fit into our culture. First, we took a comprehensive, multilayered set of practices that touched on every aspect of human life and focused in on the physical aspect. The word yoga has become synonymous with the physical practice. We can study the other aspects if we want—the eight limbs, pranayama, meditation, etc. Or we can learn about and practice other branches of yoga—Bhakti, Raja, Jnana and Karma—if we can find a teacher. But by far, the aspect that’s most commonly taught is asana, the physical practice.
Second, in the West we’ve adapted asana to fit with the way we do physical exercise here. We strive to achieve ever higher physical goals. We attempt to push through our limitations and reward attainment. The way to be a yoga master is to be able to perform the most challenging poses and/or the most extreme versions of the simpler ones.
What is a Yoga Master?
It makes sense that Western practitioners see yoga’s physical practice through the lens to which we are accustomed. It also makes sense that we would want to fashion our practice to support the lives we’re living now. Most of us live typical Western lives, with homes, families, employment, school, etc. We’re not living as yogis, devoting the whole of our lives to practice. (That’s why I don’t use the term yogi to describe myself or most other Western practitioners.)
Even so, the yoga sutras can give us insight into the intentions behind asana practice, and it’s a decidedly unWestern interpretation. Here are a few translations of sutra 1.47, the sutra that describes mastery of asana:
- [Asana is] mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite. (trans. Alistair Shearer)
- Such a posture can be attained 1) by the abandonment of effort and the non-use of will and 2) by the continuous awareness of the infinite, eternal existence. (trans. Swami Venkatesananda)
- It is realized by relaxing one’s effort and resting like the cosmic serpent on the waters of Infinity. (trans. Barbara Stoler Miller)
While these translations approach the subject with slightly different colorations, what they have in common is this: the relaxation of effort. Letting go of striving is the key to mastery. This leads to absorption in what each translator refers to as infinite awareness. Infinite awareness is simply clear seeing into each moment’s felt experience, without judging, craving or aversion.
3 Steps to Relaxing Effort
Having a systematic process can be helpful when you’re learning a new way of practicing. These steps can be used in any yoga pose.
- Refine your edge: There’s a lot of flexibility in the way we can interpret our edge. In yoga, as in other physical disciplines, we often think of the edge as the place where you can go no farther. But that’s not necessarily a helpful option in asana practice. At the point where you’re just starting to feel resistance there are a lot more movement possibilities. There’s also a greater opportunity to relax into your pose. Be mindful as you move into your pose. When you begin to feel resistance, even if you know you can go further, stop there and breathe and relax.
- Invite relaxation: Do you hold tension in certain areas of your body—say your shoulders, neck, jaw, eyes or abdomen? If so, those areas are probably tensing in your yoga practice. Scan your body and wherever you feel effort that isn’t necessary, invite that area to relax.
- Let your breath, rather than your will, guide you into your poses: In every pose, each inhalation and each exhalation encourages your body to move either into or out of each pose. So each time you inhale, your body will want to naturally retreat from or move more deeply into your pose. Same goes for your exhalations. In this culture, with our Western ideas of what a yoga master is, we tend to push past the retractive phase. This not only restricts the natural movements of our bodies, but it also restricts the flow of the breath.
How to Be a Yoga Master
- Sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose) on a yoga mat. If your pelvis is tilting back and your back is rounded, place a folded yoga blanket or two under your pelvis to help you sit up straighter.
- Bend your knees generously so that you can easily bend from your hip joints. Placing a rolled-up yoga blanket under your knees to support them can help you relax more easily into the pose.
- Bending from your hip joints, extend your torso forward over your legs, moving into Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend). Lengthen your torso as you bend forward. Stop just as you start to feel resistance in your back or hamstrings. The stretching sensation should be mild.
- Look around your body. Are your shoulders tense? Is your jaw tight? Are you grinding your teeth? How are your eyes? Invite any areas of tension to begin to relax.
- Now breathe and relax at this edge. Notice how your torso wants to lift out of the forward bend slightly as you inhale. Then it wants to relax forward a bit more on the exhalation. With each breath, allow your torso to relax more easily into this oscillating movement. Allow the pose to arise out of the breath, rather than forming the pose and forcing your breath to conform to the shape you’ve chosen.
- After 5 to 10 deep, relaxing breaths, lift your torso back up to Dandasana on an inhalation.
Relax into Mastery
What I love about this is way of practicing is that I’m working with the body, instead of trying to conquer it. I also love the way it allows us to see how asana is a process, rather than a static goal. Connecting our awareness with the process of the body unfolding naturally puts us in touch with what the sutras call the Infinite—the ever-changing present. You don’t have to be strong or bendy to achieve yoga mastery. You just need to befriend your body and relax right where you are.