This post was originally published at Elephant Journal.
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Sometimes I think the modern-day yoga community is completely obsessed with body image.
On one hand there’s the Church of the Latter-day Yogi, where practitioners worship at the altar of the celebrity teacher and pay homage to the holy trinity of hundred-dollar yoga pants, smug self-satisfaction, and the sacred yoga booty. On the other, there’s the backlash against this kind of blasphemy, the crusade for ‘realness’, whose advocates rail gleefully against such false idols and decry the vanity of the popular yoga scene.
A friend of mine posted recently on Facebook that her teacher had told her that asana was “the lowest form of yoga”, as though there were something base and faintly disreputable about working with the physical form.
In my view, both of these are inescapably partial perspectives. Sure, it’s true that a regular asana practice has undeniable positive effects on the physique, and I’m yet to meet someone who has taken up yoga because they desperately want to be less attractive. But that hot yoga bitch abusing some hapless sales clerk is actually nothing more than a hot bitch. If our yoga practice doesn’t permeate our behaviour off the mat, what’s the point?
That said, I don’t buy the opposing viewpoint, that asana-based yoga practice is a mere superficiality, an assignment that can be readily skipped. We reside in our bodies. Just as it’s hard to function optimally in a messy, run-down home or office, it’s hard to give fully and generously of ourselves when we’re constantly distracted by a nagging tightness in the shoulders or hampered by a bad back.
As Kino MacGregor puts it: “One of the things that I love about the physical practice of yoga is that the body does not lie. It cannot fake things or cover them up in the same way as the mind.” Asana is the Tapas, the discipline (not the Spanish finger-food) of yoga. It exists for a reason, the reason being that emotional anxieties, frustrations, and traumas generally have a physical counterpart. Perhaps my congested hips reflect a congestion in my emotional life. Maybe my misaligned spine speaks of a misalignment in my finances.
And, in all likelihood, my mind has twisted up the signals my body’s sending and made them mean something else entirely. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve stepped onto the mat preoccupied with some persistent mental script and stepped off it a couple of hours later having resolved a more pertinent underlying issue that I hadn’t even known was bothering me.
That is why asana matters. Not ‘cause it’s gonna make you the hottest cookie on the block (although it might). Because the body’s sending regular messages that we’d be wise to listen to, and asana is a great way of tuning in. Because it’s one thing to go all Patanjali and claim that ‘yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’, and it’s quite another to take real, tangible steps towards bringing that about.