Yoga is not Fool-proof

By Rudra Shivananda

There is a popular misrepresentation that yoga is easy and anyone can do it. This is certainly not the case for the higher practices associated with the spiritual paths of yoga and is not even the case for the simple asanas (physical postures) which form the preparatory phase of Hatha Yoga.

three women kneeling on floor

There has been a proliferation of physical posture systems under the universal umbrella of yoga. Everyday, millions of people go to their neighborhood yoga studio and strain themselves to be more flexible, burn some fat or release some stress. Most of these novices are not aware that the yoga systems that they are made to practice are formulated by gymnasts, ballet dancers or exercise enthusiasts, who have twisted the traditional postures to suit their own predispositions or commercial goals. They have also brought with them a competitive flavor which has no place in the traditional understanding of asanas – I wish they would call it something different than yoga Olympics!

The competitive flavor permeates the studio practice even though a well-meaning instructor may downplay or caution the students – it gets ingrained in each and every posture as there is an ideal form and pace that is imposed. This has caused the frequent occurrence of “yoga injuries”, most minor but some serious.

Most of the new Western systems and even modern representations of Indian systems have moved away from the goals of steadiness and health that the founders of Hatha Yoga had envisioned for the asanas. Instead, the focus is now on performance and some ideal form in the mind of the posture leaders. The student has to align herself in a particular way despite the large variances in body sizes and forms.

In keeping with the high physical demands of the current posture systems, it is necessary for the average fit person, not to mention those who are struggling with their physical aspects, to prepare before getting into a posture class. One should talk candidly with the instructor and understand thoroughly the physical requirements, however gentle they may be. Only after careful consideration and examination of your current physical state, the requirements of the system and the capability of the instructor, should one take a class. Make sure that you can feel comfortable that the instructor is concerned for your wellbeing, unless you are one of those who go to a yoga class to feel the burn and get pushed beyond your limit! My cautionary note is not for one who likes to take extra risks in everything.

A posture class should always start with extensive warm-up of all major muscle groups and joints – even experienced practitioners can hurt themselves going in cold. It is best not to take part in a mixed class of various levels of practitioners as it is not possible for an instructor to monitor your progress in such an environment. It is your responsibility to be in touch with your physical state and have sufficient awareness of your limits at any particular moment in time. Our bodies have a variance in flexibility on different days due to the tensions and stress that we may be subjected to. It is should not be goal to practice through major discomfort and pain. I repeat, don’t practice when in pain. With proper attention, most posture related injuries can be prevented.

Less noticeable are the problems caused by the malpractice of breathing techniques. Changing one’s breathing pattern can cause powerful changes in emotions and mental processes. However, the practice of breath retention can cause major physical problems and should only be taught to advanced students under expert supervision.

It may surprise you to learn that even meditation practices can cause problems for those who are not prepared. There is a graded series of meditative steps that need to be followed. Jumping into higher meditations with a confused or unstable mind is not recommended. Serious emotional and mental injuries can occur for those who take up powerful techniques that are meant to transform one’s consciousness without proper preparation or understanding of the consequences.

Human nature has not changed so significantly since the sages laid down the rules and formulated the proper and graded Yoga systems that modern men and women can ignore them. There is a propensity for spiritual seekers to assume that they can skip all the preliminary steps that are meant to prepare them for the higher practices and just go straight to these sacred techniques that are now widely available from varied sources. This has led to a lack of progress in the best cases and emotional and mental disruptions in severe cases.

My intention is not to dissuade the sincere practitioner from pursuing their paths with vigor but only to sound a healthy warning, whether you are a casual posture student or a serious sadhak. Preparation is the one of the keys to success on the spiritual paths of Yoga.

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