Yoga has never been more popular in the West and one type of yoga prevails above others, namely Hatha yoga in the form of Vinyasa flow, Ashtanga Vinyasa etc. Hatha yoga is distinguished from other types of yoga by its emphasis on asana more than the other practices in the yoga tradition. It is, naturally and inevitably, being transformed and assimilated into a Western style. Yoga in the West has been transformed since the 60s-70s but as practicing yoga became more and more popular and accessible to wider group of practitioners, it is difficult to talk about a unified understanding of its practice.
One of the main aspects of the more recently emerged approach to Hatha yoga is the extend to which it requires people to push themselves, their bodies and to accomplish asanas… in most cases, before the person is physically and psychologically ready. The number of people who I personally have heard complaining about yoga injuries has increased dramatically in the last 5 years or so. It seems that for most people yoga is all but a set of goals, i.e. asanas to be accomplished.
As a consequence, the internet is swimming with images of people doing yoga poses*. Although many of them are nice photographs of athletic people contorted in beautiful postures, like most of the online content, such images involve a mild exhibitionism, which craves for attention and confirmation from virtual or real friends, acquaintances, and strangers, for that matter. There is nothing wrong with having an audience for an artistic or intellectual talent/skill that one is occupied with and liking to share one’s art, work with the world per se.
However, I don’t think that yoga is a skill or a talent to display to the world. I personally see it as an opportunity to be with myself and to explore my current state of mind and body. This helps me understand my practice at the time but also how I feel and behave in the rest of the day. Each and every asana feels different on different days, sometimes I am heavier than a sack of potatoes, some days I am as light as a feather because I feel different everyday and my body is different everyday. Some days I feel I can go deeper in a posture or into full asana; some days the same asana is a huge struggle. My point is that there can never be an ideal way to perform an asana that passes for every one of us. I observe my body and thoughts during my yoga practice and gauge whether I am ready to try a more advanced posture or to hold back for a little longer. When I feel that I am ready to move on, I play around with the easier versions of the posture or do lots of preparatory postures until my mind and body finally agree and I can effortlessly go into the full pose.
When I so desperately want to go into a pose and I repeatedly fail, I stop and ask myself what I want to be able to do or how easily I want to move around when I am, say, 70 years old. This thought stops me from doing something silly with my body that I am going to regret later. I accept the body I have and treat it the best way I can in order to be able to use it at full capacity in the future. This may sound stupid or cowardly but I certainly don’t want to be reminded by a nagging pain the day I saw someone on Instagram doing some asana and tried it myself. Accomplishing asanas at the cost of physical and in turn psychological health cannot be good for anyone and I am not sure that is what yoga is about!
Sometimes yoga means practicing patience and sometimes it means practicing courage. It is the yogi him/herself who will decide which, not someone on the internet, not even the yoga teacher.
*I, obviously, don’t include educational videos or images produced to explain or teach asanas or communities where people do yoga together online.