Rarely do I walk into a yoga class without hearing a teacher announce
that yoga isn't about poses. Yoga is far more profound than simply
striking a pose, the teacher will say; it's so much more than mastering
a physical movement. I agree completely. And yet, I must admit,
sometimes I feel a little guilty when I hear these words.
Why? Because I like poses. I love the feeling, pure and simple, of the mindful
movements of yoga. I love the ever-changing parade of poses that
welcomes me each morning. Just as a child runs through the summer grass
for no reason but simple joy, I love feeling my body move through space,
shifting through these ancient shapes that feel so good from inside out.
When I see a yogi in an amazing pose, every cell in my body shouts,
"Yes, me too!" Curiosity wells up from deep inside, and I wonder what it
feels like to be inside a body whose foot is wrapped behind the head,
whose hands and toes reach up to the sky in a graceful teardrop shape,
or whose spine is so free it undulates like water with each breath. I am
swept up in wonder at the unimaginably complex creatures that we are and
at the sheer beauty of life.
Sometimes I feel a little shallow admitting
my love of poses, since I know the asanas are just the door through
which we set out on the shining path of yoga. I learned early on that
what makes these movements yoga and not gymnastics is our intention. We
practice not for the glory of impressive contortions, but for the
clarity and wisdom that comes from observing our minds as we move
through the asanas.
From the outside, it may appear that we're merely
playing with our bodies, but on the inside, we're exploring and changing
our consciousness. But even when I'm not as present as I'd like to be, I
am amazed that simply changing the position of my body can deeply change
Asanas offer me a bag of yoga tricks that help alleviate
imbalances and ailments in my body. When my stomach is upset, I've
learned that lying back in a well-supported Supta Virasana does the
trick; when I'm frazzled, I ease my legs up the wall into Viparita
Karani. When I'm sluggish all I need are a few Sun Salutes, and when my
mind is spinning I head for a long forward bend. This pragmatic approach
to yoga once bothered me a little, since it didn't feel true to the
discipline's lofty aims. But then I decided if yoga were to offer
nothing more than physical health and vitality, this gift would most
certainly uplift my spirit.
I know that I'm a kinder, wiser, and more
caring person when my hips aren't aching, when my nose isn't running,
and when my mind's a little more at ease.
Falling and Falling and Falling Again
Just because I love the poses doesn't mean I find them
easy. In fact, their difficulty only seems to heighten their allure. A
tricky pose glues my mind to the present moment, forcing me to be here
now. I like staring a new challenge in the face, studying it from every
angle, using all my wits and intelligence and ability to mold my body
into the shape of the asana.
And I love the childlike glee when I
finally figure out how to balance free and clear in a big-sky backbend
that has eluded me for years. I love falling and falling and falling
again out of Headstand and then one day, for whatever reason, not
falling. Something inside has shifted; today I can do something that
yesterday I couldn't. What does that say about all the other things in
my life I think I cannot do?
When I started yoga, poses were all I knew.
But after several years of enthusiastic practice I found myself
pooh-poohing the emphasis on poses, frustrated when they gained center
stage while I knew that yoga meant so much more. Being able to stand on
your head is no guarantee of great wisdom, after all.
But then one day a
friend buoyantly told me that he'd finally managed to touch his foot to
his head in that lovely and demanding backbend, Eka Pada Rajakapotasana.
I remember him recalling the lightning strike of bliss when his toe and
head made contact. His enthusiasm rekindled something inside me, and I
found myself eagerly diving into a discussion of the intricacy and
beauty of yoga's mysterious movements. And I gained a new respect for
the raw simplicity and magnetic delight of the poses themselves.
friend tells me that asanas are like poetry—beautiful and deep and
economical and expressive. Poetry helps us see and feel the world more
clearly, helps us find a way into life's deeper mysteries. Maybe my love
for the asanas is like my love for poetry. Poems don't always make sense
to me, but I still love the way they roll off my tongue.
I've heard it
said that meditation is its own teacher, that by simply assuming a
quiet, meditative posture with discipline and attention, we'll
eventually come to the same enlightened truths discovered by saints and
written in sacred books. Lately I've wondered whether the postures of
yoga might be a little like that too. If I just practiced asana every
day, precisely and intelligently, without any mental commentary or
philosophical inquiry, would I be changed?
I'd like to believe that the
answer is yes, at least a little. Perhaps diligent and attentive
practice alone would lead me toward a deeper, clearer vision of the
world. Maybe the beauty of the poses lies in their ability to transform
us without our knowing how or why—or maybe without our even asking for
Of course I still agree with my teachers that yoga is about far more
than just the poses. Asanas are meant to be preparation for meditation
and more enlightened states of mind. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra barely
mentions asana, and other ancient texts list only a handful of poses.
And lately I've found myself drawn into lengthy debates about just
what's a legitimate pose and what isn't. Honestly, I'm not too concerned
about whether Patanjali stood on his head or whether Krishnamacharya
would have agreed to teach in a health club. If the pose unlocks
something deep inside, does it matter where it came from? Just as I am
constantly evolving, I believe that yoga can, too.
A Common Language?
Sometimes I wonder whether asanas take center stage
simply because they are so real, so tangible. We stumble when trying to
express the indescribable feelings and revelations of our inner
experience, and so we're left with what we can see—how our hips move in
Triangle Pose, or whether to inhale or exhale our way into Bridge Pose.
Maybe the asanas make up the common language that offers us a way to
share our experience. They offer us a starting point, a launching pad
into deeper discussion about the energy of life that courses through us.
I remain skeptical of the sleek glorification of yoga in our culture—of
the pose of the month offered to cure big butts or little arms, of the
glamorous magazine spreads with all those beautiful bodies posing for
the cameras. These images seldom capture the wealth of understanding and
vitality yoga can offer. They portray experiences that seem far from my
own, as well as those of my friends.
Most of my students seem to have
found their way to yoga not for the glamour of big-time poses or buff
bodies, but for the deep refreshment of twisting and moving and climbing
back inside their own skin, and for the simple relief of bringing their
awareness back to the here and now. Like my teachers, I frequently
remind my students that although our classes are made up of asanas, yoga
isn't just about the pose. I, too, explain that the pose is just a way
in, a diving board into the clear, healing waters of wisdom.
doesn't have to mean we can't enjoy every step along the way. Aren't we
lucky that the poses—the medicine of yoga—feel so good? Can't we delight
in their precision and poetry, while still remembering that they point
us to a greater, sweeter land within? Poses may not be the be-all and
end-all of yoga, but that doesn't mean I love them any less.
Claudia Cummins teaches yoga in Mansfield, Ohio. At the moment, her
favorite pose is Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose).