Asana, Self-Mortification, and the Myth of the Hardworking Yogi

The following is an excerpt from Embodied Resilience Through Yoga: 30 Mindful Essays About Finding Empowerment After Addiction, Trauma, Grief, and Loss edited by Yoga International editor in chief Kat Heagberg, with Melanie C. Klein, YI senior editor Kathryn Ashworth, and Toni Willis, which will be released on September 8, 2020.

As with smoking, drinking, food, and sex, it is possible to develop an unhealthy relationship with yoga postures. The ritual of a modern postural yoga class can be a rejuvenating and rewarding part of your day. But it can also become associated with some compulsive and obsessive behaviors.

I want to explore some of the deeper roots of addictive and obsessive behavior in yoga. I have noticed a few trends and issues that may shine some much-needed light. First, people spending too much time obsessing over their bodies is not a modern or recent development in yoga. There is a temptation to chalk up such behavior to social media; however, the history indicates otherwise. Second, there is an element of what sociologist Max Weber called the Protestant work ethic at play, which may be exacerbating an already unfortunate situation. Simply put, we have associated being a good person with being a hardworking person, and this may have dangerous consequences for yogis for whom asana (physical practice) is their primary practice. Finally, the ascetic and self-mortifying practices common to medieval hatha yogis have found their way into a modern practice that often advertises itself as a therapeutic or healing modality. These ascetic practices are not intended as a form of therapy but as a means to a kind of embodied spiritual freedom. The confusion between medieval metaphysical practices and modern therapeutic practices has serious consequences for contemporary yoga practitioners.

I do not mean to suggest that either medieval or modern yogis have a problem or that anybody is doing something wrong. As another famous sociologist, Emile Durkheim, would have said, these are social facts. It is not for me to judge whether or not yogis should put themselves through self-mortifying practices. Clearly addiction and compulsion both have terrible personal and social costs, but I want to be very clear that not all addictions should be treated equally. It is possible to, in the words of my yoga teacher, David McAmmond, “trade up” our addictions from less to more healthy ones.

An alcoholic who starts drinking coffee to help kick alcohol still has an addiction. But it is a better addiction. Similarly, somebody dealing with a substance addiction or other forms of obsessive-compulsive behaviors who develops a yoga addiction should not be judged. They should be commended. That was an excellent trade.

There are, however, some serious problems associated with yoga addiction and yoga compulsion that we can discuss without casting judgment on people who are just trying to improve their lives. By getting more clarity about the potential dangers of excessive yoga practice, we may be able to minimize the risks posed to those of us with compulsive or addictive yoga behaviors.

Perhaps even more interesting still is the possibility that we might, along the way, shine a light on a harmful relationship with our bodies that lurks quietly in the corners of yoga studios and gyms around the world. Veiled by vague notions like wellness, self-loathing is much more common among yoga practitioners and teachers than we might imagine.

The Quest for Yoga Realness

When I started teaching yoga in the early 2000s, I was not what you would call a typical yogi. Years of speedskating left my hamstrings feeling like piano wire. I was a singer in a punk band and was used to screaming into a microphone rather than speaking in hushed tones to near-sleeping students on yoga mats. 

Which meant I often felt like I did not fit in. I regularly found myself in rooms full of beautiful people wearing coordinated outfits and executing postures with apparent ease while I was awkwardly trying to stop quivering while wearing Calvin Klein pajamas. When I went into yoga workshops, I felt like a teenager trying to fit in with a bunch of adults at a cocktail party. Completely out of place. 

So I tried to make myself look the part. I couldn’t grow a decent beard, and I didn’t want to have to take care of long hair. I didn’t have any mala beads, tattoos of Indian deities, or abdominal muscles to flex. All I had were the postures. I did my best to make my postures look like the photos I saw in the books. The postures of David Swenson, B. K. S. Iyengar, and Erich Schiffmann became like idealized shapes for me that I attempted to mimic.

It didn’t work very well. In a few years of daily rigorous asana practice, I never really progressed all that far. I did manage to hurt my back a number of times. I tore my right hamstring twice. I demonstrated postures only on my “good side” because I wanted to impress my students. I caused a significant asymmetry in my legs, which I believe continues to inspire the occasional SI joint flare-up today.

When I started yoga, I was inflexible and it showed. After a few years, I was still inflexible, but I was able to make people believe that I could do all the poses. I practiced long and hard, but not to make my body healthier. I practiced so that I could demonstrate my membership in club yoga. Because I correlated my asana practice with approval and acceptance in the “yoga scene,” I was set up for an unhealthy relationship with the postures.

The History of Self-Mortification in Yoga

Hatha yoga (what I’ll just refer to as “yoga” from here on out) is roughly one thousand years old and started with Buddhist and Shaiva (Shiva-worshipping) Tantric sects who took an unorthodox view of moksha, or liberation. In classical yoga, moksha is the release of the self from the bonds of the body. Your consciousness is untethered from the constantly changing world of materiality, and you experience yourself as a subject without an object. It is a state of oneness in which there is no body, no ego, no thoughts, imagination, memory, or identity. 

The tantrics took an entirely different view of liberation. They believe in liberation in this world, not the next. Liberation in the body. It was referred to as jiva mukti, or embodied freedom. Because there is no distinction between the self and the world, because everything is made from the same material, because both consciousness and the body have a common source, then there is no need to escape the body in order to experience freedom. This was the beginning of hatha yoga.

Hatha yogis developed a system of practices designed to purify the physical body. It needed to be cleansed in order to be an effective vehicle or host for an embodied form of liberation. These practices take a number of different forms. Some of them are attempts to physically cleanse the body (kriyas) while others are an attempt to overcome weakness and establish the dominance of the will over the inclinations of the physical body. I should add that many of the bandhas (subtle energy locks), mudras (gestures—similar to asanas), and kriyas (cleansing techniques) of medieval hatha yoga were less about purification and more about creating upward, rather than downward, flow of energy in the body.

Energy going down is bad. Energy going up is good. 

The kriyas were consciously excluded from the practices exported from India in the twentieth century that became what we know as modern postural yoga. This was an intentional omission by yoga icons like Vivekananda who believed, rightly, that American and European sensibilities would be offended by practices like vaman dhauti where you drink water and induce vomiting to cleanse the stomach.

Other kriyas involved more intense and dramatic actions. For example, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika recommends a practice called khechari mudra in which the lingual frenulum (the skin that connects your tongue to the bottom of your mouth) is severed and the tongue is stretched over the course of months in order to be capable of putting the tongue behind the soft palate and up into the nasal cavity.1

And to think, I was feeling stressed about trying to hold headstand. Modern yogis have it easy.

While I never had to sever part of my tongue, it seems some of these ancient asceticisms did not remain in medieval history but found their way into modern practice. The three bandhas practiced in Ashtanga vinyasa, hanging upside down, exposure to heat, some Kundalini breathing exercises, and putting your leg behind your head are all examples of hatha yoga asceticism that is practiced by modern yogis. All of these things are potentially dangerous actions that, performed obsessively or compulsively, could result in injury or disorder. 

Yoga and the Protestant Work Ethic

I don’t have time for a detailed discussion of Max Weber’s classic book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It’s a good read though. Don’t let the very academic-sounding title put you off. The basic idea is that Protestants, and Calvinists in particular, believed in predestination. Which means God has already chosen which of us will be saved and go to heaven and which of us are basically destined for an afterlife in hell. This led to social anxiety because Protestants had no way of knowing who was who. Worldly success, like a booming business, came to be seen as a kind of indicator for who had God’s grace. The more you buckled down, saved your pennies, reinvested in your business rather than spending on things you enjoy, and neglected holidays and rest, the more your business would thrive, and you could rest assured that you must be one of the elect.2

This ethic is at work today in what is called “performative wellness.” The better shape you are in, the more chiseled your abs, the healthier your meals, the less cluttered your home, are all indicators of grace. You must be destined for success. So people knock themselves out in an effort to demonstrate how healthy they are. It is simultaneously a signal to your community that you are one of the chosen and, at the same time, a way to reassure yourself that your life has meaning and purpose.

This was encapsulated by the now disgraced guru of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, Pattabhi Jois, when he said, “Anyone can practice. Young man can practice. Old man can practice. Very old man can practice. Man who is sick, he can practice. Man who doesn’t have strength can practice. Except lazy people; lazy people can’t practice yoga.”3

Only the lazy can’t do yoga. What does that say about people who just don’t have the time, energy, or money to commit to a regular yoga practice? The people who are injured and need to rest? The people who want to spend time with their family instead of at the yoga studio? According to Jois, those people are lazy and, as a result, not yogis.

A hard-headed commitment to yoga practice is often viewed as a mark of good character. It means you take your practice seriously and is often associated with spiritual accomplishment. Nearly every yoga teacher is almost obliged to talk about how hard they worked to achieve the postures they now demonstrate with ease.

How often have you heard a yoga teacher who was an ex-dancer or gymnast say something like, “These poses are super easy compared to the contortions required of me when I was dancing”? How often do you hear yoga teachers saying they are just naturally flexible and so were able to do advanced postures nearly effortlessly from the first few classes they took? Yoga teachers with natural flexibility are rarely open and honest about it. More often than not they will make it seem like their flexibility came as a result of years of hard work and commitment.

Self-sacrifice is the measure of success. Success in yoga without some kind of personal hardship is seen as a shortcut or somehow not authentic or “real enough.”

Asana Addiction

Yogis can develop an unhealthy relationship to asana practice in a number of different ways. An asana addiction develops when the pleasurable sensations associated with stretching become something that you need to feel regularly. Like opiates, an increase in dosage is required in order to create the same level of stimulation. Think about the first time you really stretched out your hamstrings. Especially how they felt immediately after the pose. It is an electrically charged bliss. But after five to ten years, it just feels like another hamstring stretch. Still nice, but not electric bliss.

I think of this like the yoga version of chasing the dragon. We want that same feeling but need bigger and more intense postures in order to recreate it. The same thing can happen with affirmation and approval. The first time you do an arm balance you might get all kinds of applause and adulation. Everybody is so happy for you. You did it! But what about after five to ten years of arm balances? Now nobody cares about a simple little arm balance. If it isn’t balancing on one arm at the edge of a cliff, does it even count?

That is addiction. Yoga produces a physical or emotional pleasure that results in powerful cravings. These cravings make asana-addicted yogis start ignoring family, work, injuries, and the rest of the world, generally speaking, so that they can focus on chasing more pleasure.

An obsessive relationship with asana practice is different from asana addiction. It involves little to no pleasure. It was, I imagine, much more common for medieval hatha yogis who most likely did not enjoy hanging upside down while swinging through a fire (yes, that is a thing). Their practice was not a source of pleasure but rather a kind of requirement arising from their identity as a yogi.

If you are seriously committed to your asana practice, but everything else in your life is ticking along just fine, you are probably not compulsive and should not stress over it. But if your practice is regularly resulting in injuries, if anti-inflammatories are required in order for you to practice, or if you find that the rest of your life is chaotic and yoga practice feels like the only reprieve from an otherwise unpleasant life, you may be developing an unhealthy relationship to your asana practice.

Some Suggestions

There is a power to ritual action that is comforting in times of distress. When anxiety arises, we all have ritual movements and actions that we use to make us feel better. I have a funny habit of spinning my wedding ring on my finger. It has no significance or special meaning other than giving me something to do with my hands, which I find comforting. When these ritual actions cease to bring you any kind of comfort, it is time to start experimenting with new rituals and actions.

Maybe you always start your yoga practice with a seated meditation and a breathing exercise. If that is working for you there is no reason to change it. But if you find that your practice is no longer creating the same feelings of comfort and reassurance that it once did, you may need to change it up. Do not get stuck in yoga routines that start feeling…well…routine.

Yogis with an asana addiction may want to try stopping asana practice altogether for a short while. Notice if you tend to be angry or irritable if you miss your asana practice. Notice if you are no longer engaging in many social or leisure activities that are not asana related. These are symptoms of asana addiction and could be leading you toward mistreating, neglecting, or abusing your own body in an effort to continue your asana practice. 

Find new ways to practice. Meditation and pranayama are wonderful alternatives to asana practice. Prayer, mantra, contemplation, journaling, reflection, volunteering, and reading are all ways of practicing yoga without asana. Giving up asana practice is not giving up yoga. Not even close.

It is possible to imagine that the postures we practice in asana classes are somehow sacred. We imagine asana practice as an integrated piece of a sacred whole called yoga. The truth is that most of the asana being practiced today is less than one hundred years old. Yes, people have been practicing postures for thousands of years. But they have not been moving through choreographed flows featuring creative transitions, unique modifications, and honed scripts designed to entertain and inspire. The yoga we are practicing today is not ancient nor is it more sacred than going for a walk, working in your garden, or playing with your children.

No need to be dramatic about it. You are not breaking up with asana practice for life. This isn’t Romeo and Juliet. In a couple months, or even a couple years, maybe you will have time and space to reflect on the role of asana practice in your life. What does it really accomplish for you? Why do you practice it? If you do not have a good answer to those questions, maybe now is the time for a little break.

Footnotes

1. Svatmarama, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, trans. Brian Dana Akers (New Delhi, India: New Age Books, 2002), 59–61. 

2. Weber, Max, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Stephen Kalberg (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013).

3. YJ Editors, “Practice and All Is Coming,” YogaJournal.com, Cruz Bay Publishing, updated April 12, 2017, https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/practice-and
-all-is-coming-2; “Building a Community Through the Practice of Ashtanga Yoga,” Ashtanga Yoga, n.d., https://www.ashtangayoga302.com.

4. Mallinson, James, and Mark Singleton, ed. and trans. Roots of Yoga. London: Penguin Books, 2017.

5. White, David Gordon, ed. Yoga in Practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. 

6. Samuel, Geoffrey. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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About the teacher

Lecturer in Religious Studies and Kinesiology at the University of Regina, Colin Hall has been teaching... Read more

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