Confessions of a Reluctant Asana Practitioner
The first time I ever went to an asana class I only remember wishing that it would end. Why would I want to stretch for over an hour? I thought. Plus this hurts and I can’t get my leg way “over there.” For a while now, I’ve stuck to a particular motto: I practice yoga for the spirituality. After all, I feel most connected to my spiritual heart through yoga philosophy. Satsang (sitting in the company of a master teacher with like-minded practitioners) has comforted me during some of the hardest times in my life; it probably always will. And I simply couldn’t imagine that asana would ever offer me anything half as valuable—let alone connect me to the divine. Nevertheless, as a “good” yogi wanting to make her best attempt at Patanjali’s third limb, it frustrated me that I didn’t like asana—not even one little bit.
In my frustration, I even set about constructing a (mostly subconscious) “I won’t do that pose" list. Arm balances made up the majority of that list. I never could hold them “long enough," and quite often I'd just tumble over—after which I’d criticize myself even more. When am I going to be “totally blissed out” in asana? I wondered. I was perpetually waiting: Waiting for the right dharma talk to help me understand why I should contort my body into strange shapes. Waiting for the fluorescent yoga-bulbs at my gym's yoga studio to help me see the light. Waiting for revelations in teacher training, even (because, strange as it may seem, even though I disliked asana, I thought taking teacher training would help me learn to like it). And waiting for that “magic pose” that would totally open my heart chakra—like, boom.
When am I going to be “totally blissed out” in asana? I wondered. I was perpetually waiting.
Needless to say, I was a little surprised when some insight finally came at a local bowling alley.
It all began as an evening retreat from the spiritual community where I live, and with a dear friend who happens to be a near-famous Instagram yogi. Well into a few games, and not really thinking about yoga, I began to notice a small (probably nine-year-old) girl in the alley doing backflips, cartwheels—and stranger twisty, turny, tumbly things I can’t name—near our lane. Lightheartedly, I pointed her out to my superhero yoga friend. “She’s so cute!” I said. But to my surprise, he expressed intimidation. "I can't do that. But I can do handstands! I'll show her," he responded (okay, okay, largely in jest). And suddenly he was in the middle of the bowling alley, doing what he does best—yes, handstands—not just hold-it-for-a-second-or-two handstands (which are difficult enough), but minute-long handstands, handstand press-ups, and handstand splits. And just as suddenly, he began attempting a few of the girl's twisty-turny-tumbly tricks, toppling over and laughing his headstand off.
I realized that even my friend, who has (did I mention?) appeared on the cover of yoga magazines, could feel one-upped by a tiny child. More importantly? He could also take off his yoga armor and take himself less seriously for a while.
Watching them flail around, at times attempting incredible feats, left me feeling a little stuck in my bones. I wanted to play too. I also wanted to do something "cool," so I started with urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow pose)—a posture I can do kind of well, and am pretty comfortable with. But the spontaneous, circus-like backdrop of the bowling alley was irresistible, and the performance-like aspect of my attempt was even clearer amidst all the folly. “Nice alignment,” my superhero friend said, suddenly appearing at my side—a comment which would have probably sent my heart joyously aflutter in the past, but in that moment made me feel like a pile of crumpled yoga pants.
Watching them flail around, at times attempting incredible feats, left me feeling a little stuck in my bones.
What the hell am I doing? I thought as I came down from my backbend, simultaneously noticing from the corner of my eye as a guy named “Sherman” (a bowling pseudonym) did the robot after his latest gutter ball. What if I just let loose, rather than attempting to get yoga "right"?
In a fit of rebellion against my own perfectionist qualities, I decided to do a handstand myself, and a crow pose (a pose which teases my curmudgeonly, tight hips). It wasn’t that I wanted to reawaken my relationship to arm balances, or asana at all for that matter. It wasn’t that I wanted to “find my bliss” or “surrender” to the moment. Simply put, I just wanted to move like a kid, like my friend—like Sherman. Was I adequately warmed up? No. (Though I wouldn't necessarily recommend not warming up!) Did I have my red Jade yoga mat unfurled before me? No. Did I have any expectations? No, not really. Did I hold these poses for “long enough”? Strangely, it didn’t matter (but for the record: mere seconds).
I still tumbled over. I may always tumble over. But I think I am starting to be okay with that.
What mattered most in that moment was that these eventful tumbles were fun, spontaneous self-expression.
Somehow along the way, I realized, the question Am I getting this right? had become more important to me than the question Who am I?—the question which comforts me in satsang, the question my first teacher, Mooji, asked me to inquire into each and every day.
Satsang remains my home, yet I feel there is more of yoga to explore, and I know that breaching my comfort zone is good for my soul. And all of these frustrating, intimidating (but also fun-at-times) poses? Perhaps they are a way to do just that.
Accepting new phases in our practices is a sign of growth. I have a body, after all. I am alive, in this world, in physical form—fingers, toes, terribly wobbly legs and all.
As I reflect on the bowling alley experience now, which revealed my reluctant (somewhat complicated) relationship with asana, I am reminded of the yogic understanding that all of life is an experiment. Specifically Yoga Sutra 2:18: “The universe exists in order that the experiencer may experience it, and thus become liberated.”
I still practice yoga for the philosophy and for the spirituality. But it took taking my "won't do that" blinders off to notice the variety of ways that yoga practice can manifest.
The message arrived in the form of a small girl at a bowling alley.
Perhaps when we get too stuck within rigid forms of identity, when we stop exploring this world truthfully, in all of its splendor and all of its frustrations—the divine shows right up. In my case, the message arrived in the form of a small girl at a bowling alley.
“The Divine Mother’s magic is ancient as life itself. She existed before gods and mortals, and she will still exist even after the great dissolution. Mother is pure energy in subtle form, but in times of need or just out of a desire to play, she manifests.” —Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, Elizabeth U. Harding
Kathryn is an associate editor at Yoga International. She found her way to yoga one starry night in Portugal at Monte Sahaja (the ashram of advaita master Mooji). Now she lives at the Himalayan Institute, where she continues her studies. She views yoga primarily as a healing practice that can re-awaken a sense of wonder, purpose, and (to quote one of her teachers, Rolf Sovik) "relentless optimism."