When you hear the word yoga, it’s almost always defined as a physical exercise. Classical yoga teachers have always extolled the virtues of yogic spirituality, but postures are still the primary language of American yoga.
Postures are a great introduction to the basics of yoga practice, but they’re not meant to serve as your sole path to inner knowledge. They’re just a great way to get children prepped for meditation. Vinyasa-style yoga classes were actually developed as energy maintenance for children, particularly young boys.
You’re always a child in the infancy of your yoga journey, no matter how old you are when you first step on the mat. The postures are an introduction to the core elements of a spirituality beyond religiosity. Sometimes, simply moving the body and connecting to the breath are all you need to set foot on the path toward transcendence.
I think the poses are easy for Americans to understand because they fit into our worldview. Americans value physical beauty over almost anything else—and therefore we value dedication to physical refinement.
Postural work is a familiar recitation of the same narrative we’ve been fed since birth. A narrative wherein physical health is the ultimate wealth, and the decay of the physical body marks the end of all that matters.
But what’s the real purpose of keeping your body in perfect condition? To prevent it from aging? To keep it frozen in time? But the art of aging is life’s great crescendo. Your aging is your loudest moment, your greatest depth. You exist to age. I think the art of aging is to age with humility and grace. To age and enjoy the process. To welcome age with open arms. Obsessing over the human body’s physical condition and postures is another way of trying not to age.
Poses don’t really matter that much, but according to the yoga industrial complex, a strong yoga practice means you have to be able to turn your spine inside out like Linda Blair in The Exorcist while holding a handstand on the edge of a mountain. General wisdom says that the more poses you know, the better you are at yoga, and the better you are at yoga, the better you are at being alive. That being able to contort your body means you’re a good person, maybe even a better person than somebody else. But is that what yoga’s about? Being a better person than somebody else?
Not hardly. How can you be a better person than somebody else? That’s not a thing. And that’s precisely the spot where the yoga industrial complex fucked up the game. Because yoga isn’t ever about trying to get one up on anybody. That’s supremacy you’re thinking of. Supremacy is all about being better and having more than those around you.
Yoga was here way before capitalism was the loudest voice in the room, and it exists beyond what capitalism can define.
Capitalism is the child of supremacy, and capitalism is pretty much the only reason that many of us, myself included, have ever even heard of yoga. But yoga was here way before capitalism was the loudest voice in the room, and it exists beyond what capitalism can define. And no matter how many poses you practice, whether you’re upside down or inside out or twisted into a pretzel, you’ll always end up drawing that exact same conclusion. That there’s no amount of yoga postures that will make you better than anybody else.
Ultimately, mastering postures is a moot point. Postures aren’t about getting shit perfect. After all, you were already perfect before the postures and being able to practice them isn’t gonna shift that truth.
I think obsessively practicing yoga postures, especially drilling the same ones over and over again, is a lot like scratching an itch or picking at a scab. If I’m being honest, I know that I’ve used postures as a form of self-mutilation. I’ve drilled sun salutations and repetitively practiced deep back bends and inversions for the same reasons that I have been known to chew my cuticles until the beds are stained with blood. Because it feels good to hurt myself.
I wanted to hold on to the headstands and splits and wheels because they felt like proof that I once knew the Truth. I covet the photos of my practice like they’re Girl Scouts badges, like they’re gold stars adhered to my forehead before lunch. Look, Mama, today in school I learned how to achieve bliss. I learned how to be okay. I learned how to live. I learned how to do it right.
No matter how toned your abs get, some kind of spiritual reckoning is always on your horizon. Postures exhaust your physical body so your mind can arrive in the present moment. When a yoga pose kicks the shit out of your physical body, the mind is (finally) able to rest. When the muscles, bones, and ligaments work together, it’s like plugging into the truth of all that Is, and only when your whole body is integrated is it possible to see within yourself. But the yogic path is just preparation for Death, the final stage in your inevitable decay. It’s not a preventative measure, but it’s a way of showing up fully for both the voyage and the destination of the infinite.
Gradually, for one reason or another, your body is gonna stop working the way it once did. And as your skin wrinkles and sags, you’ll be forced to reckon with what lies underneath it all. And the wisdom you’ve gained from that inevitable reckoning will always trump the naive glory of your physicality.
Your postural work doesn’t need to be particularly complicated. Honestly, you really only need to know one pose and it’s called sitting the fuck down. In fact, give it a shot right now. Sit down and be quiet. You don’t need to cross your legs because you don’t need legs. You don’t need to sit upright because lying on your back is just as legit. Are you comfortable yet? Great. Now, just try to maintain this posture.
Is your mind racing? Are you holding your breath? Are you fidgeting? Are you holding back the urge to speak? Are you worried about yesterday? Are you thinking about what’s on your plate for later today?
Probably. That’s chill. After all, you’re human and all of that shit’s totally normal. Don’t try to freeze time. Just try to be here now. Just try to bear witness to yourself.
Breathing your way into the present moment is the whole function of yoga postures. The single purpose of every posture is to bear witness to your fidgets and your held breaths and the cacophony of noise echoing in your mind. And in my experience, trying to do all this shit in a shape like criss-cross applesauce is hard enough without also mimicking a Cirque du Soleil contortionist.
Breathing your way into the present moment is the whole function of yoga postures.
But just because poses aren’t the most important part of yoga doesn’t mean they’re not still lit. When you focus on your body, you situate yourself in the present moment. There’s nowhere else to turn toward but right now. Working on your postures is beautiful and it offers so many lessons. Postural work is like a really good metaphor, and like a really good metaphor, every posture is so much more than it seems on the surface.
Excerpted from Yoke: My Yoga of Self-Acceptance by Jessamyn Stanley. Workman Publishing © 2021.