Yoga in America “Not Just a T-Shirt Slogan”
Book excerpt written by Shana Meyerson
Yoga is life.
I don’t say this as a clever tee shirt slogan or even as the words of a fanatic yogini. I say this because yoga practice is life practice. Like life, yoga can only be practiced, but never perfected. It is a never-ending exploration and discovery of self that begs contentment over complacency.
In America, the practice of yoga is mostly a function of asana—asana being the name that designates each yoga posture. Distilled down to its physical essence, to translate the word “asana” to mean “pose” or “posture” is both a misnomer and a disservice. In fact, the word “asana” means “to sit still or quietly.” Asana is much less about the physical movement than it is about the stillness of mind that accompanies movement of the body.
Shavasana, lying still in corpse, is the most important of the postures, as within it is contained the essence of all yoga. To have five or ten minutes of absolute physical and mental stillness is nurturing for the soul. Once that is mastered, though, the real work is learning to carry that quiet energy through the entire practice. A calm, still, open mind as you sweat, struggle, and even fall. Then, more importantly, a yogi/ni can maintain that stillness all the way out the yoga studio door and into life. We all waste so much energy on negative and useless thoughts. If we can learn to control that and become less reactive, we can all become yogi/nis.
Release is what it is all about. It is interesting that we have a tendency in the Western World to cling tightly to the things that hurt us, and release easily those that heal. In a nation plagued with clinical depression and anxiety, where are the statistics on clinical elation? As we learn to let go of the stuff that holds us back in life and hold on to that which helps us grow, our yoga truly becomes transformational because, honestly, no one on earth actually leads a stressful life. Stress is not something that happens to us, it is something that we create. We cannot usually control the circumstances of our lives, but we can always choose to control our reactions to those circumstances.
The person who comes to yoga practice and gets worked up over some posture that they cannot master is, most likely, also creating significant amounts of undue stress in his or her daily life. When you boil it down, doing a handstand is never really going to change your life, but learning to stay calm while you are falling out of one will.
It is ironic that people come to yoga all stressed out, stress out during yoga, then have a few minutes of relaxation in shavasana at the end of the practice, and go out into the world claiming yoga relaxes them so much…just to recreate the cycle of stress all over again.
Some day, a yoga practice is not just bookended by calmness, but is a continuum thereof. And then, some day, a yoga practice is not just bookending a day with calmness, but is a continuum of a calm and controlled life thereof.
Yoga isn’t about learning to stand on your hands, but on your own two feet. It’s about accepting that there will be things that you can do and things that you can’t, but they are all worth the pursuit. And it’s about believing that you can do anything that you set your mind to. There is no muscle more powerful than the mind.
Literally, translated, “yoga” means “yoke,” to yoke together mind, body, and spirit. Too often, people break themselves down into just mind, just body or just spirit. Maybe they are so intellectual that they cannot conceive of spirit. Or perhaps they exist on such a spiritual plane that they feel no need for this physical existence. More often than not, they are just so grounded in the physical that they cannot understand anything bigger or more profound than self.
I don’t think that any one of these is better (or worse) than the other. Is the pursuit of the spirit inherently more righteous than that of the body, for example? No. Each human being was blessed with a sacred triumvirate of energies. Without a corporeal body, we literally cannot exist on this plane. Without a mind, we would not be able to function. And without a spirit, we would be nothing more than flesh and bones. Body, mind, and spirit need each other. And yoga is the practice that brings them all together.
The misinterpretation of the word “asana” reminds me of another common misinterpretation: that of the word “shalom.” As any Hebrew School graduate will tell you, the word “shalom” means “hello,” “goodbye,” or “peace.” But that’s not true. The word “shalom” comes from the root shin-lamed-mem, or “to complete.” Basically, “shalom” means “you complete me.” It is used in both salutation and parting, and it is used to convey a sentiment of peace, but really it means so much more than that. There can be no me without you and vice versa….just as there cannot be mind without body or body without spirit. It’s all about completion. Yoga is a book that is often skimmed, but rarely read. Our job, as American yogis and yoginis, is to carry a torch that is not limited to the simplistic interpretations of movements, but the moving interpretations of simplicity.
Yoga understands that even simplicity can be profound. It’s when we stop paying attention to the details that we miss the beauty. When you start to pay attention to the inobvious, you start to get a more complete understanding of the world.
Think about pranayama. Luckily, our bodies will breathe on their own, whether we think about it or not. But instead, we choose in our practice to pay attention, thereby transforming simple sustenance into true meditation.
You cannot achieve yoga without paying attention to the details. If you want to do a complicated arm balance, you can’t just focus on the arms. You can’t just focus on the movement and positioning of the legs. You can’t just focus on the engagement of the core. Instead, you need to look beyond the gross movement and into the finite. Again, yoking together a whole body and mind full of energies and bringing them together to a common end. That includes arms and legs and core and mind…as well as fingers, tailbones, neck, gaze…it all fits in the mix. Every part, no matter how small, plays a role. It’s in that appreciation that one can begin to master some of the postures that, from the outside or superficial level may seem virtually impossible.
That being said, the practice of yoga doesn’t have to involve Warrior Poses, Headstands, or even stretches. Yoga can be baseball, art, relationship. Any time that a person’s combined energies are devoted to the same task, s/he is practicing yoga. Likewise, no matter how aesthetically pleasing a person’s physical practice is, s/he is not a yogi/ni until s/he has mastered the urges of the body and the motivations of the spirit.
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of an asana practice is that it is pretty much the only place on earth where the best you can do is just perfect. In a way, yoga can be the spark that ignites world peace. Though it sounds dramatic, if a practitioner can learn to accept that (despite Yogi Berra’s quotes to the contrary) all that you can give is 100%, you must accept that—falling or not—you, too, are giving 100%. Even on an off-day when you know you can do better, on that day, in those circumstances, perhaps 60% is all you have to give. Which even makes 60%, 100%. And if you can accept that in yourself, then you have no choice to accept that in others. We are all in this together and we are all giving things the best shot we know how to with the tools we’ve been given. Yoga is about accepting the inherent perfection of all human beings—even in light of all of our (sometimes drastic) mistakes—and refraining from judging others, just as we learn to stop judging ourselves.
Yoga doesn’t care if you fall. It only cares if you get back up. It doesn’t care if you succeed. It only cares that you try. And then try again.
Take Thomas Edison. A yogi. Who also happened to invent the light bulb. Mr. Edison, considered by most to be one of the most important inventors of modern times, and certainly one of the greatest intellects, made ten thousand attempts at the light bulb before he found one that worked. And one, purportedly, was even made out of peanut butter. Peanut Butter. When he finally created a light bulb filament that provided consistent, sustainable light, he remarked, “I have not failed 10,000 times, but rather have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
It’s the knowledge that there is always a way that will work. But you may have to plod through 10,000 others before you find it. Tread 9999 steps and you won’t find it. You have to follow through that last step.
While the number of people who go to yoga classes in America has exploded in the past decade, the number of yogis and yoginis sadly hasn’t. So many people come into yoga classes with a competitive spirit or inextricable ego. They get proud. They get frustrated. They get attached. They get a fix…like it’s a drug instead of a practice.
Ego, I believe, is yoga’s nemesis and it can work in a number of ways.
Sometimes an overactive ego will push people into poses that they are not ready for, so they can easily injure themselves….or, even worse, their egos. Problem is, when a yoga practitioner becomes too attached to the physical results of his or her practice, there is a tendency to recede into a comfort zone. Yoga is not about comfort zones. It is about pushing the boundaries. Not being confined by the shell, but finding the world your oyster.
The only way to grow in life is to take risks. If you do the same thing every day, you are destined to sameness. When egotistic attachment leads to frustration, people shy away from trying new postures. There is no longer growth within the practice, just stagnation.
In fact, many people’s egos get so involved that instead of getting frustrated, they get paralyzed. Those who don’t try, never look foolish. And so, again, there is an unwillingness to try, to be surprised.
Your yoga practice is a microcosm of your life. What you bring to your mat, you bring to the world around you. When a challenge presents itself, do you run up to it or run away? Do you see it as an obstacle or an opportunity? When you fall, do you get frustrated or more determined? Are you busy comparing yourself to others or just looking for your personal best? Are you focused or scattered? Conscious or unconscious?
Yoga can be an extraordinary and life-changing practice. Or it can just be a workout. America is still in the process of figuring that out.
In a tough and competitive world, sometimes the hardest thing you can do is take a good, honest look at yourself. Confronting one’s own fallibility can be painful or even frightening. And yet, it is our inherent imperfection that makes us human. The world has yet to see a single perfect human being tread upon it. And yet, we hold ourselves up to this unforgiving standard that is both unrealistic and, in fact, damaging to the very fabric of our existence.
Ultimately, if we can sit down, in stillness, in quietness, look inside, and be at peace with what we see, we will know that we have found our divine yogi nature.