What goes through your mind when you see a yoga practitioner doing what is considered an advance posture?
First of all, I have to start saying that this āsana you see on the picture above, Dūrvāsāsana, is not in my practice and maybe I attempt to do it a few times times per year, mostly with curiosity and a playful intention. I don’t believe there is a difference in the dimension of my spiritual practice by doing this posture or any other, but I do acknowledge it requires a lot of mental focus in order to attempt it. Mental focus by itself without the devotion of the heart, for me, means nothing but a physical discipline.
I have seen lately there is an association of complex asanas with being an advanced yogi. Just because I put my leg behind the head or because I do a handstand or a backbend doesn’t make me more yogi, it doesn’t make me more spiritual.
There are two subjects here that I want to discuss: one is the fact that asana performance is associated with being a spiritual and conscious person. The second one is the collective imaginary that is built on the background of our minds about how a yogi should look.
Regarding the practice of complex asanas, I know many yoga practitioners, who are inspiring for me, that have a very precise and advance postural practice and are very spiritual people (conscious minded, reflective, compassionate, grateful, content, equanimous), as I know others, also with an amazing physical practice, but with no authentic interest in the study of the self (not very kind people, greedy, envious, selfish). Don’t take me wrong, I am not trying to criticize anyone here, I believe we all have our special and unique path and time, and I believe a person that is not connected with its inner self can at some point become connected with it, wether this person is an āsana practitioner or not. My point is to highlight that physical control, even in the Yoga universe, is not a synonym of spiritual practice though they have the potential of becoming together (a great example of this is Dan Millman, Peaceful Warrior).
I believe that the industry and power of social media have lead us to build this tendency to idolize practitioners because of the whole concept of their image. You can’t imagine how many students I have had that have told me in the past they believed they didn’t have the body to be a yogi because they were not thin or because they were not easy back benders or because they didn’t have flexible hips. This situation leads people to frustration, to compare themselves all the time with others, to be in a constant stress of becoming the idea they have in their minds about how to be a yogi. From a superficial standpoint, the “industry” also makes us believe we have to wear a specific yoga brand or type of clothes, the accessories, the towels, the props, the playlists… then there is the postures that we are supposed to be able to do, the food a yogi should eat, and on a much deeper level, how a yogi is expected to behave: never sad, always peaceful, never angry always equanimous. But yoga as lifestyle is a practice that requires effort but not repression (peace comes with dedication and practice not with imposition), and it has nothing to do with the clothing brand we use (ancient yogis practiced almost naked), the yoga mat we have (yoga mats didn’t exist 100 years ago while yoga has existed for over 5.000) or the social media followers we have (yogis actually used to seclude themselves in the mountains).
Regarding the advance āsanas, yes, some ancient yogis used to do this complex postures (as you can see in the picture above from the Nath Siddha Mural of the Mahamandir Temple in Jodhpur), but this practice was not about the achievement itself of the postures but about what was happening during the āsana, it was a very different type of practice where through the fire or Agni the yogis reached higher states of consciousness, accessing the vital energy, melting the condensed Amrita or nectar of life. This Agni was developed while remaining for a long time in the posture. I am not proposing here that we should practice this way or another. My point here is, the whole point of yoga is not to stress our bodies and minds in order to achieve the coolest postures but to become aware and then free of the tendencies of our minds which make us live in suffering, so we can remember who we really are and become one with it. For this purpose asana can serve us as a tool, as can also the Prānayamas, Japa Mantra, visualizations, meditation, study of texts, etc.
The practice without the knowledge of the self (which becomes also a practice itself) and the true care for both, the practice and the knowledge, remains as merely a physical practice.
I believe āsana has the potential to become a tool through which we can experience the knowledge and get to see more clearly our tendencies, patterns and conditionings. Though this potential requires an additional effort in order to actually serve us like that. Otherwise, the practice becomes a search to achieve, our focus ends u going towards getting more āsanas instead of more understanding and compassion.