Saturday, November 28, 2009

A fundamentalist yogi . . . what?

Yoga is not only about asana (postures)! This statement is far more controversial (and dangerous) than it appears at first glimpse. The people who started Bikram Yoga have a goal to make yoga asanas an olympic sport, to be judged on who does the postures the best. When I tell many people I do yoga, their first reaction is usually either, "wow, you must be really flexible," or "that's weird stuff and not for me." Usually, however, the reaction is about the asanas, and many people consider yoga to be a good form of exercise.
Personally, I started doing yoga for emotional reasons; I needed a way to center myself, de-stress, and get out of my head. I learned asana from my sister-in-law and early on discussed meditation with her and my brother. That was yoga. In law school, I attended my first yoga classes, and while the asana practice was important to me, I found my home in the classes with long periods of meditation or savasana (corpse pose). Yoga and meditation helped me get through law school and take two bar exams without freaking out about them (for the most part). When confronted by people who considered it exercise, I became defensive, always pointing out that yoga for me was about the spirituality, not the asana practice. After all, asana is only one of the eight limbs, and only two or three of the yoga sutras discuss asana.
Of course, my body suffered. I was going through the asana motions without fully engaging in them. I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. Somehow I had convinced myself that asana was not an integral part of the practice while I continued an almost-daily asana practice. My practice got "better," as in I could go deeper into the poses, but I was not using the correct muscles, and my body let me know. And then I started the Yoga Teacher Training. I wanted to deepen my spiritual understanding of yoga, so I found a school where that would be a central theme. I also wanted to learn more about asana, but I kept telling myself that was not my number one goal. For those who entered the teacher training with an exercise mentality, I'm sure that the class seems deeply spiritual. For me, the class's focus on asana and everything else has finally allowed me to give myself permission to truly enjoy the asanas.

This new focus on asana (without letting go of the rest) forced me to see a less-than-yogic part of myself. I realized that I had become a fundamentalist yogi. I was so convinced that asana is only one part of the practice that I had essentially ignored its power. But there was my body reminding me that I had better pay attention. In last week's class, the spiritual, emotional, and physical came crashing together, and my fundamentalism slammed me in the face. Throughout the teacher training, I have gained a new appreciation for asana, a new love of the physical practice. But it was not until I was forced to confront how ignoring it had caused me such physical pain that I realized how much I truly had ignored it. I had become judgmental about asana, and while it may be only one limb of the practice, it is still one of the limbs. All eight are essential. All eight lead us to our highest selves.

During teacher training, we were placed into groups to present on one type of yoga, so we could gain an understanding of many of the most common types of yoga being taught in the United States. Of course, coming into class, I would have loved to have been assigned Viniyoga or the Himalayan Institute, both yoga practices based more on the spirit than the physical. Instead, I was assigned Ashtanga Yoga, more commonly referred to in the United States as Power Yoga. The universe has a funny way of working out.
Ashtanga Yoga began in Mysore India by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who studied with Krishnamacharya. At the time, Krishnamacharya was teaching adolescent males, who benefited from the physical asana. Pattabhi Jois believed that we must learn the physical asana before we can begin studying the spiritual aspects of yoga - our bodies and minds must be open to it. Thus, for him, the physical practice was the beginning of the path to spirituality.
Many people would probably argue that yoga and fundamentalism do not mix, but anyone can be a fundamentalist about anything. When we fail to see the entire picture, when we decide to defend only one aspect of the whole, we lose the ability to think objectively and to learn from that which we are choosing to ignore. I can think of no better example than the legal profession. Lawyers get paid to see only one side of the story, to present only one side of the story. To do otherwise may be unethical. In law school, we are taught (at least at the U of A) that the best way to help your client is to know the other side's argument better than he does and to anticipate arguments the other side will make and rebut them. In practice, however, I see lawyers calling the other side's arguments ridiculous, unfathomable, and other choice words that need not be repeated. Those statements are usually made, however, by the very people who would be making the same argument if the other side had just hired them first. So, are lawyers nothing more than trained fundamentalists? If so, what can we do about it?
Fundamentalism arises when we start to take things personally. The legal arguments that turn into "that's ridiculous" are made by the lawyers who get too caught up in the client's story. My views on asana were too caught up in what other people thought about my yoga practice, about it being exercise and not spirituality. I will refrain from commenting on other religious and political fundamentalism because that could fill several tomes, but the idea translates. It's when we let ourselves get too involved, too intertwined with whatever the belief is, that we become fundamentalists, and when that happens, all hope of discussion is lost. Whether a lawyer or someone who loves Macs instead of PCs (come on, we all know a fundamentalist Mac user), this hook of the personal, of the judgment, is where the pain arises.
Instead, something will force you to see the other side. For me, it was my leg. While limping out of yoga classes, I realized that I had ignored an essential limb of yoga (no pun intended). I had ignored an essential piece of my spirit. It just happened to be physical. My leg still hurts, but like any path, it cannot be attained over night. What did change overnight, however, was my attitude to the asanas. I have a new love for the poses, can play with them, laugh at them, and learn from them. In this week of gratefulness, I am deeply grateful for my body's not-so-little hints that I was missing the mark. The trick now is to remain unhooked from that place of judgment and continue to love the entire path. I'm sure that if I forget, I will go limping out of many classes to come.


© Copyright 2009. Rebecca Stahl. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Becca as always your posts are amazing! Interestingly enough I was having a similar self-realization recently, though obviously about different things. Its interesting on the path to self-realization to recognize how much of a snob I've become - sort of a fundamentalist on cultural behavior and exchange when traveling. Anyway, I'm still limping myself -so to speak- but as you said, change doesn't happen overnight. Its a process but I'm now on a better path too. Good luck on your own and keep the posts coming!

  2. Rebecca,

    Good post. Interestingly, there are times I get too self-righteous in the things I beleive. When that happens, it feels like I've become a fundamentalist. I forgot that there are others who see the world a bit differently than I do. This occurs when my neighbors and I are discussing politics or when I get involved in a case on one side. At the same time, in my role as a neutral evaluator, I am trained to recognize the fundamental (pun intended) need to respect both sides, at least until I check them out.

    In a similar vein, in golf, it is always important to maintain balance. Swing too hard and the shot pulls and goes left. Swing too light and the shot fades and goes right. Maintain balance and the shot goes straight up the middle, where I intend. Like your sore body, the missed shot helps lead to better balance and more accurate shot-making skills.

    Finally, fundamentalism can occur when we take sides in sports, but at least then it is fun, as long as it doesn't get carried away. In that vein, Go Blue. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

  3. Nice posting. Do you know about these yoga books?

  4. Thanks for the comments. As always, they get me thinking. Sfauthor, thank you for the link; it will be beneficial to everyone.