|Transparent female dummy showing internal organs, bones,|
blood vessels with raised arms; words "The Body" seen in distance
Photo by John Jackson/Unsplash
A friend of mine who recently took up a yoga practice reached out to me to ask me some questions about her asana practice. She was experiencing certain challenges and was hoping for some guidance and clarity. She sent me an email prior to our Zoom session outlining some of her concerns, none of which were all that atypical. For me, her questions, and the fact that I'd heard them before, illuminated what I consider to be the most problematic assumptions students (and even teachers) can make...assumptions that are regularly perpetuated by the Western approach to yoga and often, sadly, unaddressed in the mainstream.
"Is It Me?"
She said that she was modifying poses to protect from pain (as if doing that was a bad thing), and there was some indication that this made her practice "less than." I pointed out that if yoga causes any pain, it is not actually yoga but a form of self-torture. Why do some of us carry the outdated assumption that hurting is good for us? Why do we assume we're the problem, and not the posture itself, if we are experiencing pain while practicing it? Why do some of us suffer the idea that modification is a cheat or a crutch only necessary due to something inherently wrong with us? This mindset is pervasive and deeply embedded in mainstream yoga today. But in my opinion, a yoga practice that can't be modified to the individual isn't actually yoga. It's mere athleticism. And it denies the reality that we are not machines built to standard specifications, but rather unique, living, and constantly changing organisms.
Modification is Ahimsa
Our exchange made me acutely aware of the judgment that lurks within the word, "modification:" "I have to modify what this is supposed to be." Time and again I see a widespread resistance to using props or changing poses to make them more accessible, as if there is some prize to be won for enduring our discomfort or stretching ourselves beyond our true capacities. It is missing the point. Modifying isn't just something that people with disabilities or injuries should be doing. It is something we should all be doing. The need to modify should be assumed, that every body will invariably (and should) find its own way into a pose through modification...one that respects the individual.
Maybe modification isn't even the best word. Maybe we should replace it with "variation." There are many variations to a pose that achieve the same if not a better result than the idealized textbook image or social media photo.
In fact, when we resist modification, or variation, are we even practicing something good for us? Are we not forcing, contorting, and imposing our mental will upon our ever-loyal bodies? Don’t get me wrong. This may have its appropriate applications in Kundalini kriyas and when certain foundations of practice are very well-established. But if yoga is about anything, it is about accepting what is true. It is about respecting and honoring the temple in which the mind resides, not constantly overriding it with our misguided ideas. It is the yogic principle of ahimsa...first do no harm.
Another confusion for my friend arose as a result of cuing. A cue is meant to be a starting point, but it should never stop someone from mindful exploration. Yet I see students taking cues such as "don't lean" (as in Camel Pose) or "tuck the pelvis" (as in Bridge) as measures to which they must conform even when their physique (or common sense) demands otherwise. Instead of teaching students to inhabit and trust their bodies, we are often mistakenly reinforcing a cultural denial of them.
To Modify is to Embodify!
I led my friend into some pre-pose body awareness exercises that were a game-changer for her. As a result, she was able to discover an unfolding into Downward Dog that didn't hurt her wrists and relieved constriction around her lower back. She explored a Bridge Pose that didn't fire her sciatica. And she came to accept her body's variation of Camel accessed with ease rather than torquing and forcing according to some rigid cue set. And she was astounded. It will take practice over time for her to really integrate these changes, of course, something we need to give ourselves permission to luxuriate in.
I guided my friend in taking lots of pauses. I guided her in always returning to and then restarting first with the breath. When she moved mechanically or habitually, we stopped, let go, and started from scratch until she could once again find her breath, relate to the ground of support, and allow the body to unfold itself...not by some mental volition based on the construct of a pose. Flowing from pose to pose, speeding from one shape to the next without even allowing the body to settle in one shape before moving to the next may have its place, but it doesn't help us become embodied. And it certainly doesn’t help beginners understand how to listen to their bodies.
Yoga, if we are to allow it to serve its highest purpose, requires that we slow down. It requires that every time we get on our mats, we let go of everything we think we know about it. It requires us to be absolute beginners time and time again. And it requires us to make our own art and science of itself. As a yoga teacher, I feel that sewing these seeds for the appreciation of the body’s innate intelligence to be my primary directive.
DielleCiesco.com or subscribe to her YouTube channel: https://youtube.com/c/DielleCiescoTV
This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.
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