~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

In Praise of Poses

March 9, 2010
Rarely do I walk into a yoga class without hearing a teacher remind us that yoga isn’t about poses. Yoga is far more profound than simply striking a pose, the teacher will say, so much more than mastering a physical movement. I agree completely. I must admit, though, sometimes I feel a little guilty when I hear these words.

I like poses. I love the feeling, pure and simple, of the mindful movements of yoga. I love the ever-changing parade of poses that welcomes me each morning. Just as a child runs through the summer grass for no reason but simple joy, I love feeling my body move through space, shifting through amazing ancient shapes that feel so good from inside out.

I do know the asanas are just the door through which we pass as we set out on the shining path of yoga. I learned early on that what makes the practice yoga and not gymnastics is the state of mind we bring to it - the intention, the awareness, the total presence of mind.

Still, sometimes I see a yogi in one of those amazing poses with an indecipherable name and a spark of recognition lights within. Every cell in my body shouts, "Yes, me, too!" Curiosity wells up from deep inside and I wonder what it feels like to be inside a body where a foot is wrapped around the head, where the hands and toes reach up to the sky in a graceful teardrop shape, or where a spine is so free it undulates like water with each breath. Call it awe. Or call it wonder for the unimaginable creatures that we are, and the sheer beauty of life itself.

Just because I love the poses doesn’t mean I find them easy. In fact, their difficulty only seems to heighten their allure. A tricky pose glues my mind to the present moment, forcing me to be here now. I like staring a new challenge in the face, studying it from every angle, using all my wits and intelligence and ability to carve my body into the shape of the asana. And I love the childlike glee when I finally figure out how to balance free and clear in a big-sky backbend that has eluded me for years.

I love falling and falling again out of full-arm balance and then one day, for whatever reason, not falling. Something inside has shifted, and today I can do something that yesterday I could not. What does that say about all the other things in my life I think I cannot do?

When I started yoga, poses were all I knew. But after several years of enthusiastic practice I found myself pooh-poohing poses, frustrated when they gained center stage as a "celebrity stretch of the day" while I knew that yoga meant so much more. Being able to stand on one’s head is no guarantee of great wisdom, after all.

But then one day a friend buoyantly told me that he'd finally managed to touch his foot to his head in that lovely and demanding backbend, eka pada rajakapotasana. I remember him recalling how lightning struck with that incredible electrical bliss of connection when his toe and head made contact. His enthusiasm rekindled something inside and I found myself eagerly diving into a discussion of the intricacy and beauty of yoga’s mysterious movements. And I gained a new respect for the simplicity and magnetic delight of the poses themselves.

Another friend tells me that asanas are like poetry - beautiful and deep and economical and expressive. Poetry helps us see and feel the world more clearly. It helps us find a way into the deeper mysteries of the world in a way that is magnificent and mysterious and beautiful. Maybe I love the asanas for the same incomprehensible reason I love poems. They don't always make sense, but I still love the way they roll through my being when I welcome them into my life.

I’ve heard it said that meditation is its own teacher, that by simply assuming a quiet, meditative posture with discipline and attention, we’ll eventually discover the same enlightened truths of the wisest saints. Lately I’ve wondered whether the postures of yoga might be a little like that, too. If I just practiced asana every day, precisely and intelligently, without any mental commentary or philosophical inquiry, would I be changed?

I’d like to believe that the answer is yes, at least a little. Perhaps diligent and attentive practice alone would lead me toward a deeper, clearer vision of the world. Maybe the beauty of a pose lies in its ability to transform us deep within, without our knowing how or why, and maybe without our even asking for it.

Sometimes I wonder whether asanas take center stage simply because they are so real, so tangible. We stumble when trying to express the indescribable feelings and revelations of our inner experience and so we’re left with what we can see: how our hips move in triangle pose, or whether to inhale or exhale our way into bridge pose. Maybe the asanas create a common language that offers us a way to share our experience. They may be fumbling and incomplete, but at least they offer a starting point, a launching pad into deeper discussion about the energy of life that courses through us.

Like my teachers, I frequently remind my students that although our classes are made up of asanas, yoga isn’t just about the pose. I, too, explain that the pose is just a way in, a diving board into the clear, healing waters of wisdom and clear seeing. But that doesn't have to mean we can't enjoy every step along the way.

Aren’t we lucky that the poses - the outer forms of yoga - feel so good? Can’t we love their precision and poetry and delight, while still remembering that they yearn to point us to a greater, sweeter land within? Poses may not be the be all and end all of yoga, and they may not even be the point, but that doesn’t mean I love them any less.


This article was originally published on YogaJournal.com (September 2001)