I meet people often who seem like they could really benefit from yoga. Maybe she’s a neighbor who is fretfully anxious. I tell her how relaxed I feel after a nice yoga session. Still, she doesn’t come. Or maybe she does. She tries for a class or two and spends all of svasana fidgeting or looking around around the room while I feel ready to take a nap. Why didn’t it work? How come yoga doesn’t relax her?
Detective Kumari suspects yoga will work if desire precedes the practice. Prime candidates for yoga need to be attracted, curious, endeavoring – not dead weight taking a ride. There’s too much to learn for a passive practice. Learning the basic poses might take a year. Assembling a sequence requires moving in sync with breathing. Proficiency takes mindful repetition. Regularity. Consistency. Attention. Yoga is not instant fix; it’s molasses slow. Granted a regular yoga practice will quell anxiety, but obviously not as quickly as drugs. So my friend or neighbor or relative who is struggling with depression, anxiety, or bi-polar disorder needs a complex combination of lifestyle changes, practices, and physician-care in addition to earnest desire. Wanting to learn yoga isn’t sufficient even with the best of intentions.
Another type of person yoga forsakes is the person ordered into class by a doctor. Such students are more likely to attend a class than my anxious neighbor, but only because they feel compelled. Bullied. Obligated to attend. On-lookers may wonder, why isn’t the yoga, the ancient four thousand year old wisdom working? ? I’ll tell ya. Sometimes yoga fails because resentful people have legitimate gripe. A gripe that fogs vision. A grip that ruffles the chattering mind. Unwilling participants don’t appreciate being offered a solution which is cheap, easy, and not paid for by insurance. They want bells. They want whistles. They want exotic, expensive, recently discovered cure.
Students who come to yoga feeling the need to prove yoga won’t work are usually pretty adept at convincing themselves. These are students who don’t investigate the edges of their ability; no, they don’t explore, they don’t try. No matter how many times the yoga teacher huffs “move with your breath” they syncopate. Not matter how articulate the cue, the student stands hollow, empty, disengaged in the process. Yoga won’t work if one won’t work it. One must do it, again, and do it.
Why does yoga work? With the caveat: If I will let it, yoga increases self awareness. Cognizance. Yoga is the skill of recognizing. Sure I can do this without yoga if I am willing to pay attention, but for the uninitiated, class – with my eyes closed – with a teacher encouraging me, is an easier way in. She directs me to “feel” the fact of my breath, and to sense my abdomen, to engage bandha. These behaviors become habits if I take several classes weekly and come to class consistently.
When yoga fails there’s generally two reasons: 1) lack of commitment 2) lack of attendance. It’s no good going if I’m not present when I’m there. These are tricky parameters, however, in a world where yoga teachers are not exempt from bad behavior. Beware of trusting the untrustworthy teacher. I had a teacher once asked if anyone in the room had an “issue,” a past or current injury, a chronic syndrome, a persistent pain. I raise my hand, I share my story. I am under the impression she’s concerned. Imagine my disappointment when she turns away from me while I’m still talking to visit with someone else. I flush, hot and red from embarrassment. I let her know we could talk later, but we never do. I can hardly be expected to pay attention to someone who has no interest in me.
Although I dutifully attend classes taught by this low-back-pain specialist for several months, applying myself whole heartedly to her methods – I don’t heal. Her yoga, her sequencing, her playlist, don’t resonate with me. Everything feels too fake-y fake, too painted on, too dialed in. From her carefully co-ordinated fashion to her scripted questions regarding people’s “issues.” Truth is, I never saw her once offer concrete therapeutic insight. Her comments boil down to “don’t hurt yourself.” Watch out. Perhaps she was famous as a low-back-pain specialist because no one wants to admit the emperor has no clothes. Eventually I drop out of her class, but I don’t give up on yoga. I’m persistent, but not mindlessly so.
On the opposite end of the spectrum
Besides teachers who blah blah blah unsubstantiated, there are teachers who full-court press. Some students love the teacher to push them, like a bootcamp session. And I have seen teachers who comply. I am not that kind of teacher. Manipulating others may be a great method for massage but it ain’t, in my opinion, yoga. I have had my share of injuries from well meaning teachers, and yuk. Manipulation, no matter how slight is counter productive. I want to do yoga so I can know my Self. How am I going to discover my edge if my teacher keeps pushing me off the cliff? How will I test my limits if my teacher defines the boundary?
In addition to being a gross practice, a visible, sweaty, laborious sequence of movements that increase bone density, strength and tone, Yoga is a subtle practice, an invisible, airy, meditative state of stillness that permeates the mind. For some people the big stuff is the right stuff. Months, years, decades of harsh physical practice ensue before pranayama, svadhyaya and meditation appear to have any relevance. Others are attracted to subtle almost singularly. Swami Vivekananda was hardly a contortionist, barely practiced asana – yet was arguably the most famous yoga master in the United States in the late nineteenth century.
When Yoga doesn’t work, the fail may be due to an unbalanced practice: i.e. too heavy on the gross or too light on the subtle. There’s nothing wrong with recalibrating before total retreat. For many months before my last trip to North Carolina my injured hip suffered recurrent indignities. I could not, for the life of me, get my muscles, i.e. my Self, to relax. As a result I experience pain in my knee during padmasana, vrksasana, and ardha badha padma pachimottanasana. I worried incessantly. I needn’t have. During the four day workshop David opened every session with a prolonged pranayama, which heals my hip. I perform the primary sequence without a hitch. I’ve been fine on that side ever since. In a very anatomical way engaging moolah bandha during extensive pranayama allowed for the relaxation I couldn’t muscle into. . . go figure.
Now y’all play nice!