There used to be a time when I thought that by learning a headstand or a handstand I would somehow magically evolve into an enlightened being. After months of trying, falling (once even while demonstrating a headstand in front of a class!), and finally succeeding, I came to the realization that my physical achievements do not equal advanced Yoga practice - my mind was still agitated, my emotions still easily disturbed. This was years ago, but the lessons the experience taught me are still poignant today. I achieved more progress in my Yoga practice with chanting and meditation in shorter amount of time, than I achieved with the fancy poses (although enlightenment is still work in progress).

These poses are in the category called Visesa (pronounced Vishesha), which means "special" in Sanskrit. The inversions do have some physical benefits, but none of those benefits cannot be achieved by other, gentler and safer means. So, if you feel as if you are missing out on some awesome Asana effects because you are not able to stand on your head take heart - milder inversions such as Down Dog and Bridge, such as supported Shoulder Stand Viparita Karani deliver all of the blood flow to your brain you'd ever want and more - they re-align your relationship to gravity and help you see your inner world differently, too.

The arm balances don't even have that excuse going for them - they are mostly stress for shoulders and wrists, and if the core is weak and you fall out, they can lead to serious injury. However, we are so inundated with the images of lithe Yogis in Crow Pose, Dragonfly Pose that many people who are not ready for them both physically and mentally are attempting to practice them. What did I learn by practicing those? They make nice pictures that attract attention to my blog entries! They are also just plain fun. And having fun in one's practice is not to be overlooked, because it is the enjoyment of it that keeps us coming back to it. Some people are more adventurous than others, however, and more willing to take a risk. Some people's ego is easily bruised by failure, while others become obsessive with reaching goals to the point of self-injury. Some, like me, just have to try it all and make their own mind about things! These poses are certainly a nice boost to one's ego, and if self-confidence is needed and there is no Warrior Pose or Chant that can be persuaded upon a student, and if their wrists are healthy, then maybe these poses would help that person find their inner confidence.

I don't practice these poses anymore, but I can do them just as well now as ten years ago. Conclusion? Other things in my practice create the strength, flexibility, and balance needed to do these poses. The fact that I can still do them at the drop of a hat means that my practice cultivates all I need physically, and the fact that I don't do them anymore - all that I need mentally, too.

Because there is a trap in the physical achievement of poses that I have seen many people fall into - the trap for the ego where these special poses make one feel special, superior to others, and eventually the adrenaline rush and the endorphin rush can create an addiction. Then your Yoga practice is no longer serving you, you are forever a slave to it, and when it begins to hurt you instead of heal you, you respond with denial. Here is a brief checklist for you to self-assess whether your practice is effective:

  • Are you experiencing a sense of peace at the end and are able to truly relax in Sivasana? Or are you still agitated and disturbed by the slightest noise, your own mind's wanderings, the discomfort in your body? Can you be still both physically and mentally at the end of your practice?
  • Are you suffering from frequent injuries in your practice? Are you writing them off as part and parcel of the "growth process"?
  • Are you distracted in class by other students? Do you compete with the teacher?
  • Do you discover valuable insights about yourself that help you improve your relationships with people in your life, with yourself? Are you becoming more or less critical? These poses can really aggravate Chakra Three.

This brings me to the obstacles that get in the way of this enlightened state we seek in Yoga, the so-called Kleshas. These are:

  • Avidya - ignorance. It is the source of all obstacles. Avidya is when we think something is permanent, when it is not, something is pure when it is not, something is pleasant, when it is actually painful, and who we think we are is actually not who we are.
  • Asmita - Egoism, or false identity. When we identify with the wrong thing as the true representation of who we are. Whenever you hear someone say: "I am ... (fill the blank)" you are most likely dealing with this Klesha.
  • Raga - attachment, craving, desire. We want some things so strongly, that we are blinded by these cravings and desires. Hence "be careful what you wish for."
  • Dvesha - aversion, repulsion (unreasonable dislike). Sometimes we avoid doing something that can actually be helpful and healing, because we don't like the "taste of the medicine."
  • Abhinevesha - fear (insecurity). The reining king of so many of our mistakes. Includes the ultimate fear - fear of death.

If your Yoga practice is not helping you transcend these Kleshas, then the time has come to re-evaluate. These obstacles are overcome by regular self-assessment using the questions above, and by and practicing Yoga the right way - with effort without strain, the result being relaxation without dullness.

Let's hit the mat, everyone!


Anna M.