There are two sides of the coin in our Yoga practice. On the one side we have "Use or lose it", while on the other "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." Finding the right balance between these two well-taken points is not easy, and often it is by trial and error that we learn where that balance is.

On the one hand, we are encouraged to do more, to go deeper into the poses, to try new things and "grow" in our practice. As we age it is important to keep doing what keeps you feeling like yourself - putting every joint through its normal range of movement, strengthening where we are weak and releasing where we are tense. However, in the Yoga world especially, "normal" is often skewed. We see these lithe, super-flexible Yogis and we think that just because they look good, they must be healthy, and the extreme flexibility or strength they have must be "normal" or at least desirable. Let me propose here that it is not so, that I know many lithe, flexible Yogis who are a kaleidoscope of injuries, who live with nearly constant pain.

This is where we come to the other hand.  Just because it is possible for me to do the full version of the pigeon pose, before I go there I must perform a kind of cost-benefit analysis and ask myself - how would I benefit from this extreme contortion, and is it possible to achieve the same benefit without overstretching ligaments and risking injury to the sacrum?

This has been a long journey for me. I stumbled in the dark for a long time with my own avidya (ignorance), which is described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as "regarding impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant, the non-Self as the Self." Especially the mistaking the painful as pleasant part. Many of us long-term Yoga practitioners become addicted to sensations of both the mind and the body. We crave the fullest possible experience. There are some Yoga traditions or styles that tap into the addictive properties of constantly re-injuring the psyche and and the body, seeking a catharsis.

But is that really necessary, and moreover, is there a benefit in that? And even if there is, is it worth it? Thoughts and feelings have long been overestimated in their importance in the Western culture. It all started with Freud, who believed that the root of our issues lies buried somewhere deep in our subconscious. There is a echo of that in many Yoga approaches - that the root of our problems lies buried deep in our tissues, if only we could dig them out! And so the digging begins, acquiring sometimes a tinge of obsessive-compulsive.

I don't know, I am not a psychotherapist, only a Yoga therapist, but... sometimes a knot in your back is just a knot in your back, brought on by too many hours hunched over a computer, and not some deeply buried imbalance of Chakra Four. There is no need to perform a deep psychoanalysis of every thought and feeling that arises. For the most part, our thoughts and feelings are fleeting and meaningless (I bet I can get some flack for saying that, but I base my opinion on some seriously credible research), and dwelling on them can sometimes do more harm than good. It is like constantly picking at a barely-healing scab and making it bleed once again. As a matter of fact, both the body and the psyche make adjustments that help us sustain a certain status quo, and I would caution you before you go in there and try to "fix" whatever you think is wrong with you until you have a complete picture of what's going on. Been there done that, and the lesson learned: selective fixing doesn't work. If you change the alignment of one thing, it can destabilize the entire structure of the body.

And here we come to the final bit of wisdom from the Sutras: "Suffering that has not yet come should be avoided." How genius is that! So, let's stick with sensible, well-rounded practices that connect us to the body, that nourish the nervous system with pleasant and meaningful sensations, being careful not to overindulge and overstimulate. Everything in moderation, and when choosing specific practices, let's stop for a moment and think - does this bring enough benefit with it to be worth the risk?


Anna M.