Americans like their food too salty or sugary.  It is a culture that prefers strong flavors that make an impact.  Beer?  The more bitter, the better.  TV?  The more violence, the more popular.  Triathlons, anyone?  Bootcamps?  Survival in the wilderness?  Those things are expensive to participate in, and yet - there is a waiting list!  Yoga?  Americans like their Yoga hard.  They like to sweat it out on the mat.  Nowhere else in the world is Bikram Yoga as popular as it is in the US.  Ashtanga and Power Yoga are both products of this overachiever culture.  Somehow people have it in their minds that if they are not breaking a sweat, if nothing hurts, if it is not hard, then they are not getting their money's worth and are basically wasting their time.

What happens is that those practitioners who prefer strongly flavored Yoga  become desensitized to the subtleties that Yoga has to offer.  By always pushing against the outer limits, by testing that outer edge to the point of breaking, eventually one is bound to find the limit.  There is only so far you can take your body before you injure it.  By that time, however, you have become addicted to the strong physical sensations your practice provides.  You try a milder class, but it just doesn't stimulate your senses as much as the "workout" Yoga class does.  So you go back to the sweat rooms, and keep seeking that outer edge of endurance. 

The problem is that it is always out there, somewhere in the future, somewhere to get to, and ultimately, that it hurts.  Consider this - there is another edge to push against, the inner edge, the one that is often ignored because it is much harder to feel it - the sensations it provides are very subtle.  The delicate flutterings of Prana and awareness - those things are far less tangible and therefore elusive.  The more one seeks the outer edge, the farther one travels from the inner one, until eventually the sensory overload from the gross physical body completely drones out any sensations of the more subtle energetic body.  You lose the ability to feel it, just like someone who is used to eating salty food eventually loses the ability to appreciate delicate nuanced taste of, say, zuccini.  With no salt added.

When the body reaches a certain level of conditioning that allows one to be in complete Shtiram and Shukham (steadiness and ease) while performing a wide range of Asanas, it gives one an opportunity to be relaxed while in Down Dog, or in a Warrior, or in a Boat pose.  Just because it is easy now, doesn't mean you need to go and find the next hard thing to do.  You can get a lot of benefit from staying just where you are! 

And when you are not working so hard anymore, when you are able to execute the shape of the pose precisely and completely, without strain, a certain magic happens if you don't push any further, seeking the next edge of physical exertion.  If you relax into that moment of steadiness and ease, listen to the breath, focus your mind on the experience, you can actually feel a myriad of subtlest sensations, not the least of which - your mind being at peace with what is, the way it is.

By the time the body reaches that level of conditioning, however, the practitioner often has pushed against the limits of physical endurance so long that it becomes a habit, a samskara, and it is hard to stop wanting to feel the stretch, the muscle contraction, the breath laboring on, the sweat beading on the forehead.

The Katha Upanishad tells us that "The Creator made the senses outward-going: they go to the world of the matter outside, not to the Spirit within.  But a sage who sought immortality looked within himself and found his own Soul."

So, next time you are doing a pose that has taken years for you to perfect, linger in that sweet moment of ease and steadiness in it, and wait for the magic of the present moment to unfold itself before you - you just might find your Self there.  Your Yoga is always now, Atha. 

Stay cool this summer, chill everyone!


Anna M.