Yoga in the west is often known for its unusual postures, as relaxation or as a mixed bag tinted with Hinduism. It is often said that “yoga, its for acrobats, contortionists” or “what’s the use of putting my body in odd positions?” “For me yoga annoys me” Oh how many derogatory comments yoga attracts and how many people attack it/put it down. But I must admit these comments are well founded. Personally, I must confess that had I not found a good yoga teacher I would have also criticised yoga. Firstly, the postures are but the tip of the yoga iceberg. Out of the total of 195 aphorisms of the yoga sutras (the incontrovertible yoga text) only three of the aphorisms talk about yoga postures.
In the ancient Vedic tradition, the postures were considered as a basic tool of yoga. The old would live through difficult times without the benefits of modern medicine; the most vulnerable would die defenceless against disease, the strong would become stronger, going to fetch water, doing the washing, working in the fields… They were active enough to have no need for yoga postures. Today in our sedentary society, yoga postures are an important tool in the practice side of yoga; understanding ones body from the inside, strengthening it, making it suppler, stimulating digestion, learning to breathe etc are challenges in themselves. Let us face it, yoga is poorly perceived and misunderstood.
Yoga began to develop in Europe during the 50s. In good faith, some people have seen experienced yogis in India practising in the street and have simply come back and told what they have seen. Others without much conscience add one posture after another without making any obvious link. These are some of the reasons that I think have contributed to the devaluing of the image of the yoga posture in our modern world giving it the yoga label “acrobatic”. Behind each practice, each posture is an idea, an objective, an intelligent idea. The study of postures, the construction of a yoga séance and the application of the tools of yoga are subjects that are very far reaching/profound, take a long time to be learnt, requiring both experience and practice.
The aphorism number II. 47 of the yoga sutras of Patanjali explains that the posture of yoga is “mastered when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite”. It is on this notion of intelligent effort that I would like to place the emphasis in this article. It proves to what extent the responsibility of the teacher is engaged in the teaching process. Indeed there is no single way of applying the yoga postures, there is no single way of threading postures together and all of the postures are not useful to everyone. But above all, according to the teacher Krishnamacharya “It is the posture which should serve the person and not the person who should serve the posture”. What can be done so that yoga can effectively serve the person? The starting point must be that of observation both of the person or group practicing yoga in order to define an objective within reach. The objective could be to “Do the posture on the head” “learn to understand ones breathing” “to be aware of ones body” “Calm the mental state” “energise the person” “to unify the group” etc. The potential objectives are so numerous and complementary that it is virtually impossible to make an exhaustive list. Only the demonstration of their diversity is important. However, for each participant the means used to achieve the chose objective are different.
Let us take a simple example of “relaxation” For certain people it is impossible to relax before having completed ten or so postures, whilst for others they only a need to do one or two gentle postures with simple arm movements. Furthermore many different parameters enter into force when choosing the practice séance: age, strength, capacity, lifestyle, philosophical approach, interest….. This is exactly why yoga is above all a holistic tool considering the person in his or her totality/entity. As for group lessons, they must/should correspond, in the best possible way to each person within the limits of their own attainable objectives and achieving those within their ability to compromise with the group.
Within the diversity of the objectives and means, without intuition, knowledge and experience of the teacher it would be impossible to “tailor the suit” of the exercise to the specific tailoring capabilities of each student. It is clear that within this notion of “adjusted effort?” used by Patanjali that there are basis rules, a grammar of adjustment of postures – but this in itself will be the subject for another article…
Philip Rigo, Viniyoga Teacher
Translated by Sally Trickett