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How To Do Yoga “Correctly”

Written by on September 24, 2019 in Conscious Living, Inspirational with 0 Comments

“You're Not Doing It Right!”

At a yoga retreat I was hosting a few years ago, a woman was humorously explaining that her 70 year-old father had just “discovered” yoga. She described him as a type-AAA personality— very analytical, a physicist or engineer or something—who had recently stumbled across a yoga DVD and had became suddenly obsessed with doing all the poses “correctly.”


“Can you do ‘The Downward Facing Dog?” he said to his middle-aged daughter who had announced casually that she was about to go on a yoga retreat. “Sure,” she said. “Well, let’s see,” he challenged. Without a mat or stretchy clothes, she got down on hands and feet and busted out her best Downward Facing Dog pose. “You’re not doing it right,” he asserted. “Your heels have to touch the ground.” “Who Says?” she retorted. “The DVD! Look right here,” he said, showing her “proof” of an image on the DVD’s case demonstrating some flexi-dude in Downdog with his heels on the floor.

To some degree I think we are all a little like my student's dad who is looking for some sort of external “proof” that we are doing it right. Whenever we discover something new, begin a new discipline or philosophy, we try hard to define it by narrowing it down and distilling it to its essence, to define what it is and what it isn't. But often times, the more we learn about a discipline we come to realize that such narrow definitions are inadequate.

When I discovered yoga, I felt pretty certain that unless each yoga class had certain essential poses, it couldn’t be called yoga. My understanding of yoga has matured such that my definition of yoga has had to expand to include everything I've come to understand yoga to be. In fact, I have to consider having only a personal definition of the practice for I believe it's personal to everyone and concede that it must be a working definition, subject to change. My current working definition of yoga:

Defining Yoga

Yoga noun yo·ga \ˈyō-gə\

The process of discovering who I am through the method of listening. 


 

Yoga Nidra Photo by David Newkirk

In my opinion, yoga cannot be defined merely by doing poses. For example, Yoga Nidra is a form of yoga where practitioners lye down, close their eyes, and go into a deep state of Awareness which to anyone observing on the outside resembles taking a nap. Nonetheless, it's still considered yoga.

 

Yoga is so much deeper than just postures and yet we need to discover that depth for ourselves. The poses (however they are done) are merely the vehicles to access something deeper and yet in and of themselves, they are a wonderful way of keeping us purified, strong, and focused. The poses are beautiful and fun and make you feel great. Perhaps in our experience with yoga we will discover that though the poses are fantastic, the practice is much deeper than just doing poses. 

To truly be a student of any discipline means me must agree to evolve beyond our narrow definitions of that discipline. After all, why would we want to study something if we already knew everything there is to know about a subject? Our knowledge and growth beyond our entry point of the subject is crucial to the the journey of our education.

B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the preeminent yoga teachers to ever influence the west, wrote what many feel is one of the definitive text on yoga asana principles called Light On Yoga. It's said that once, during an advanced asana workshop he was teaching a certain principle and a student pointed out to him, “That’s not what you said in your book.” To which Iyengar replied with a wry smile on his face and a glint in his eye, “That fool? He knew nothing!”

It's misguided to tie the idea of “success” in yoga as being able to accomplish a certain proficiency or depth of a pose. Often we see pictures of yoga in the media of people doing outrageous poses, things that require inhuman flexibility or strength, and while there is nothing wrong with doing advanced asana (poses), they can be challenging and fun, it's nonetheless important to remember that the poses are mere tools to arrive at something else entirely. They are pointers to yoga's goal, not the goal themselves.

What is the goal of yoga? As stated in the Yoga Sutras, one of the primary philosophical texts on yoga, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” (book 1 vs. 2). It goes on to say that on a deeper level yoga is about “yoking”  yourself to the idea that you are both a localized expression of this Oneness. It says nothing about reaching your heels to the ground in Downdog. In fact, very little attention is given in this text about the importance of poses, a mere 2 of the 198 verses, and in those it says essentially that you must balance each pose with stability and ease.

 

Redefining “Advanced” Yoga

I’d like to redefine “advanced” poses and make a distinction between technical poses and advanced poses. A technical pose may be physically challenging and may incorporate several anatomical principles of alignment or muscular strength, balance, and or flexibility. An advanced pose is defined by your ability to negotiate that pose between stability and ease. Your ability to do a handstand doesn't make it an advanced pose. What makes it advanced is the ability to decide whether or not doing the pose will keep you in a stable/ease balance. You could easily do a pose that is technical but not advanced or advanced and not technical. Challenging, technical, or deep isn’t the goal for doing poses. Nor do we need to stop doing technical poses for fear that doing so will make us appear as showing off to other practitioners. This also is a misuse of the poses. Simply, we must not confound ability with enlightenment and must negotiate each pose for ourselves. This is doing postures “correctly.”

 

Each pose is a tool or medicine. Any builder must use the right tool for the job. The finishing carpenter doesn’t brag that they can nail trim around a door using a sledge hammer. And who cares if you this remedy or that to manage a malady or keep you into balance? It doesn’t matter as long as you get the job done without making yourself sick in the process. Poses as medicine is a great analogy because your “dose” of a yoga pose depends on who you are, what you are doing it for, your experience, your preferences—all of your needs. You don’t go to the doctor and expect to hear, “Yeah, you’re messed up but compared to the guy who came in here before you, you're really not that bad so I'm sending you home without any medicine. Stupid, right? Why, then, would we perform our yoga poses the same pose as the next guy? I like to say that the only way to do pose incorrectly is to do it the way your neighbor is doing them. 

 

This totally lets us off the hook because we don’t need to accomplish any poses to succeed at yoga! But by nature human are competitive, with each other and with ourselves. And as a teacher I unfortunately  see or feel others practicing yoga in response to what they “should do” or what they could do last time they practiced or what they could do 10 years ago, or what their friend can do rather than what's right for them today. I suppose that’s what really gets us into trouble—when we confound our being with our doing. I heard once the phrase of a mistaken identity as a human doing rather than a human being. Yoga is about coming into the realization of our being. Nearly every time I have been injured in my yoga practice it’s because I’m not listening to my body or my being and I do a pose too deeply or at the wrong time or without sensitivity to what my body and being is saying. I’m injured because my dosage or my purpose is messed up.

 

In class I often say that we aren’t practicing poses, but rather we are practicing principles in the form of poses. We practice principles of alignment, muscular engagement, breath and energy work, principles of mindfulness—all as tools to slowly reveal the perfect being both in the outer form of our bodies as well as that mysterious part that lies beneath. This fact lets us off the hook from having to “perform” the poses. It says that there is no “right” way to do a pose. A teacher once told me that there isn’t correct or incorrect, only skillful and not skillful based on who you are and what you need. Who cares if you can “do” a pose? I’ve been on both sides of the equation. When I began yoga I could not touch my toes. Now I can and I’m here to tell you that life isn’t any better now that I can; the heavens didn’t open and angels did not sing. And yet if there is a pose that I love to do, there’s also no reason not to if it brings me joy and makes me feel great. 

 

In yoga class, I teach principles not so students will take my word for it or feel that they have accomplish something, or to know how to do a pose correctly. Rather, I teach these things as a way of helping each student tune in with increased awareness and clarity, so that they might pay attention and hear the voice of their true teacher, the one that is quietly speaking within their own heart. I find my role is to constantly point the student’s attention back to themselves. 

 

So the next time someone tells you by mere fact of how your pose looks that “you’re not doing it right,” you can turn the phrase back on them. If you are worried about how the pose looks then you’re not doing it right. 

 

Useful Phrases

Here are a bunch of little phrases I came up with that I like to throw around in class:

There is a yoga bill of rights and there is one right on the yoga bill of rights and that’s the right to suck at yoga. 

The only way to do this incorrectly is to do it the way your neighbor does it. 

We are not practicing poses but rather principles in the form of poses. 

I’ve decided that any pose I can’t do is overrated. 

Let the metric of a pose be “Awesome.” If it feels awesome, do it. Otherwise, find another way.

It is not by effort that we find what we are searching for in our yoga practice. Rather by the judicious balance between steadiness and ease we place ourselves into the flow, into the current of our own evolution of body, mind, and spirit and find that through it we arrive somewhere much more profound than simply a deep pose. We arrive at the profound realization of our True Nature. 

 

Scott Moore is a senior teacher of yoga and mindfulness in the US (New York, Salt Lake City, LA) and abroad and currently lives in Southern France. When he's not teaching or conducting retreats, he writes for Conscious Life News, Elephant Journal, Mantra Magazine, Medium, and his own blog at scottmooreyoga.com. Scott also loves to run, play the saxophone, and travel with his wife and son. Check out his yoga retreats to places like Tuscany and France , his online Yoga Nidra Course and his Yoga Teacher Mentor Program

 

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