A Yogi's Journey
I admit it. These days, I often find myself rolling my eyes at the mention of "hot yoga." (It's really more just an internal eye roll.) The premise of raising the heat just to make students sweat and "detox" is like cranking the oven to 500 degrees to try to cook a pot roast faster. All it does is fry you.
Personally, I love a good short rib, something that sits and cooks slowly from the inside out, retaining its juiciness, and resulting in meat that, with the mere prodding of a fork, just falls off the bone. The true journey of yoga is more like short rib - you must create the heat from the inside out to become truly supple and vulnerable - so the layers you've built around your soul, both mentally and physically, can begin to 'fall' away. Like a good short rib, this takes time.
I recently was reviewing some of my notes from a teacher training. I recall the overwhelming statement from my teacher: "Yoga's promise: you can have a better life." Whoa. That seems like a tall order from some stretching, a little breathing, and possibly standing on your head for a bit, and it is.
Which is why I feel so many are missing the boat on the true aim of yoga. This ancient system of timeless wisdom and dare I say 'body technology' is being grossly underutilized. While it certainly can enhance and complement other physical pursuits, yoga's strength does not lie in healing or improving the physical body.
You want to lower your cholesterol? Eat some oatmeal and start walking. Improve your cardiovascular strength? Get your butt in a cycle class. Recover from back injury or pain? Go to a physical therapist. Gain flexibility? Okay, yes, yoga asanas can certainly assist you with becoming a little "bendier," however, many often push to achieve this end only to return to the mat with a litany of torn muscles, tendons, and ligaments, instable joints and other ailments.
Personally, if I'm going to tear something, I'd prefer it be the result of a much better story than "down dog." Something like, "I was snowboarding and had to make a radical left to avoid a deer shooting across the slope." Or, "I was biking through the remote canyons of Peru and took a dive down the mountain." You get the point.
There have been many articles that pose the question, "Can yoga hurt more than it helps?" with research supporting a resounding "yes." I agree a strictly physical asana practice may very well harm the body when not practiced skillfully. I'd also argue though, just from very unscientific personal observation, many are not teaching skillfully, must less practicing so.
However, when applied mindfully and with discernment, there is little chance yoga will harm you. When practiced with awareness and under the direction of a qualified teacher, what yoga (and a good teacher) will do is most likely cause discomfort at the level of the body and the mind. Your practice may even uncover some fear and pain.
So, if you're goal is to be comfortable and maybe get a little cardio and gain some flexibility, continue to practice a quick paced Vinyasa class with little instruction on how to direct the breath (other than inhale/exhale). If you are interested in how yoga can change your life though, stay in a pose for more than 15 seconds, get uncomfortable, and keep your breath steady and calm. Train your mind to be present. Learn how to direct your breath to shift your energy and thus, your perspective. Come back to the mat again and again, no matter how bad (or good) it feels. Show up as yoga begins to unravel and shed the layers that cover the light of your heart.
While I can make observations about the manner in which many Westerners practice yoga, I definitely do not stand on my head in judgment. While it seems another life ago, I recall when all that mattered was 'getting into the pose' or getting my flow on. I have been blessed to be led to a teacher that was able to offer what I so desperately longed for - a life free from pain, emotional turmoil and self-loathing. An empowered life full of purpose, radiance, and joy, no matter what my bakasana looked like.
Be curious to all the wonders of life that yoga can unlock - not just your hips - and you will find more freedom and fulfillment from your practice than you could ever imagine - whether or not you can get your foot behind your head.