The Pitfalls of Focusing on the Physical Practice of Yoga
In the West we tend to focus on the physical practice of yoga a lot, and mostly ignore the deeper levels of the practice.
According to Raja Yoga there are eight limbs of yoga. Of those eight limbs, the physical practice (Asana) is just one of the limbs. This makes Asana only 1/8 of the practice of yoga!
What are we missing out on and, most importantly, what pitfalls are we exposing ourselves and our students to, when we focus mainly on the physical practice?
The benefits of the Asana practice
Focusing on Asana has many benefits, including:
Connection to and understanding of our body
Physical strength and flexibility
Temporary state of well-being through the release of feel-good hormones
Releasing toxins from the body
Recharging with Prana
However, focusing solely on Asana has a lot of hazards, possible pitfalls.
The pitfalls of focusing only on the Asana practice
Focusing only on the physical practice can lead to competition with ourselves and others, which is the opposite of the yoga philosophy and can have a negative impact on the yoga practitioners.
Unhealthy relationship with our body
The competition with ourselves often leads to practicing too much and not letting the body heal. This disconnection to what our body needs can cause repetitive motion injuries.
For others, the excessive focus on the Asana practice and the emphasis on the shapes and looks, can lead to an unhealthy judgement of the body. The student will identify their own worth with the perceived worthiness of his or her body and physical practice.
Comparison, not feeling “good enough” or “feeling superior”
The perceived or induced competition with others makes us aspire to look the same as the practitioners on social media. Not realizing that everyone has different skeletons, ligament & muscles structure, and lived experiences that will influence the look of a pose. . Because of these differences everyone’s expression of the same pose will, and should, look different. Some of our students, unless guided otherwise by us, might be pushing themselves too far and injuring themselves to match a certain shape. Fit the Pose to the Person, Not the Other Way Around
On the opposite side, some of our students might think that they are better than the rest because they can get into the pose. However their ability to access the deeper postures might come from their unique skeleton and muscle structure that allows them to do the pose. It doesn't mean that they have worked harder or are better than anyone else.
When feeling better than or less than someone else this comes from identifying with our perceived labels and our ego. When we identify with ego, instead of realizing that we are something more, it promotes separateness and leads to even more suffering.
Alienating people from yoga
The obsession with the physical practice can also be alienating for people, as they think they can’t “do” yoga or that they don’t have a “yoga body”. This is sad and unfair, because everyone deserves to feel welcome and safe in our classes and enjoy the benefits of this amazing practice.
Missing out the other amazing benefits of yoga
Furthermore, people also miss out on all the benefits, such as peace of mind, contentment and joy, which come with a deeper practice. I would argue that these benefits far outweigh the physical benefits.
Focusing on the Asana practice can lead to more identification with our physical bodies. This identification is exactly the opposite of the yoga philosophy! Yoga teaches us that we are more than just our bodies, that we are divine beings. Identifying ourselves with the physical body as “who we are” leads to even more suffering because the body changes, It is impermanent and ultimately is just a vehicle for our soul to experience this beautiful world.
Yoga reminds us of the divine, infinite and eternal part of ourselves, which is our true self.
As you can see, the focus only on the body and Asana can lead to injuries and suffering. Including the yoga philosophy and the other limbs of yoga in our practice and teaching creates a healthier approach to our physical practice, as well as more peace, contentment and joy for us and our students.
How can we reduce the attachment to body and looks in our classes?
As teachers, we can incorporate the other elements of the practice in our classes, thus encouraging students to be less attached to their bodies and the look of their poses.
Here are some ideas:
Theming our classes around the yoga philosophy, e.g. the Aparigraha (non-attachment) Yama.
Teaching pranayama & meditation, thus encouraging our students to connect to and be guided by their inner wisdom.
Using each pose as a gateway to a variety of benefits, not only physical, but mental, emotional and spiritual, as well, e.g. by mentioning the Chakra system and emotional blockages that yoga can help release.
Creating a safe and non-competitive environment, through our words and our actions, e.g. by discouraging comparison between students and reminding them that it is not the looks that bring them the benefits of a pose, and not complimenting the look of the pose with words like beautiful or ‘on point.’
Leading by example, by being mindful that our own actions and words are aligned, ensuring we aren’t being hypocrites.
Removing our own ego from our teaching, by being humble and a constant student of yoga.
Remember that our students are divine beings, that we are all connected, we are all one.
Our body, this beautiful and complex vehicle carrying us through our life of earth, needs our care and nurturing. We are honoring it through the physical practice of yoga, as long as it is non-excessive and non-competitive.
But we are much more than our body. Yoga, unlike any other practice, tends to the other parts of ourselves, as well. Let us offer ourselves and our students these benefits, as well.
How will you help you students let go of the attachment to the shape and look of their bodies, to find more peace and joy in your classes? What pose, cue or theme did you pick for your next class?
Make a mental note of it and make sure to incorporate it, to give your students the gift of a practice that serves their whole being.