The following may seem strange coming from a yoga teacher, but sometimes I think that the postures of yoga can be an impediment to progress. I have spent a lot of time studying and practicing the poses as they have been defined and developed over the years, but one thing I have come to realize is that a pose is simply a snapshot of a movement or or a direction you might be heading in, which exists in a continuum, not in some perfect and static form. It can be really easy to get caught up in doing a pose “right” and losing sight of what the pose is supposed to accomplish in the first place. The poses might be a really useful shorthand for your practice, but ultimately, their usefulness is dictated not by conforming our bodies and practice to an expectation of the pose, but using them in a way that furthers an understanding of ourselves and that helps us to move forward.
There are really only a couple of things that the body is capable of doing: we bend forward, we bend backward, we twist, we can bend sideways, and the legs and arms can rotate out or in. Every posture is simply one or more of these movements in various combinations oriented in various ways in space. And they tend to get defined at nice, neat angles that may or may not be where you receive benefit from the pose. Deepening your practice does not mean to me that you can do more poses or that your postures look really great, but that you are more and more aware of the specifics of your body and the ways that it might benefit from movements that may or may not be part of a traditional posture.
I once assisted an over-60 yoga class for a month or so and was blown away by how open they were to trying different things. There was an 87 year old woman in one class who was new to yoga and whom I will never forget. She had had hip and knee replacement surgeries and had trouble both walking and standing upright without some difficulty. But she was incredibly curious about how her body might work within the context of yoga and how she could adjust to find something useful. Partly because her body simply wasn’t going to be able to get into some of the traditional poses, she had no real expectations or preconceptions, just an open-minded attitude and managed to find useful movements that she could sit with and breath with. More quickly than the vast majority of younger students I teach, she managed to find the essence of the yoga practice without really any postures to speak of. It was wonderful and inspiring.
So how do we know when the postures are serving us and when we are serving the postures? This is difficult and requires some real honesty on the part of the practitioner. For myself, the times that I have gotten into trouble were all times when I was trying to accomplish a posture instead of using that posture to connect to something useful for me in that moment. We need to be aware of why we are making the decisions we are making when we practice a posture, and to examine our assumptions about both our bodies and the poses as we take practice. I have no one-size-fits-all solution to how to do this, just an encouragement to continually examine and question. One of my teachers at one point (wisely) said that wisdom is not something gained by memorizing the sutras or perfecting the poses, etc. but by a lifetime of experience paying attention while you do so.