Yoga isn’t so Black and White By: Katie Cousins
I’ve taught a variety of vinyasa classes over the years and, while I’m super excited to teach our new Monday morning and Tuesday evening classes, I know how difficult it can be to convince newer yoga students to try what can be a more challenging style of yoga. As new yogis, we put this pressure on ourselves to “get it right” and be “good enough” to practice with the grown-ups; it’s like there’s this certain level or even a certain posture we have to achieve or perfect before we can walk into a power vinyasa class. Otherwise, we’ll fall down or “get it wrong” or hurt ourselves. Oof - I get it. That’s ego, baby.
When I first started practicing yoga, I became obsessed with getting it “right.” Nailing the poses, perfecting the alignment, memorizing Sanskrit and yoga philosophy and anatomy. I also beat myself up a LOT when I got it “wrong” – falling out of poses, not reaching the fullest expression, or forgetting which way my hips were supposed to be rotating. A lifelong perfectionist and Type A personality, I clung to the ideal image of what yoga was “supposed to” look like: the bendy babes in perfect postures on the cover of Yoga Journal, fancy leggings, and top-of-the-line accessories, lean muscles and lots and lots of sweat.
It’s an easy mindset to fall into, especially in western yoga culture. The ancient practice has been modified, altered, chopped, screwed, and twisted into whatever the latest workout trend or wellness craze is spreading its way across a social-media-obsessed nation. The definition of “Yoga” has a very different meaning than it did thousands of years ago, and our society tends to attach to and over-emphasize the social and physical benefits of a practice that was designed to help us detach from such ideals to discover the divine within.
I’m not saying any of this is wrong.
In fact - I think part of yoga is identifying and understanding these modifications and variations and how they serve those that adopt them. What is it about the original practice that doesn’t fulfill the needs or align with the desires of our society? So what if people want to do yoga with goats? Or wine? Or as part of their Crossfit routine? I mean, yoga did originate thousands of years ago… the world has changed a bit since then. Perhaps it should look and feel a little different in our modern world. (Also, a lot of yoga postures were invented by men. Who dominates western yoga culture today? Yeah - not men.)
As part of my teacher training, I studied the yoga sutras, the Gita, the Vedas, all the limbs, and all the Sanskrit. I also practiced a disciplined style of vinyasa curated by Baron Baptiste and dabbled in ashtanga because I loved the consistency and the precision - the idea of achieving perfection - pushing myself to be the best I could be. I drilled myself on anatomy and physiology and “correct” alignment. I thought I *knew* what yoga was and what it wasn’t. But yoga isn’t so black and white.
Today, I couldn’t tell you what the sutras are (some life advice written by a dude named Patanjali?) or recite a single one. I lost my copy of the Bhagavad Gita. The only Sanskrit I remember is utkatasana because I can still hear my Baptiste instructor yelling it out for the 25th time in my first power vinyasa class. My postures are asymmetrical, I sometimes do savasana on my stomach, and I skip vinyasas like 50% of the time. Why? Because life threw at me a series of learning experiences unique to me, my lifestyle, and my body that don’t quite align with the teachings of the ancient scriptures or the ashtanga primary series. (Also, I’m not a spry 20-something in a town full of hot, college-aged kids trying to prove something anymore. My joints ain’t what they used to be.)
My yoga is very different these days, as is my perception of yoga and what it’s “supposed” to be. Not only does it look and feel different than it did years ago, but it varies from day to day. Some days, my yoga looks like finding new ways to cultivate softness and ease - in warrior II or a challenging conversation with my 3-year-old. Sometimes, it’s pushing myself to the edge or out of my comfort zone - in a balancing posture or a new career opportunity. Most days, it’s just convincing myself that I am worthy and I am enough, through mindful reflection and acts of self-love.
And so I challenge you to reconsider what you think you know about yoga. Be open-minded and curious - with different ideas, methodologies, and with yourself. Ask questions, get answers, then ask more questions. Seek out your yoga - your truth, your way of being - rather than clinging to someone else’s ideals or attaching to one particular way of thought. Try new things, try the “wrong” things, and see what you can find. Grab that yoga block. Don’t answer that email right away. Try a new coffee shop. Don’t worry about squaring your hips to the front of the mat this time.
Life, truth, answers, right, wrong – it isn’t always black and white. Maybe, whatever works for you, whatever serves you and gives you life, is “right.” Can you find contentment and comfort in the grey areas? What if there is no right or wrong? Can you be comfortable with not knowing, or even thrive in uncertainty? Can you be present in the right now and detach from what is “right” by others’ standards? Because the right now - the present moment - is fleeting, fluid, dynamic, and beautifully colorful. And so are you.