It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.
– William of Occam
This post is a continuation of the post Yoga for Life or Living for Yoga?
The renowned yoga teacher B. K. S. Iyengar (his school of yoga is even today one of the most popular yoga schools in the West) was invited to an appointment with the Queen of Belgium, who at the time was 85 years old. The Queen wanted to stand on her head, and she wanted to do so immediately. Iyengar (as he later wrote, “with hesitation”) put the Queen on her head, and, more importantly, he safely managed to bring her back to her feet. Consequently, the Queen, under Iyengar’s guidance, learned to perform a headstand on her own.
This story shows the great difference between mine and Iyengar’s understanding of yoga. From my point of view, Iyengar was under a lucky star. It would seem that the Higher Powers were interested in spreading yoga in the West (this was in 1958), and ensured the success of his risky experiment.
Why the Queen wanted to stand on her head is understandable. This asana later became the hallmark of yoga – along with the lotus position. Let’s just say – standing on your head is “cool”, it’s an achievement.
Iyengar was perhaps the first yoga teacher from India who brought to the West not only the headstand, but also other various super-complicated asanas. Today they would hardly surprise anybody, every yoga instructor comes up with more and more complex versions of these asanas, and yoga “athletes” compete in World Yoga Championships (yes, they do exist). Furthermore, in sports clubs around the world these instructors train ordinary people like us and convey to us the understanding that the rule of thumb in yoga is “the harder, the better”. This understanding rests well with our competitive nature, and, as a result, yoga becomes a sport, not unlike gymnastics or figure skating. We strive, while our instructors urge us on, to perform the most complex asanas of those that we find available.
Yet what is this “harder” really better for? Nobody goes into gymnastics or figure skating for health or resource.
Let us get back to the headstand. Almost every book on yoga holds an impressive list of diseases that this asana cures. However, it had been used for something quite different in the old days. The yogis of antiquity found that remaining in an upside down state for a long time stops the thought process and leads to changes in the states of consciousness. To this end, they stood on their heads for an hour or more at a time. Or even hung themselves down from trees, tying themselves to their branches.
Undoubtedly, inverse asanas (those in which the head is located lower than the legs) are generally useful for health and energy. Also, there is no doubt that the headstand has a strong effect. Just remember that this effect can lead to both a cure for diseases and an increase in one’s resource, and to a decrease in one’s resource and the arising of illness. For most of us, this asana will not do – it’s just too potent. Here we come to the most important rule: that potent does not mean “the best”.
Let’s review our goal – what we are doing all this for. We need to increase our energy and resources, right? Our aim is not to get a medal in yoga at all. And it is not to prove to ourselves that “I can do it, too”. And neither is it to achieve alternative states of consciousness. Therefore, there are other, much easier and safer inverse asanas, even in hatha yoga, for instance.
Below I will formulate the basic rules that I have worked out for myself.
Rule 1. In the practice of yoga, one should use the simplest of those exercises (asanas), which give the desired effect.
Rule 2. Move on to a more complex exercise only when the analogous simpler one ceases to render this effect (and not when the body has adapted – and certainly not before it has adapted).
These 2 rules can be well expressed by the simple saying: “Easy does it”. If they are competently followed, then, most likely, for you it would never even come to the headstand in the first place – at least not until you decide to practice yoga professionally and make the switch to the greater Yoga.
And one further short recommendation:
When choosing a yoga instructor, pay attention to the photo that he or she has placed on the website. If in this photo he or she is depicted performing some very complicated asana, it is better not to go to them – they most likely do not understand what yoga is and what it is intended for. Competent instructors place either ordinary photos or photos showing simple asanas for meditation.