I’ve always been a little bit of a completionist.
Since the early days of my yoga practice, I’ve been voraciously ‘collecting’ as many different asanas and asana variations as I can. For a while, I believed that the more poses I learned, the deeper the variations I practiced, the better yogi I became—obviously.
I would tingle with excitement every time a teacher would demonstrate something that I had never seen before, preferably something that seemed physically impossible. I would also spend a long time staring in awe (and I still do; no shame there) at photographs I found on the internet of yogis contorting their bodies, balancing on fingertips or bending backward far beyond what seemed humanly achievable.
As I was learning asanas, I needed to categorize them, to index them in such a way so as to always have them at my fingertips. I was scared of forgetting them. However, I was never satisfied with the way traditional texts covered asana. It just didn’t seem like an efficient system. There are the standing poses, the seated poses, the balance poses, the arm balances, the inversions, the backbends and maybe a few others.
My problem was that there are asanas that fit more than one category. Take scorpion in handstand, for example. Vrschikasana B is an arm balance, an inversion and a backbend! Then there are poses that don’t really fit any category, such as tabletop. Is it a standing pose or a seated pose? How has nobody come up with a better system yet?
If you’ve had the same questions and are expecting that this article will once and for all clarify this for you, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, it’s also possible that I’m the only one that wonders about these things late at night when I can’t fall asleep.
Over time, it became rarer and rarer that I found new asanas.
After all, there are only so many ways in which the human body can move. With that, I noticed how my perception of asana changed. The ‘new’ poses weren’t as new and exciting as before. Instead, I saw them as combinations of elements of ‘old,’ familiar asanas.
Take, for instance, Kathryn Budig’s “funky pincha”: It’s an inversion/arm balance in which the balance lies on one arm’s palm and the other arm’s forearm. It may seem unachievable at first, but once you start to look at it as a variation of half handstand and half forearm balance, the novelty, the mystery and the magic disappear. Once I was able to break new asanas down into familiar elements, the new poses became more accessible.
Well, I do practice variations of handstands and forearm balances, so yes, I would be open to try integrating them. I may still fall on my face while trying, but recognizing the familiar elements in new asanas helped me overcome my reluctance to attempt them. On the other hand, I also became more comfortable not attempting asanas that were clearly out of my reach, and instead practicing variations that would challenge me at a more appropriate level.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to touch my toes to my head in scorpion variations, but I’m OK with that. I will flaunt my scorpion as it is, with about a foot of distance from my toes to my head, and I trust that over time, my body will give into the asana. Or not.
Just the other day, a light bulb turned on. I remembered something I learned a long time ago that said that all asanas start from mountain pose. At that point, I never quite understood what it meant, but upon remembering it, I was able to quickly connect the dots. Of course, I quickly agreed, all asanas are a variation of Tadasana—the “archasana,” the primordial asana—elements of which can be found in every single pose.
Upon delighting in this finding, a second light bulb turned on. I can’t really quite explain it, but the realization I’d just had became proof that we are all one. Nothing that we can do or think hasn’t been done or thought before. Nothing that we will ever feel hasn’t been felt before. Our experience as humans, as living beings, is just a variation of somebody else’s.
We are all vibrating on the same frequency, searching for love, acceptance and peace.
I still, once in a while, come across a new pose. And when I do, I think, “Ah, just a variation of mountain pose. We are all one.”
During the day, Stela Balaban works in the corporate world. During the evening, she teaches yoga at Yoga Strong in North Canton, OH. She received her 200-hour certification from the White Lotus in California in 2011. When she’s not doing yoga, she’s experimenting with recipes, going for bike rides and often popping into handstands in odd places.
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~ Assistant Ed: Thandiwe Ogbonna