Cirquedu-asana. ~ Ed Staskus

Via elephant journal
on Aug 25, 2012
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Photo credit: hbp_pix

Exercise used to be one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, along with restraint, observance, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation and samadhi, the last literally meaning putting it all together.

Not anymore. Today asana is on the fast track to becoming the trunk of yoga, while the other limbs are withering away, paid lip service or simply ignored.

For many years yoga exercise, as defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was a small means to a big end. The basics of asana were defined in the sutras as a “steady or motionless posture accompanied with a sense of ease or comfort,” the mastery of which was meant to “loosen effort while meditating on the infinite?”

Sometime in the latter half of the last century asana began to forge its own separate identity, that of strengthening and revitalizing the body, the idea being that it was through the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga, which are the physical postures, that all the other limbs could be realized.

As yoga progressed onward asana masters like Bikram Choudhury and Baron Baptiste designed new forms of yoga exercise, such as sequences practiced in hot rooms with no motive other than to lock the knee and “push, push, push” and other sequences that referenced only physical prowess, like Baptiste’s “Unlocking Athletic Power”.

In the past ten years yoga exercise has made more great leaps forward, leaving its past farther behind, moving decisively into the worlds of athletic competition and extreme sports.

Today tournaments crown asana winners in Arizona, California and New York. Overseas the European Yoga Alliance organizes an annual championship. USA Yoga, sponsor and governing body of the annual National Yoga Asana Championships, in what it says is the “spirit of healthy competition” is committed to bringing yoga asana to the Olympic Games.

“Once yoga is in the Olympics,” said Esak Garcia, 2005 winner of the International Yoga Championship, “it will legitimize yoga for many people all over the world.”

Beyond the arena and its judgments on the perfection of a pose, its poise and composure is the new world of extreme yoga. The Chicago Tribune recently ran a photo spread called “Extreme Yoga Positions” featuring a body artist named Yoga Yoga, whose real name is Michael Elias Mondosha.

AcroYogi’s perform partner poses like Bird, a horizontal “flier” supported on the feet and legs of a “base” partner, nailing the posture on top of stone parapets in the mountains on the edge of sheer drops, all without the aid of spotters.

The back page of the September 2012 issue of Yoga Journal featured a full-page photograph of a woman in tree pose with hands in prayer behind her standing on a ledge of the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. She was not wearing a tether nor was there a net to catch her just in case she wobbled and fell.

Even Native American Indians, famous for their work on bridges and skyscrapers, are careful about heights.

We have more respect for heights than most people. You’ve got to watch it up there.” said Dan Angus, a Kahnawake Mohawk ironworker, in a recent article titled The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan.

I kept bringing my focus back to the pose,” the yoga lady on the bridge said. She was watching it, but unlike the Mohawks, from the inside. She wasn’t looking down.

Focusing on the pose and keeping it steady was undoubtedly a good idea. It is 78 feet from the deck of the bridge to the Allegheny River.

Which begs the question, why?

If yoga is a spiritual practice with a physical component, why tempt fate? If yoga is just a gym rat’s bag of physical poses—again, why tempt fate? Even Olympic gymnasts don’t perform on the beams of bridges, much less without a padded mat below them for when they inevitably fall.

‘One slip and it’s all over’ feats are often performed by circus troupes and extreme artists like Eskil Ronningsbaken, famous for such stunts as balancing in handstand in 2010 on a projecting steel rail of a lookout platform more than a thousand feet above a Norwegian lake.

Yoga has a long history of bendy, stretching, balancing poses that seem incredible. Some are more amazing than others. In the 1970s, on a television show called That’s Incredible, a performer named Mr. Yogi folded himself up, limb by limb, into a wooden box no bigger than a carryall.

Some yogis like to provide drama or accentuation or adrenaline to their poses,” said Susan Pennington of Susquehanna Yoga & Meditation Center in Timonium, Maryland. “That is funny considering yoga is a practice of finding the middle. That is what balance is. Not the edge, but the middle.

But, the middle way may not be the American way in the 21st century.

The Sanskrit word asana, from the root ‘asi’ which means ‘to be’, literally means a state of being. Today the meaning has been stood on its head, changed to mean a state of doing.

Extreme balancing can be both fun and beautiful, calling for particular focus and skill,” said Alison West, the director of Yoga Union in New York City. “It’s a form of marketing through beauty and danger. Does it make one a better yogi? Probably not, but it looks that way.”

In Austin, Texas, artists perform yoga poses hanging from the skeletal beams of partially constructed buildings. Staging their suspension theater at night, the lines and cables they use are practically invisible.

Tightrope walkers are now doing yoga poses in their routines. My question is, were they performers or yogis first and does it matter? As for balance, either you have it or you don’t. People who can balance, but are afraid of heights, will be affected and probably not balance on the edge of a cliff. It’s all just fun and scenic.~ Cosmo Wayne of Yogagroove in Austin

Whether extreme balancing has anything to do with yoga is a moot point, although Patanjali might be rolling over in his grave.

His reasoning for the practice of yoga exercise was ultimately to be able to withstand physical and mental distractions in order to meditate.

“Yoga is a sacred practice of going inward and knowing who you are authentically,” said Michele Risa, a Kundalini Yoga teacher and New York TV producer of yoga programming. “All this showmanship seems like a distraction at the least and the wrong message at worst.”

In many respects, however, in our modern age yoga has become a purely physical practice and the message has morphed so now the headline is that anyone can get a beautiful body at roughly $12.00 a class, factoring in more if you live on the west coast and need to be really beautiful.

If perfecting the pose is the be-all and end-all of yoga, then Cirquedu-asana might be the new third eye for raising awareness. If living the true yogic life is part and parcel of handstand, then performing handstand on the edge of the Grand Canyon would probably validate the true yogic life and it would behoove all yogis to get on the bus for the Rim-to-Rim tour.

Not everyone agrees that famous fitness instructors in yoga clothes or extreme sports performers with film crews in tow are the best guides on the path of practicing yoga.

“I don’t believe risk taking is necessary to achieve the balance that a sound yoga asana and lifestyle practice can give us. It is beautiful and awe-inspiring, but it seems to continue to sensationalize the asana and detract from the real beauty of a quiet and content mind, body and spirit that does not need to push the limit in order to feel alive.” ~ Nydia Tijerina Darby of Nydia’s Yoga Therapy in San Antonio, Texas

Selflessness, balance and humility are some of the core values of yoga. They are not the core values of our modern sports and entertainment culture. Exercising for fame and fortune is exercising for fame and fortune. It is not “inner-cizing”, which is the platform on which yoga was built.

What does gaining mastery in asana really mean, anyway? It doesn’t really mean doing handstand for an audience’s applause. It means doing handstand to gain awareness, to master a state of mind—to become, in a sense, bodiless.

The pictures of extreme yoga are beautiful and certainly showcase a certain level of expertise,” said Tracey Ulshafer of One Yoga & Wellness Center in East Winsor, New Jersey. “But, I do feel they are missing the essence of yoga. It is not for showing off. It is for exploring within.

If yoga is a physical practice, then hitting a home run is worth the price of admission.

But, if yoga is a spiritual practice with a physical dimension meant to keep the body strong and healthy for a lifetime of much more than asana, then home runs are only good for as long as they last, which isn’t long.

I believe asana is to help the work of unfolding inner Shaki and so I see daredevil poses as something other than the true meaning of the practice,” said Ann Farbman of the World Yoga Center in New York City.

The devil is in the details of yoga practice. The practice is partly about the power of asana, but ultimately it is about the power of consciousness. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali doesn’t say a word about physical accomplishment because that is not the point of yoga practice. He mentions asana only four times.

The Yoga Sutras are about states of being, maybe achieved through asana, but not beholden to them and there are no contortionists on boardwalks or carnivals on the edge in any of Patanjali’s 196 aphorisms.

It is better to take risks in extreme savasana,“ said Francois Raoult of Open Sky Yoga Center in Rochester, New York.

Modern yoga may not see it that way, but there is no doubt Patanjali would agree.

Edward Staskus lives in Lakewood, Ohio, with his wife, Vanessa, practices yoga and subscribes to Buddhism.



Editor: Jamie Morgan

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17 Responses to “Cirquedu-asana. ~ Ed Staskus”

  1. anon says:

    I just have to say that I'm not entirely sure of the intention behind this article. If people are drawn to asanas because they're fun and exciting, I don't see that having any sort of negative impact on the practice of yoga itself, and especially not anyone's personal practice. It could even be considered a good thing because it takes the guesswork out of figuring out what works for you. If you can look at someone balancing in tree pose on a bridge and say "nope, not for me," then great! You don't have to try it.
    I have personal feelings for this topic because my regular practice includes a rather vigorous Ashtanga Vinyasa practice (eg Patthabi Jois's "ashtanga"), and I often feel embarrassed because it's generally considered one of the "extreme" or "workout" asana practices. However, it works wonderfully for me. I tend to be naturally slow, calm and even on the verge of lazy. So for me, having a vigorous practice balances these tendencies by igniting the pranic fire, so to speak.
    So back to the original question: what is the point of the article? Is it to change people's minds (and if so, to what)? Or to get people to stop doing yoga? I think the "true" yogic path of meditation is and always has been a lifestyle for a very limited number of people simply because it requires such a drastic change from normal life and normal thinking. So if someone's attracted to doing asana practice because they see someone standing on a bridge and think "oh, neat!", and at any point in their asana class feel a sense of peace, or focus, or even just relief, I think that's an awesomely beneficial thing.

  2. Edward Staskus says:

    Thanks for the question. I wasn't trying to make a specific point, or change anyone's mind, more like foregrounding extreme balancing postures and what that might mean seen from a traditional perspective. I was interested in what teachers thought, and that's why I included so many of their observations in the story, which were in general just like most of the responses I received. I agree with you that asana is the point of entry for most people who practice yoga. I practice at home, but also go to a Bikram studio 3 times week, which has got to be the least meditative or spiritual practice of all time. At the same time that it works for me, it is still a part of yoga, just not the whole package. In my own way the intent of the story might have been to encourage people to explore the whole package, not just one part of it.

  3. Well done, Ed.

    For the whole picture, one essentially must also consider Phil Goldberg's startling but utterly convincing account of the influence of ancient yoga philosophy on all of American spirituality and culture in general, irrespective of any asana:

    True or False? Physical Yoga Has Influenced America More than Spiritual Yoga.

    How Yoga Has Transformed American Spirituality: An Interview with Phil Goldberg, “American Veda”.

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  4. P.S. I'm sure it's a relatively small number, but there are still a lot of us who practice mostly Yoga philosophy. My personal practice, for example, is based on the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, as I personally interpret them (like ultimately anyone does with any ancient text). Then I don't have to worry about all the modern developments, like anything past the Yoga Sutra! (See First It Was Yobo, Now There is Ratra (Radical Traditional) Yoga)

    I should hasten to add that, all kidding about Yobo aside, I am a confirmed Yoga universalist–I embrace Yoga in all its forms, and believe that each person will generally gravitate to what's right for him or her, as long as they are exposed to it all.

    Bob W. Associate Publisher
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  5. Edward Staskus says:

    Bob, thanks for reading the story. I think we all need to live in our our time, the world of today, as it is, but there is a lot we can learn from the past, good things like Buddha and what he taught, and horrible things, like the excesses of state power. As much as right now is what matters, we should be aware of the world as it was, and how the construction of our world was factored on that past. Thanks for recommending those other articles, i will take a look at them.

  6. Edward Staskus says:

    Thanks, I will take a look at that.

  7. Beej says:

    Love this article. Great job.

  8. cathy says:

    Many use yoga for body fitness- no fault or shame in it.

    I was very bothered by the yoga lady on the bridge, it sets a bad example.. as exhibitionism and of upsetting people that she may jump.

  9. Edward Staskus says:

    Cathy, yes, I agree that yoga for fitness is very good. I think it may be the best all-body workout, fitting in just right with the demands of real life, not just for a specific sport. I brought up the lady on the bridge for the reason you mention. It sets a terrible example, and it really does not have anything to do with yoga, not even with asana. It was just a show, a photo op, really.

  10. cathy says:

    thank you for responding.

    I am clearly puzzled and disappointed re YJ's common sense wiht that posting. I did send them a comment, but they didnt respond……. yawn

  11. Vision_Quest2 says:

    (1) Yogic "stunts" are as old as the 19th century fakirs in india …
    (2) There is something to be learned by yoga teachers who are into acroyoga and exhibitionism in their demos–up to a point–for many people …
    (3) Acroyoga is a fad, just the same as is so-called "yoga for 'weight loss' ". I understand even Tara Stiles has backtracked in her new book … now I am waiting for other such female yoga teachers to start softening their position; or, conversely for them to become has-beens by their shorter-that-you-think, trek to age 50 … this culture does not treat its female fitness stars so well as they age, so why should the sell-outs from yoga be received any differently (since they have defaulted to being "fitness stars")? Most people in search of a hot bod are age-phobic, guaranteed ….

  12. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Well written, Ed! Thank you so much!

  13. @WriterYogi2 says:

    I enjoyed this article. What I took from it was how Yoga is becoming more commercial than the spiritual practice it began as. For some that may be fine, but I don't think its fair to those (though fewer or not) who want Yoga as something more! I personally am new to yoga and am looking forward to the spiritual aspect I get out of it , controlling the mind, and the opening up and freedom in myself. I think if I am bombarded with one view (that asana is cool, look what crazy thing I can do), if I don't know any better, I would think that is it! There needs to be a balance between what yoga is advertised as so everyone can get what they want out of it.

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