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March 24, 2014

No Pictures for This Yogi. ~ Sheila McVay

sunrise-sun-salutation-yoga-water-beach

“True yoga is not about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life. Yoga is not to be performed; yoga is to be lived. Yoga doesn’t care about what you have been; yoga cares about the person you are becoming. Yoga is designed for a vast and profound purpose, and for it to be truly called yoga, its essence must be embodied.”

~ Aadil Palkhivala

On Facebook or Instagram, we see images everyday of beautiful yogis doing amazing and seemingly impossible poses. Many of my dearest friends are doing this, and they are exquisite—their pictures artistically staged, perfectly executed examples of some of the most challenging yoga asana.

Everyday, sometimes several times a day, I see these pictures, and I am tempted to jump into the game, to grab a friend and make her a photographer and strike my own poses.

I have spent many years learning and often teaching the nuances of alignment to get there, so why not show it off?

Let me be clear that I am not judging anyone who is posting these pictures. I know that they are a great deal of fun, and I know the discipline, focus and inner exploration it takes to create these shapes in the body, but for me, this would be an unhealthy game.

For me, yoga is much more than asana or poses. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras lays out an eight limbed path to “Yoga” which he defines as “Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” or the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind. This means far more than simply quieting the thoughts that appear unbidden. It means learning to connect with that still, silent, peaceful aspect of one’s Self that is eternal, infinite and whole, and in doing so, uniting the finite self with Infinite Consciousness.

This seemingly intangible, esoteric ideal, according to the Sutras, is achievable through rigorous adherence to the eight limbs: Yamas (restraints), Niyamas (observances), Pranayama (control of the energy body through breath), Asana, Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (disciplined focus of the mind), Dhyana (the flow of meditation) and Samadhi (a state of undifferentiated, non-dualistic “being”).

One of the side effects of rigorous practice of all eight limbs is that we can gain incredible control over the body and mold it into the kinds of poses that are appearing in these pictures. It is tempting for me to allow the ego to run amok with the desire to achieve perfection in them and to glory in the attainment of them, and I have fallen into this pattern at various times throughout my practice. It is a subtle and powerful attraction that can turn our efforts into simple showmanship, our deep inner work into surface display, and I am wary of falling into that trap.

Furthermore, it sends a message to our non-yogi friends that yoga is about the poses. As a teacher and studio owner, the most common fear that I encounter from those who are coming to class for the first time is that they will be unable to do various things: that they can’t touch their toes, that they are inflexible, that they can’t sit in a cross-legged position. These insecurities may have kept them from trying yoga for many years, thereby preventing them from enjoying the rich benefits of the more subtle aspects of the practice.

This is not the perception of yoga that I want to promote. I want people to know that Yoga is for everyone, and that the ability to shift into any particular position or pose is unimportant. As long as safe alignment is practiced, as long as breath and movement are united, as long as the mind is focused, anyone can do yoga and experience the same transformative results as those who can do the most difficult poses.

For me, yoga is a journey that can’t possibly be captured in a picture, or even in 30 pictures. To truly see my yoga practice, you would need to crawl into my mind for my 90 minute sadhana every day. You would have to wrestle my demons and insecurities with me, observe the nuances of sensation in the most subtle energetic experiences, know the bliss when I achieve equanimity even for a moment on the mat, sense the shifts from pose to pose, breath to breath.

For me, Yoga is about what I can become, not what I can do. It is about who I am, not what I look like. It is about practice, not perfection.

These are the things I want you to know about yoga. I haven’t figured out how to film any of that on camera, but when I do, I’ll be sure to launch my own 30 Day Instagram Challenge.

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Editorial Assistant: Kristin Monk

Photo: Photo: Ian Bothwell / Flickr

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Sheila McVay