July 17, 2014

When Performance Trumps Wellness, We’re Not Doing Yoga. ~ Teela Hammell


“Let your heart guide you. It whispers, so listen carefully.”

~ Littlefoot’s mom, Land Before Time

Last week, in the middle of my second yoga teacher training, we had an impromptu group discussion about what constitutes legit yoga. We talked about what it takes to stay close to the “source.”

Things like staying authentic, and remembering satya (truth) floated around. One of the students mentioned “pop” yoga, a vinyasa flow style yoga done to pop music, as an example of yoga that has strayed too far from yoga’s original intent.

Whether or not you agree, if you practice yoga, you’ve probably noticed that there are things about this practice that make it more than a form of physical exercise. For those who haven’t noticed this, they might want to look into visiting other studios.

In Sanskrit, yoga literally means “union.” In the yoga sutras (sort of a yoga bible), only three of the 196 sutras have anything to do with the physical practice, while the other 193 help students to begin to identify less with the ego and more with that unchanging force behind it all.

This also means that flexibility and hand stands (and poses in general) have little do with how advanced one’s practice is.

With this idea of “real” yoga lounging on my brain couch, I began preparing to teach my evening candlelit yin yoga class. I was struggling with finding a better way to explain “finding your edge” to my students.

Yin yoga is a practice based in stillness and holding poses for up to a few minutes at a time. For this to happen, students need to be able to find their edge—this magical place where we’re feeling the stretch but we aren’t feeling pain, a place that allows us to settle into stillness and maybe even to enter the backdoor to meditation.

In my pursuit for better ways to explain this concept, I came across an article written by a prominent yogi talking about the science of finding our edge. The article had me pretty impressed until he concluded by saying that one’s edge will also depend on whether he or she is practicing yoga for performance enhancement or wellness.

Scrrreeeeeeeeetch!  (that’s how the beach cruiser in my mind sounds as it skids to a dramatic halt.)

Performance enhancement or wellness?

To a certain extent, I understand  debates about whether blaring music with superficial lyrics during asana practice somehow takes away from the essential “yoganess” of the experience. But how is doing yoga strictly for performance enhancement even part of the yoga conversation?

The truth is, it shouldn’t be.

I also see how using italicized letters to prove a point is not necessarily yogic. But at least it’s not dangerous.

Guiding students to find their “edge” based on performance goals is, in my opinion incredibly dangerous. (I’m not knocking the author, strictly the concept.)

If we are working on hip-opening poses because we really want to be able to do the splits, we astronomically increase the chance that we’ll push ourselves too far, going too deep, holding the pose for too long.

The desire to “perform” the splits overrides the subtle messages the body might be telling us about our most appropriate edge in that moment.

Why? Because when we do yoga for overall wellness (rather than performance), we tune into a different frequency.

We allow ourselves to hear that tiny voice in the back of everything. The one that says to take it just a hair deeper, or maybe pull back an inch. That one that guides to a place of integrity, wholeness, and wellness.

When driven by performance, we’re lead by the ego—the voice that yells, the one that points to separation, to competition with ourselves and others. It’s the voice that generally leads to painful places.

In yoga, when we consistently push ourselves too far in a pose, we may not even notice the consequences until months, or even years later. By then, the damage could be irreversible (think joints and connective tissue).

For those choosing performance enhancement over wellness, it might make more sense to try gymnastics, or even ballet, a practice that better prepares the body for the sacrifices it will make in the name of performance.

Even if you don’t do yoga, and you’ve somehow found this worthy of your time anyway (deep bow to you, fine human), I think that these same concepts apply just as well to normal life.

If we find ourselves doing something only for the accolades—for the certificate, the degree, or the promotion, watch out. We could be doing damage that we won’t even know we’ve done until years later.

That’s when the people we’ve pushed too far, the relationships we’ve asked too much out of, the body we’ve silenced for too long, might just have something to say that hurts like hell to hear.

Be well and let your “performance” reflect that.



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Apprentice Editor: Karissa Kneeland / Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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