How my yoga practice changed for the better.
In 2013, six years into my yoga explorations, everything about my practice dramatically changed. It changed after reading the book Yoga For Wellness by Gary Kraftsow of the Krishnamacharya Tradition. In this book, and in later workshops I participated in with Kraftsow, the emphasis was on the function of the yoga practices instead of on the form. This was a light bulb moment for me, and my practice hasn’t been the same since....let me explain.
Focus on the form of the yoga practice means we uphold an external standard or ideal for our asanas (postures), breath practices (pranayama), meditation, and/or lifestyle choices. We are then expected to strive toward that ideal without regard for our current state of being, our sankalpa (intention or goals), or personal or universal dharma (responsibilities).
For example, when I first started practicing yoga, I read the monthly publication Yoga Journal Magazine, while also constantly consulting the workshop schedules of nearby yoga studios. Both the studio workshop schedules and the magazine emphasized and highlighted the same practice consistently; the handstand. I was convinced that I needed to perform the handstand perfectly in the middle of my mat without assistance in order to consider myself a true yoga student.
I strived toward this pose with great effort because I witnessed an external standard being promoted by more than one source. “If more than one person or organization is saying the same thing, it must be true,” I naively thought. I was eager to meet this standard and be a part of the “yoga club,” the same way a seven year old kid strives to follow all the rules at school to get that titillating scratch and sniff sticker at the end of the day. Unfortunately, when it came to “achieving” the infamous handstand I abandoned all my critical thinking skills. I am embarrassed to report, despite an aching right rotator cuff and inflamed wrists I was still thirsty to achieve the pose. Despite having two physically demanding jobs, I was still eager to push my body into a state of exhaustion and “sweat” to get what I wanted.
Writing about this behavior makes my heart weep with compassion for my younger self. Yoga is about liberation and balance. When I was striving to perform a handstand, liberation was unattainable. I obsessively thought about how it would feel when I finally “achieved” the pose, a way of thinking that moved me deeper into attachment, rather than freedom. Balance was also outside my realm of experience because I would ignore the signals of distress my body was communicating. Instead of engaging with yoga practices to nourish the whole of my life, I used the practice as a means of punishment because my body wasn't "performing" the way I thought it should. I believed I would never be good enough without the perfect yoga body that did "advanced" poses like the handstand.
Kraftsow’s prioritization of function over form in yoga, shifted my orientation from an external standard, to an internal standard. This forced me to slow down and reflect on my physical health, emotional well being, connection to community and family, as well as my connection to spirit. I began reflecting on factors influencing these components of my being, including but not limited to, my career, friendships, family, dating life, age, race-based stressors, socio-economic-based stressors, food access, ability to travel, affordable healthcare, daily commute time, work/life balance, and social safety nets.
From there, I was able to come out of the violent trance of wanting to perform a handstand; a goal dictated to me from outside influences. And instead I began to question what components of yoga would actually support me in feeling more grounded, present, clear, and connected. Additionally, I had to reconcile with the changing nature of life; that how I showed up as a human being today would be different from how I showed up tomorrow, next season, or next year. Meaning, my practices would have to shift and change with the outer seasons, and my inner cycles.
This shift from prioritizing function over form hasn’t been easy or an overnight change. It’s taken years to unravel the messages of the mainstream colonized yoga world that profits off us being externally focused, insecure, and disconnected from our inner knowing and the roots of the practice. And since healing and learning isn’t linear, or a final destination, my learning continues...day by day, menstrual period to menstrual period, season to season, and year to year.