Asana · Awareness · controversy · Yoga

#yogaeverydamnday: A Caveat

I normally let thoughts percolate for a while before I write about them, and this has been on my mind for some time. #yogaeverydamnday is a very popular hashtag, usually appearing in conjunction with a pretty yoga pic or some cheery affirmation. In the same vein, yogis are always talking about doing 30, 60, or 90-day challenges, “recommitting to their practice,” or otherwise striving for this ideal of a daily practice. “I’m a bad yogi,” they might say. “I haven’t practiced for (x amount) of days.”

Since I’m fairly heterodox in my thinking on yoga, this emphasis on daily practice, which seems to crop up everywhere, got me thinking- should this, really, be the ideal? Is there some spiritual or physical summit that can be attained by practicing daily that can’t be attained by practicing, say, three or four times a week? After all, people have become proficient, and even experts, in other fields without practicing every single day, as long as they practiced regularly over a long period of time. I’ve seen people really get stressed over their inability to “commit” to practicing every day, though, and I got the sense that it wasn’t because their bodies were craving daily yoga, but because someone had told them that this was the ideal. Then again, to complete “thirty-day challenges,” I’ve seen yogis drag themselves to practice two or three times in a single day, because their schedules just wouldn’t allow them to on other days, and end up mostly in savasana or child’s pose by the last class. I’m not saying not to do challenges like these, if you find it fun and fulfilling, but why kill yourself over this?

I should qualify my assertion, however. I don’t think that daily asana practice, specifically, should be the ideal, especially not vigorous and prolonged asana practice. For many people, this is a recipe for repetitive motion injuries. I do think it’s beneficial to give yourself space and quiet time for reflection or meditation every day, which is just as “yogic” as endless chaturangas. Still, I’m afraid that when people see #yogaeverydamnday, the first thing some think of is vigorous asana practice. I’ve even read articles, which shall here be unnamed, that extol the benefits of forcing yourself to practice when you’re tired and your body is telling you not to. This forced practice with your poor, overexerted body and mind is what creates “change,” the claim runs, whatever that means.

Different bodies thrive on different styles of yoga, in varying intensities. Maybe you have joints made of teflon and muscles that are magically resistant to fatigue, and it feels just amazing for you to do yoga every day. Maybe you turn into a grumpy ogre if you don’t do yoga every day, and your loved ones and co-workers have implored you to cultivate a daily practice, for the collective welfare of all. If that’s your thing and it works for you, then rock on with it. I’m not into (yoga) dogma. But maybe, just maybe, you come to yoga a few times a week because you enjoy the feeling that it gives you, but look around and see all these daily practicioners, and feel guilty about not having a daily practice. Maybe it’s become part of your personal narrative that you’re a “bad yogi.”

Ok, to be fair, I probably do practice at least a few yoga asanas pretty much every day. I like to do some child’s poses and supine twists at the beginning or end of the day, or before I practice jiu jitsu, to get myself into my body. There are breathing exercises I like to do regularly, although I admit I’m sometimes reduced to doing them in my car while on the way to do something else. It would be disingenuous and a little egotistical, however, to label what I do a “daily practice,” and it would be mostly just in order to say that I have a daily practice.

For me, personally, vigorous daily or almost-daily yoga is not good for my body. I know, I’ve tried. There was a good period of time when I was recovering from knee surgery and could move about fairly well, but was still forbidden from returning to martial arts, and I poured all of my excess energy (which is quite a lot) into asana practice. I wound up skinny and so physically exhausted that I would feel tired just from carrying in groceries after practicing yoga. Looking back, I think my rotator cuff also became slightly impinged from all the repetitive movement, because, for months at a time, I felt this subtle but deep ache in my shoulder girdle that massage couldn’t reach. I eventually figured out that I needed to chill out with the yoga, but it took me a while because yoga was always spoken of as something therapeutic, not harmful, and because people would compliment me on how regular my practice had become, which stroked my ego.

This is not to say that I don’t like and practice vigorous yoga sometimes. I love a good sweat and a good stretch, and enjoy Bikram, Rocket, Ashtanga, modern vinyasa, and so forth (except that when I take class, I will always listen to my own body first). I get it, I really do. There are times when I feel so creepy and fidgety in my body from preparing history lectures and writing my dissertation that I just have to move, and it feels SO GLORIOUS when I do. I just don’t do it every day. I love handstands and arm balances and all of that, but to practice them every day makes my wrists feel angry, and I haven’t figured out a way to fix that except to not practice them every day.

When I practice just yoga with no other physical activity, I feel overextended, pulled apart, and ungrounded. Now, I balance out my yoga with martial arts and light weight training, and feel vastly better, more centered, and stronger. My asana practice has still improved in the past few years as well, by the way, even from practicing only four, three, or sometimes fewer times a week, depending on what else is going on in my life at the time. I might be a “bad yogi” if you judge me by ultra-traditional standards, but I’m still fairly consistent, and I never let long periods of time go by with no practice at all. It’s true, my yoga might be more “advanced” if I didn’t do other physical activities as well, but I wouldn’t be a healthier and happier person overall.

I think my other physical activities help me as a yoga teacher, as well. When I see students who are struggling and need to take breaks, I feel compassion for them. I know what it’s like to be sore. I know what it’s like to be injured. I know what it’s like to feel so stiff at the beginning of class that even routine postures like downward dog feel uncomfortable until you’ve warmed up a bit. I’ve spent classes just trying to coax my muscles to relax and loosen up a bit after jiu jitsu the night before. Most of us come to yoga to remedy the effects of our other activities, and not because we’re already in some ideal state of bendyness and would like to become yet more bendy. And for that matter, bendyness shouldn’t even necessarily be the ideal. There is no “one-size-fits-all” model for health, or one practice that everyone, unequivocally, should do.

I get that, in the traditional model, one’s yoga practice should be an offering, but I don’t think that a regular yoga practice is worth the offering of your physical or mental health, your much-needed rest, or, most of all, of your interpersonal relationships. The most meaningful part of a yoga class is not actually in the class, but the part when you return from class and can, hopefully, be a more present, patient, and loving person for those who are close to you. Yoga shouldn’t be an escape from, or a substitute for, day-to-day life, but a way to be more at ease and “there” while we’re in it. There are people in your life who don’t need your foot behind your head or for you to master pincha mayurasana, they just need you.

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