Submitted by Megan Doyle Corcoran
Over the millennia since Patanjali, yoga has been variously used to become supernatural and super strange. For a decent amount of time in the middle ages, it gave itself over to fancies of the flesh— that is, to challenging the body with extreme sensuality or pain in order to commune authentically with the base instincts of life. At some point, the classical yoga abridged by Patanjali would have been a tame and esoteric excuse for a spirit quest. Without mortification and extreme renunciation of all things fairly normal—like, say, not hanging oneself by the skin— it would have been argued, the spirit has no chance of triumphing over the spell of the body.
And then it happened that yoga was re-branded. Not entirely to the classical form that Patanjali described but to something rational, beneficial, palatable to those without chaotic leanings. An upstanding path to an upstanding body. Swami Vivekenanda, who lived until the turn of the 20th century, championed an abandonment of all the carnal and promoted yoga as a method for strengthening the body. Anything mysterious or mystic about the practice should be rejected, he cautioned. Thus detoxed of its depravity or delight (you decide), yoga could be a source of national pride for a nation withstanding colonial rule.
Which is how Krishnamacharya, the modern-day source of most of the yoga practiced in the West, thought of the practice. He called yoga ‘India’s greatest gift to the world.’ And though he was adamant that yoga should be responsive to the needs of an individual—combining breath, meditation, asana and Ayurvedic principles as required— it was his playful, rigorous sequencing for young men that created the yoga spectacle now firmly entrenched in the universal consciousness.
He pushed his young students into backbends so arched that their heels framed their heads. And spindly arms and legs found no skeletal resistance to twisting over on themselves repeatedly. Though most bodies, and certainly most bodies over 30, wouldn’t find any of Patanjali’s ease or stability in these positions, the sight of them might have inspired some greater hope. That these moves, so easily done, might freshen our aging bodies and turn them into the temples we’d like them to remain. Yoga, these exuberant demonstrations shouted, may be the elixir we’ve been seeking.
Which is a lovely misapprehension. Or, at least, a sweet though short-sighted analysis of the power of yoga. It is the case that an asana practice that works with the breath and the mind will serve to improve the body. But, just like temples, the body will not last forever. It will, one day, expire. The greater work of yoga, whether you like it or not, prepares you for this.
And that’s the charm of yoga. Or the clever power of it. You can like it or not. You can believe it or not, but yoga— that idea of creating a union between the body and the mind so the mind can release itself from the body—is profoundly capable of undermining doubt. Even if you don’t think you’re paying attention, yoga makes the payment for you. And still returns the benefit to you.
The simple act of moving with the breath relieves the mind of its often spastic control of the body. The anxious mind, depressed mind, perseverating mind can retreat to rest; the body’s intuitions can then communicate with a mind more willing to listen. As the mind hears the body, the body heals and finds health. As the body finds health, the mind becomes calm and clear. And whether it makes buzzfeed or not, we all know how captivated we are by the presence of a healthy body housing a calm mind. That is a wondrous spectacle.
And so we haven’t quite come full circle, but maybe it’s becoming more clear where the border of the circle lies. Yoga circumscribes us, like a really good hug, and if we stay in the circle, the embrace—the union, the yoke, the chokehold—becomes something we provide for ourselves.
It speaks to the flexibility and integrity of a practice that it can be reformed and recast but never lapse. It’s precisely these two qualities that a yoga practice can instill in a person—body and mind. The yoga of you is what will bring you peace. And that means following the sage advice at the heart of all yoga and transcribed by Patanjali: live ethically, move gracefully with breath, focus your mind and pay attention.
Please note: the other parts of the show—the rotated headstands and birds of paradise and circus crows— are for play and wonder which does not discount them in anyway.
To joy! Until we die!