This is Fah. She’s a lovely young lady from Bangkok that I’ve had the good fortune to befriend while attending this yoga course in Rishikesh. She has a background in acrobatics but has only been practicing yoga for about 8 months.
The unwashed lout seated beside her is yours truly. My background before yoga was mainly in beer and deep-fried snack food. I have, however, been practicing yoga in one form or another, with varying degrees of commitment, for almost 8 years.
We are both here in India studying at a Yoga school to receive certification from a slightly problematic North American institutional body called the Yoga Alliance. The idea of becoming an expert in the physical disciplines which attend yoga after a one month intensive course is ludicrous, but the hope is that we will now be able to teach an exercise class with some spiritual assumptions attached to it without seriously hurting anybody or being a financial liability to whatever facility should play host to such an endeavor. There is sense in this. In order to receive certification one has to prove that they aren’t a health risk. The requirements beyond this are meager. There has been a great deal of criticism leveled at the Alliance because of this fact, but perhaps it’s a good thing. As I’ve tried to repeatedly assert Yoga is a spiritual discipline first and foremost and the idea that an institutional body could even make a claim to certify people as wise would be a very western type of insanity. The idea that a yoga teacher should have to subject themselves to a 4 year degree program at an educational institution mediated by a power dynamic characterized by a tension between the needs of the state, the needs of industry, the needs of deeply ingrained social hierarchies and the needs of the scientific materialist bias to assert itself, as some have suggested is appropriate, makes me deeply uncomfortable. Western society wants so badly for yoga to accept the role that uninformed people have ascribed to it; somewhere between a kind of wimpy aerobics and a not-quite-competent physiotherapy, but with incense and goofy music. I think it’s important that we push back against this tendency. Especially since there is a whole world of yoga out there that has nothing to with physical postures at all.
Anyways, enough politics. This was supposed to be my light-hearted post.
I will now show you a series of pictures of me, with my years of practice, and Fa, 8 months in, doing a few of the poses, or Asanas, from the primary series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. By doing so I offer my pride and self-esteem up as a sacrifice unto the purifying fire of humiliation that is the internet.
Alright, in fairness to me I have a knee injury and this pose will simply make it worse if I go any deeper. It took me…way longer then it should have to swallow my pride and modify it sufficiently for it to heal.
I’ve been doing several hours of yoga a day for a while now and my hamstrings are so fucking tight. Sometimes I can get my chin to the floor in this pose but not today. Fah has also been doing several hours of yoga a day for a while now and…yeah.
Knee injury = no lotus position for Joel. How the hell am I going to get Instagram famous at this rate?
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
Allright, I’ve got a pretty flexible back and my knee injury and tight hamstrings don’t really interfere with this pose, but then there’s Fah…
Finally! A picture worthy of my closely curated and utterly fabricated online fantasy identity! Surely this will attract droves of wealthy suburbanites in designer tights to my island retreat weekend! Right now I feel pretty fucking cool…Oh…Hi Fah.
Hmmm…maybe I should just stick to my wheelhouse of being a fake know-it-all instead of a fake contortionist.
Alright that’s enough humiliation for one day.
The point that I’m trying to make here is that me and Fah come to this practice with very different bodies, very different genetic backgrounds, very different personal histories and very different challenges, both physical and mental, to overcome. Coming to terms with these challenges is the actual work of yoga, it’s how you turn the physical practice into a spiritual one. Settling into a relationship of acceptance with your bodies limitations and learning to practice anyway, safely, even when things are a bit stiff, or if you’re a bit tired, or if you need to modify things to accommodate an injury, and especially if things don’t look quite as your ego imagines that they should. It’s easy to be envious of Fah’s incredible flexibility, balance and poise. But she will have her own challenges to overcome. They might not be as obvious immediately but they’re there. The practice will continue to place physical obstacles in front of her no matter how far she gets and a good teacher will always be able to detect minor imbalances of alignment that will frustrate her no matter how perfectly she might think she’s doing a given pose. More importantly however, none of this permanent. The stronger your body gets the more it becomes necessary to accept that it will not always be this way. Every body will age, degenerate and decay. In a sense I’m lucky that I’ve been forced to accept so many frustrating truths about my asana practice relatively early on. It might make things easier later. It’s these hard truths that invite us to look inside, to a space beyond our bodies, beyond our genetics and beyond our life story.
In this space me and Fah are exactly alike.
Svasti Prajabhyah Paripalayantam
Nyayena Margena Mahim Mahishah
Gobrahmanebhyah Subhamastu Nithyam
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti