Often when yoga comes up in conversation people tell me, “I can’t do yoga, because I can’t touch my toes,” or “I can’t do yoga, because I’m not flexible.” When I try to convince people that there is more to yoga than touching your toes, I am met with skepticism. In popular culture the concept of yoga is informed by images of extreme flexibility and athleticism. On social media and in advertising poses like one legged king pigeon pose or an arm balance pose like firefly are used to grab people’s attention. These poses are indeed beautiful, but they represent a fraction of what the yoga path has to offer its practitioners.
Did you know that ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence, is a way to practice yoga? Did you know that reading a book or listening to a talk about spirituality is also a way to practice yoga?
The yoga postures make up only one of eight limbs that describe the yogic path. The Sanskrit word for eight limbs is Ashtanga (not to be confused with the popular style of the same name).
The eight limbs are:
Yama (ethical standards for living)
Niyama (self discipline and practice)
Asana (physical postures)
Pranayama (breath work)
Pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses)
Dharana (focused concentration)
Dhyana (meditation, steady concentration without focus)
The first four limbs prepare us for the last four by creating neural pathways of mindfulness.
The last four limbs describe deeper and deeper levels of self awareness, culminating in complete surrender and union with the divine. Viewed from the context of the eight limbs, the asanas are one aspect of a path that cultivates wholeness holistically.
If the purpose of the yogic path is to let go into the divine, then the physical postures are a beginning point, a gateway or threshold that we cross over in order to step onto the path. Within the realm of asana there are as many ways to bring intention to the body as there are people. If the point of physical postures is to train the mind for sitting in mediation, then any kind of mindful movement qualifies. Being able to touch your toes should not be a prerequisite for the spiritual path, and it isn’t.
In the West there are styles that begin and end with the physical postures. There are also styles that incorporate chanting, pranayama, meditation and philosophy. There is a style out there for everyone. Swami Kripalu said, “All yogas lead to the one true Yoga.” I teach from a place that honors each student’s unique path, and I welcome the process of discovery. I wish you many blessings on your journey. May you find the path that is in alignment for you.