Exercise used to be one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, along with restraint, observance, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, the last literally meaning putting it all together.
Not anymore. Today asana is on the fast track to becoming the trunk of yoga, while the other limbs are withering away, paid lip service, or simply ignored.
For many years yoga exercise, as defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was a small means to a big end. The basics of asana were defined in the sutras as a “steady or motionless posture accompanied with a sense of ease or comfort,” the mastery of which was meant to “loosen effort while meditating on the infinite.”
Sometime in the latter half of the last century asana began to forge its own separate identity, that of strengthening and revitalizing the body, the idea being that it was through the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga, which are the physical postures, that all the other limbs could be realized.
As yoga progressed onward asana masters like Bikram Choudhury and Baron Baptiste designed new forms of yoga exercise, such as sequences practiced in hot rooms with no motive other than to lock the knee and “push, push, push” and other sequences that referenced only physical prowess, like Baptiste’s “Unlocking Athletic Power”.
In the past ten years yoga exercise has made more great leaps forward, leaving its past farther behind, moving decisively into the worlds of athletic competition and extreme sports.
Today tournaments crown asana winners in Arizona, California, and New York. Overseas the European Yoga Alliance organizes an annual championship. USA Yoga, sponsor and governing body of the annual National Yoga Asana Championships, in what it says is the “spirit of healthy competition” is committed to bringing yoga asana to the Olympic games.
”Once yoga is in the Olympics,” said Esak Garcia, 2005 winner of the International Yoga Championship, “it will legitimize yoga for many people all over the world.”
Beyond the arena and its judgments on the perfection of a pose, its poise and composure, is the new world of extreme yoga. The Chicago Tribune recently ran a photo spread called “Extreme Yoga Positions” featuring a body artist named Yoga Yoga, whose real name is Michael Elias Mondosha.
AcroYogi’s perform partner poses like Bird, a horizontal “flier” supported on the feet and legs of a “base” partner, nailing the posture on top of stone parapets in the mountains on the edge of sheer drops, all without the aid of spotters.
The back page of the September 2012 issue of Yoga Journal featured a full-page photograph of a woman in tree pose with hands in prayer behind her standing on a ledge of the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. She was not wearing a tether nor was there a net to catch her just in case she wobbled and fell.
Even Native American Indians, famous for their work on bridges and skyscrapers, are careful about heights. “We have more respect for heights than most people,” said Dan Angus, a Kahnawake Mohawk ironworker, in a recent article titled The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan.
“You’ve got to watch it up there.”
“I kept bringing my focus back to the pose,” the yoga lady on the bridge said.
She was watching it, but unlike the Mohawks, from the inside. She wasn’t looking down.
Focusing on the pose and keeping it steady was undoubtedly a good idea. It is 78 feet from the deck of the bridge to the Allegheny River.
“I don’t see any benefit to it, especially since yoga begins with yama and the first yama is ahimsa, or non-injury,” said Kenneth Toy of the Institute for Personal Development in Hampton, New Hampshire.
Which begs the question, why? If yoga is a spiritual practice with a physical component, why tempt fate? If yoga is just a gym rat’s bag of physical poses, again, why tempt fate? Even Olympic gymnasts don’t perform on the beams of bridges, much less without a padded mat below them for when they inevitably fall.
“Talk about finding your edge!” said Carolyn Gilligan, an editor at elephant journal. “If you lose your balance on a bridge the risk is pretty tremendous. I think the key here would be having a calm, very calm mind.”
‘One slip and it’s all over’ feats are often performed by circus troupes and extreme artists like Eskil Ronningsbaken, famous for such stunts as balancing in handstand in 2010 on a projecting steel rail of a lookout platform more than a thousand feet above a Norwegian lake.
“Yoga and different breathing techniques helps me to stay focused, and hit the right wave of energy,“ he said.
Yoga has a long history of bendy, stretching, balancing poses that seem incredible. Some are more amazing than others.
In the 1970s, on a television show called That’s Incredible, a performer named Mr. Yogi folded himself up, limb by limb, into a wooden box no bigger than a carryall. When a lid was put on the small box the audience shouted on cue, “That’s incredible!”
“Some yogis like to provide drama or accentuation or adrenaline to their poses,” said Susan Pennington of Susquehanna Yoga & Meditation Center in Timonium, Maryland.
“That is funny considering yoga is a practice of finding the middle. That is what balance is. Not the edge, but the middle.”
But, the middle way may not be the American way in the 21st century.
The Sanskrit word asana, from the root ‘asi’ which means ‘to be’, literally means a state of being. Today the meaning has been stood on its head, changed to mean a state of doing.
“Extreme balancing can be both fun and beautiful, calling for particular focus and skill,” said Alison West, the director of Yoga Union in New York City.
“It’s a form of marketing through beauty and danger. Does it make one a better yogi? Probably not, But, it looks that way.”
In Austin, Texas, artists perform yoga poses hanging from the skeletal beams of partially constructed buildings. Staging their suspension theater at night, the lines and cables they use are practically invisible.
“Tightrope walkers are now doing yoga poses in their routines,” said Cosmo Wayne of Yogagroove in Austin. “My question is, were they performers or yogis first, and does it matter? As for balance, either you have it or you don’t. People who can balance but are afraid of heights will be affected and probably not balance on the edge of a cliff. It’s all just fun and scenic.”
Whether extreme balancing has anything to do with yoga is a moot point, although Patanjali might be rolling over in his grave. His reasoning for the practice of yoga exercise was ultimately to be able to withstand physical and mental distractions in order to meditate.
“Yoga is a sacred practice of going inward and knowing who you are authentically,” said Michele Risa, a Kundalini Yoga teacher and New York TV producer of yoga programming. “All this showmanship seems like a distraction at the least and the wrong message at worst.”
In many respects, however, in our modern age yoga has become a purely physical practice, and the message has morphed so now the headline is that the body beautiful can be gotten by anyone at roughly $12.00 a class, factoring in more if you live on the west coast and need to be really beautiful.
If perfecting the pose is the be-all and end-all of yoga, then Cirquedu-asana might be the new third eye for raising awareness. If living the true yogic life is part and parcel of handstand, then performing handstand on the edge of the Grand Canyon would probably validate the true yogic life and it would behoove all yogis to get on the bus for the Rim-to-Rim tour.
Not everyone agrees that famous fitness instructors in yoga clothes or extreme sports performers with film crews in tow are the best guides on the path of practicing yoga.
“I don’t believe risk taking is necessary to achieve the balance that a sound yoga asana and lifestyle practice can give us,” said Nydia Tijerina Darby of Nydia’s Yoga Therapy in San Antonio, Texas. “It is beautiful and awe inspiring, but it seems to continue to sensationalize the asana and detract from the real beauty of a quiet and content mind, body, and spirit that does not need to push the limit in order to feel alive.”
Selflessness, balance, and humility are some of the core values of yoga. They are not the core values of our modern sports and entertainment culture. Exercising for fame and fortune is exercising for fame and fortune. It is not innercizing, which is the platform on which yoga was built.
What does gaining mastery in asana really mean, anyway? It doesn’t really mean doing handstands for an audience’s applause. It means doing handstand to gain awareness, to master a state of mind, to become, in a sense, bodiless.
“The pictures of extreme yoga are beautiful and certainly showcase a certain level of expertise,” said Tracey Ulshafer of One Yoga & Wellness Center in East Winsor, New Jersey. “But, I do feel they are missing the essence of yoga. It is not for showing off. It is for exploring within.”
If yoga is a physical practice, then hitting a home run is worth the price of admission. But, if yoga is a spiritual practice with a physical dimension meant to keep the body strong and healthy for a lifetime of much more than asana, then home runs are only good for as long as they last, which isn’t long.
“I believe asana is to help the work of unfolding inner Shakti, and so I see daredevil poses as something other than the true meaning of the practice,” said Ann Farbman of the World Yoga Center in New York City.
The devil is in the details of yoga practice. The practice is partly about the power of asana, but ultimately it is about the power of consciousness. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali doesn’t say a word about physical accomplishment, because that is not the point of yoga practice. He mentions asana only four times. The Yoga Sutras are about states of being, maybe achieved through asana, but not beholden to them.
There are no contortionists on boardwalks or carnivals on the edge of believe-it-or-not in any of Patanjali’s 196 aphorisms.
“It is better to take risks in extreme savasana,“ said Francois Raoult of Open Sky Yoga Center in Rochester, New York.
Our modern yoga may not see it that way, but there is little doubt Patanjali would agree.