‘Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice. Better than knowledge is meditation. But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace.’ Bhagavad Gita, 12:12.
Given the fundamentally internal work of yoga it always strikes me as rather odd to see endless photos of yogis in various very advanced postures. If the focus of yoga is what is happening on the inside, the propensity towards yoga by instagram seems to me to completely miss the point. I do understand that it is amazing to see what the human body can do and that the advanced postures can only be achieved by years of dedicated practice. But the celebration (or is it fetishisation?) of the external manifestation of a pose can have the unintended consequence of discouraging others who will never be able to reach the poses that are featured by the young and bendy.
How many times have I heard people say that they would love to try yoga but they can’t, because they can’t even touch their toes? Countless. But it’s of course precisely for those who can’t touch their toes that yoga is most important.
Yoga is made meaningful to its practitioners when they pay close attention to the body and breath rather than simply going through the motions. This internal focus has many benefits. It encourages us to develop an awareness of how the breath and the body function both separately and as an integrated whole. It also allows us to learn to manage the strong sensations felt in the body during the practice of asana and to develop an appreciation for how the body releases and improves over time.
The book Yoga Bodies: Real People, Real Stories and the Power of Transformation (by Lauren Lipton and Jamie Baird, 2017) is comprised of photographs of people in various yoga poses. There are over 80 photos, each one of someone in a yoga pose. The person in each photograph shares a brief story of how they got into yoga, why they practice, what their practice has given them. Although each story is completely different, the common theme between them is one of transformation. Each person’s life has been fundamentally changed in some way by the practice of yoga.
There are certainly photos of young and bendy practitioners in astonishing poses, however the majority of the book focuses on a range of people of all ages, sizes, races, abilities. Seeing the photos with their corresponding stories creates a context for each pose. The focus moves from mere mechanical practice to one of knowledge, of understanding why yoga is practiced. The poses are not photographed because they are perfect or aspirational. Instead the photos are of very different people who are united through their love of yoga in all its different forms, without any attachment to the glory of nailing a difficult pose.
The photos and stories in themselves transform a common misperception of yoga. Yoga is certainly not limited to the super flexible or to the young or to the expert. Instead it is for all of us in all our wonky imperfections. Although the focus in the book is on the individual in terms of photos and stories, the effect of the book is to emphasise the universality of yoga which itself is an inspiration.
The next time someone says that they can’t touch their toes and so can’t do yoga: show them this book!