Is it Wise to Pursue Difficult Yoga Poses?

Yoga enthusiasts seem bent (hehe) on the pursuit of extreme asana, sometimes to their own detriment. My Anatomy teacher, Leslie Kaminoff, has coined a phrase in response to this trend toward “the unbridled pursuit of unlimited flexibility.”

Of course, some of this trend can be explained by the West’s obsession with posture generally. I have no problem with fitness yoga, yoga for fun, yoga performance or athletic yoga goals. I do think the general practitioner should be cautioned against aggressively pursuing advanced poses. Neither the pose or the dogged determination to achieve it are likely to serve one’s long-term well-being.

It’s in our nature to compete. Homo sapiens are not ideally suited to put aside short-term gains and pleasure in the service of long-term benefits. It feels good to progress, or think we’re progressing, or show off a hard won posture. It just does. Yet, no matter what we are capable of, there are at least two mitigating forces we can not control.

  • There will always be something you can not do; there is always a harder posture on the other side of this one.
  • In time, we will (willingly or unwillingly) relinquish all our accomplishments. All of them. Death is the great equalizer.

In my pursuit to check my own tendencies toward extreme flexibility and athletic prowess, I’ve found it helpful to remember this: that no matter how accomplished I am or become, there are thousands of real-life athletes, physical artists, dancers and contortionists whose talents and skills I will never have. These people actually get paid to risk their health for short-term amazement. My handstands and back bends wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow at the Cirque Du Soleil.

Yoga offers a remedy for this mind-set by encouraging equanimity. Qualities of stability and strength (stira) are balanced with qualities of permeability and openness (sukha). Asana is just a tool to discover this balance in our own system and rid ourselves of the obstacles to experiencing it.

That’s important to remember when looking around the classroom to find your neighbor effortlessly moving a foot behind her head (with a smile on her face for good measure). Because not everybody’s body was made for every pose.

And here’s the big secret: it doesn’t matter.