Monday, December 10, 2012

Some thoughts on the private nature of asana practice and the public nature of asana demonstrations

Yesterday, I got together with a few friends for lunch. It was a sort of informal farewell lunch for me, as I am moving to Idaho at the beginning of next month. At some point in the conversation, the topic of yoga came up. One of my friends remarked, "Ah, you are a big yoga enthusiast, right? We should get you to do a yoga demonstration sometime. But I guess it's kind of too late now, as you're leaving us so soon..."

Upon hearing my friend's remarks, it suddenly occurred to me that over the last couple of years, my practice has become very much a private matter, without my intending it to be this way. As you might know if you read this blog regularly, I mostly practice at home, since there is no regular Mysore program where I live. Back when I lived in Milwaukee, you could say that my practice still had a semi-public dimension to it, since I practiced at my teacher's shala, and other people at the shala could see my practice as I was doing it, if they cared to, drishti violations notwithstanding. But ever since moving here to Northwestern Minnesota, aside from the occasional forays into teaching yoga (to see how that went, see this post), the only beings that could possibly see my home practice are (1) my fiancee, and (2) the cockatiels. Most of the time, my fiancee is too occupied with getting ready for work in the morning to give much notice to what I am doing in my practice. As for the cockatiels, they probably have lots to say about my practice, but I don't understand a word of what they're saying ;-)

So without being entirely aware of it, my practice has become this private thing that I do in the morning before I go about the rest of the day. I know this seems like a very mundane way of putting it, but on some level, the practice feels very much like brushing my teeth and taking a shower, except that the latter two activities do not utilize quite as many muscle groups and do not take quite as much time. This could mean either that my practice has become as mundane as teeth-brushing and taking a shower, or that my teeth-brushing and taking a shower have absorbed some of the "present energy" of my practice, and have thereby being elevated to the realm of the spiritual. I'm not sure which way it is. Maybe it's one way on certain more "present" days, and the other way on other less "present" days.

Meanwhile, the rest of my everyday world knows that I "do yoga", whatever that means to them. A few people who know me a little better know that I also write a yoga blog; I suspect that they are probably a little mystified as to why somebody who doesn't teach yoga or do anything yoga-related for a living would want to write a yoga blog. You may not believe this, but there are actually people out there who believe that you have to be some kind of a yoga professional to write a yoga blog. I'm not making this up; I've actually had a couple of conversations which went like this:

Friend: Oh, so you do yoga... do you go to X or Y yoga studio in town?

Nobel: No. I do this thing called Ashtanga yoga, and I do it at home, because I am, ahem, a little bit too advanced for the Intro to Ashtanga class that is offered every Monday evening at Y yoga studio.

Friend: Wow, really?

Note to reader: I suppose if I wanted to, I could have gone into a detailed explanation of what Mysore style practice is all about, and how it is different in nature and approach from the more conventional led-type classes that are found in most yoga studios. And sometimes I do go into such an explanation. But recently, I have found myself suffering from a certain kind of intellectual laziness on this front. So I just say I'm too "advanced"; but I must also admit that I like giving this answer because I enjoy seeing the "wow, you're too advanced for a yoga studio?" look in my friend's eyes... Anyhow, here's how a typical conversation of this sort would continue:

Nobel: And I also write this yoga blog.

Friend: Wow, you write a yoga blog (no wonder you're so "advanced")! Do you work for Yoga Journal or something?

The rest of the conversation is then spent explaining to my friend how you don't have to work for Yoga Journal (or any other yoga publication) to write a yoga blog, and about how I use my yoga blog as a space to geek out about Ashtanga yoga, and sometimes also as a space to deliver rambling commentaries on developments in the yoga world at large. I typically end the conversation by inviting said friend to read my blog.

In any case, perhaps because of the private nature of my yoga practice, over the last two years, I have probably spent more time writing/thinking/talking about yoga on this blog than in the "real" world. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

Anyway, to come back to my friend's remarks about doing a yoga demonstration... When she said that, it occurred to me that my practice has become such a private thing to me that the very idea of giving a public demonstration, even if just for a few friends, seems rather dissonant with the general tone of my asana practice as it is. Why would this be? Well, for starters, on a purely practical level, I'm guessing that my friend (we are assuming, of course, that she really does want me to do a demonstration, and wasn't just saying what she said out of politeness) would probably want to see in a demonstration something that would be "wow-inducing", as in "wow, you can stand on your head", "wow, you can put your leg behind your head", etc., etc. I really don't think she would want to see a "demonstration" of my Karandavasana impotence ("Damn, you've been practicing everyday for so many years, and you still can't get it up?!")

Which brings me to my point: While there is probably nothing wrong with humoring one's friends with one's asana prowess, just like there is nothing wrong (I presume) with humoring one's friends with one's supposed knowledge of Chinese philosophy (see this post for more details), there is nevertheless some kind of dissonance between what one is expected to do in an asana demonstration and what one does in the nitty-gritty business of everyday practice on the mat. Of course, I understand that asana demonstrations have a long and illustrious history in Ashtanga, and in the Krishnamacharya lineage in general. Krishnamacharya, as many of you know, traveled across India with his young students at the Mysore palace, giving many many asana demonstrations during the course of these travels. Many illustrious Ashtanga teachers today are also well-known for their amazing asana demonstrations. So there is nothing wrong with giving asana demonstrations. After all, asana prowess is arguably the most visually eye-catching manifestation of yogic achievement, and therefore, also arguably the quickest and most eloquent way of getting the word out about the power of the practice to people who would otherwise not even think about trying the practice. 

But I guess part of what makes the idea of giving an asana demonstration feel rather inauthentic to me is that an asana demonstration, by its very nature, is divorced from the original context in which the asanas are performed. When one is demonstrating, one is not doing the practice. One is just... demonstrating. Which is why almost no Ashtanga demonstrations (except instructional videos) consist of the Ashtangi doing, say, the entire primary series. 

What am I trying to say here? Very simply, it's this: Practice is practice, demonstration is demonstration, and never the twain shall meet. Practice is an inward-directed, deeply private affair in which the Ashtangi gets on the mat, pays attention to the breath and bandhas and drishti, and the body simply does whatever outward expression of the asana it is capable of doing on that particular day. A demonstration, on the other hand, is a public show of asana prowess designed to impress and attract the attention of the audience. Presumably, the Ashtangi who is doing the demonstration would have internalized the tristhana sufficiently so that breath, bandhas, and drishti kick in automatically to protect him or her from possible injury. But this still doesn't change the fact that the goal of a demonstration is very different from the "goal" of practice.

Of course, as I said earlier, there is nothing wrong with doing asana demonstrations. Indeed, as I also said earlier, there are occasions where such demonstrations serve a very useful purpose in the bigger scheme of things. Maybe what this all means is that I am not ready at this point in my practice career to give asana demonstrations. I'm totally cool with that; I don't really have a burning desire to demonstrate my, uh, asana prowess anyway.

But enough about me. This may be a good time for me to invite you to share your views and/or experiences in this area. Have you ever demonstrated asanas for your friends or perfect strangers outside of a yoga class? How do you feel about doing such demonstrations?       


  1. Nice post. Yes. It has always perplexed me – I did once demo of headstand and shoulder stand at work. Even as I take these poses as very comfortable for me, I didn't feel ease and I couldn't stay in it for long.

    1. I can certainly imagine that demo-ing poses in the office (which, I take it, is not your usual practice place) in office/work clothes is probably very awkward. Maybe that accounts for your lack of ease?

  2. My public when I practice are those who are in yoga classes. That's it. I learn a lot from seeing others.

    Once I practiced in the garden of my parents. I didn't realize that neighbours were watching me. Later I learned from my mother that they were very impressed. Since then they ask when I come back. :)

    For me my yoga practice is for myself. I'm not a yoga teacher, so I don't have to impress people to come to my classes. I enjoy to practice within my 4 walls and in yoga classes.

    1. Perhaps you should go visit your parents and practice in their garden again soon. It sounds like you are doing them a service :-)

      Nice picture of you in Astavakrasana in your latest blog post, btw.

    2. Thank you.

      The neighbours have to wait till it's summer again. Cordially greetings from cold and snowy Germany.

    3. It's very cold and snowy here in Minnesota too :-)

  3. One of my first teacher training teachers once said to me something in the gist of "a yoga teacher should never show off his/her power" or "if you practice to show off, you have not practiced". Which is more about the intention of a demonstration than anything else.

    I think yoga demonstrations for other students of yoga is an educational, beautiful thing. It's not about celebrating someone's ego, it's about celebrating the practice.

    Yoga demonstrations done to wow crowds and ellicit individualised praise (or sell DVDs) for me are absolutely in the category of misusing your power.

    1. Interesting. It did not occur to me that there is a difference between demonstration for the purpose of education and demonstration to elicit individualized praise or to sell DVDs. But I think this is correct; as with many other things in yoga, intention is most important.

  4. Oh Boy, this post has been a source of inspiration for a bunch of posts of my own. A bunch Nobel. I just started a list of yoga misconceptions based on the questions I get from non practitioners (mostly family, those ARE the best ones).

    1. I look froward to reading your list when you publish them :-)