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Hanumanasana is Overrated

Sometimes I question the merits of Yoga Journal Magazine. There are good ideas and inspirational sentiments to be found in this publication but it’s difficult to separate from the not always so subtle inclination of effective advertising to exploit low self-esteem.  Magazines depicting idealized notions of beauty that make us feel worse about ourselves is nothing new but, in the context of yoga, feels inappropriate.

Setting aside the incongruity of yoga and market forces for now, when well intentioned considerations of yoga mix loosely with bottom-line business, essential principles can be inadvertently misconstrued.

A recent issue of YJM offered the following passage:

“‘How on earth will I ever be able to do Hanumanasana? It seems so hopelessly far away from what I can do’  But you don’t have to do it in one day, or even ever.  And you aren’t a lesser person for not doing Hanumanasana.  But in your head you might tell yourself, ‘I’m going to do my best to do a version of Hanumanasana that doesn’t injure me.  It’s my goal to get to my idea of Hanumanasana.’”

Ostensibly, this sounds encouraging. I concur that its best to work incrementally and safely, with a tempered relationship to end results.  The question is whether it’s sensible to make a goal of asana, especially Hanumanasana (full splitz.) We are told that “you don’t have to do it in one day, or even ever” and that the goal is to get to “my idea of Hanumanasana” but there is still the implication that it would be favorable to do the fully realized form.

In my early years of practice, I made a goal of Hanumanasana.  I worked patiently and with great determination over time without injury and, eventually, was able to perform this feat. I spent another several years celebrating my ability with much satisfaction.

Unfortunately, it’s fifteen years later now and I am prone to inflammation in my right hip. Sometimes it can flare up pretty bad and even be a bit debilitating. Fact is, Hanumanasana is an expression of “hyper-mobility” which often leads to a range of conditions characterized by inflammation.

From a standpoint where the purpose of Hatha yoga is to facilitate and maintain a healthy functioning body, there is no reason why a person would ever need to be able to do Hanumanasana. However unattached we may be in working towards it, the goal belies our better purpose.

Touting images of flashy classical asana demonstrations as examples of “mastery” has led to a gross exaggeration of physical practice, beyond the point of practicality, and has fueled a physical fitness industry that is more concerned with aesthetics than health. I realize that I may be taking a hard view of things but seeing past the cultural sensationalizing of just about everything can be a daunting task given the deeply ingrained mores stacked against it. Some amount of push back seems necessary.

 

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com

 

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Comments

hanuman as play and exploration rather than mastery?

Hey J...

Thank you so much for your poignant and important thoughts... and I agree on so many levels...  this practice gets lost in the bigness and wowness of it all...  and you are right that these images sell what we do as teachers and practitioners, and unfortunately that translates to our mats and our minds as "goals" and end results that can create a great deal of aggression and violence toward ourselves and others resulting in pain, injury, and misguided self-perceptions. 

I don't think of poses like Hanuman's great leap as a goal, although I may have at one time.  I do, however, find the play of being with my body in new and challenging ways as a path in and of itself.  The challenge within moving toward our edge physically is finding the gentleness in that and finding the breath as it moves into discomfort or edginess in a way that softens us from the inside.

Hanumanasana is a playful pose in my mind, and while it can create a great deal of anxiety in many of my students, I try to bring it to the table as an opportunity to sit with things that make us uncomfortable, that this is not to be conquered but used as a physical example of what we encounter every day in our lives off the mat or the cushion.  What do you experience in your body as you move toward your edge (but not past it)... what do you feel your breath doing? Do you feel other sensations arise that aren't related directly to the sensation of the pose?  How can you be with the posture in a non-aggressive and curious way?

While I would never say that this pose is for everyone, I do believe that poses that take us to some edge, whether physically or mentally, have a great capacity to allow us to "sit with" our edges and discomforts.  For some people that means being more still if that makes us uncomfortable, for some that means being able to be in the place of work without aggression...  and for others it means something completely different. 

Perhaps I will think differently in 10 or 20 years as my body changes, but for now I am in love with being curious and playful as I challenge myself and my students physically (and what I believe to be safely).  I realize this may not be the answer, but it feels a lot more open, spacious and receptive then where I was even 2 years ago in my practice. 

Thank you for sharing and provoking...  I always love reading what you write.

Anya

Play rather than mastery.

Thanks for your perspective Anya.  I agree that any pose can be engaged in a fruitful way.  Your take on how to utilize exploring ones physical "edge" is constructive.  I sometimes wonder if I had come to my class the way it is now when I was first starting out as a teacher if I would have been all that into it.  As time has gone on, I've come to feel that Life is enough of a challenge already.  No need to push my body beyond what is enjoyable.  Far be it from me to take anything away from anyone though.  By all means, rock on with yourself.  Appreciate you reading and responding.

I totally disagree but respect your opinion

In my philosophy, yoga is about mastering the body in order to harness the many powers that are earned from mastering the body. Hyper-mobility is not required nor desired in Hanumanasana. If we take away the ego centric, goal oriented way of the west then we have self-mastery. I don't feel the fitness craziness of yoga is due to the mastery of the body rather the absence of it. There is way too much dabbling going on in the path of yoga.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to convey the limitles possiblities of self=mastery and remove our our own samskaras not only from the practice but from the practice of teaching. Furthermore, because you had inflammation and tendinitis doesn't mean that anyone else will suffer from it. If I taught from my own bodies limitations I would tell everyone not to practice vinyasa yoga because it would potentially injure their shoulders. However, I have an auto-immune illness so I have to be extra careful to not harm myself in simple postures such as low plank or Hand stand. It would be unreasonable for me to hold my students back in their bodies because I have to care for myself in a "specific" way.

Namaste~

The DIversity of Yoga

I appreciate you taking a moment to express your views.  There has always been diverse interpretations and assertions about yoga and its practices.  I have written some on the distinctions between nondual, dual, qualified nondual and radical nondual frameworks for yoga, see The Steps We Take and Discernment is Vital, it appears that we are of a different philosophical bent. 

Respecfully, the philosophy I am aligned with would take some issue  with the idea that mastering the body will "harness" some special "powers."  I contend that whatever powers we may have are inherently given and do not require rigorous austerities in order to be tapped.  Also, my determination that Hanumanasana is unneccesary is not a projection of my own experiences onto students but rather a reasoned choice to embrace an entirely therapeutic orientation.  You are right to say that what is true for me may not be true for others; however, teaching students that they need to take care of themselves in a "specific" way, as you do, is not holding them back in the least.  Quite the opposite.

Overrated

This is one reason why I rarely even use the names of yoga postures. They foster an "end game" effort rather than simply a direction of movement. Isn't lying on your back stretching one leg out on the floor and one leg toward your torso with a belt a very similar action? I've been playing with how can I find the action of hanumanasana in ways that suit different bodies. It's been really lovely and that performance anxiety thing get's left out of the mix.

I have my students meditate before asana practice to encourage a mindful awareness of all that goes into an asana practice...body, of course...but breath, attention, emotion, the current internal and external environment. We also sit at the end of practice for a few minutes.

I read a piece about a yoga teacher in another yoga magazine recently. Describing a class she said that one student said just can't get up into the Wheel pose backbend. This teacher suggested that she reframe the dialogue in her mind to "I haven't been able to do that pose yet". It was presented as if this was kind and helpful and perhaps that was the intent. But it still sounded to me like another way to tell someone that they aren't cutting it in the achievement of yoga asanas.

This all being said...I've given up being the yoga police (most of the time) in my own mind. I teach what I practice. There are a lot of really wonderful teachers available. Sometimes you have to search a bit.

Losing the "end game."

I too have found that employing only simple functional forms and movements takes the "end game" and performance anxiety off the table and leaves space for folks to pay attention and enjoy what they are doing.  Often, the challenge is getting out of the "no pain, no gain" mind set.  I often joke that my class is like a twelve step program for a-type personalities.  I also agree that, wIth a little discernment and determination, there are wonderful teachers everywhere. 

I agree whole-bodidly.

I like your post.

I've recently been thinking about the point of healthy activities in my life.  I noticed that during, before, or after my activity, there was an aspect of the action that was about achieving something personally.  I would encourage myself subtlely that if I did yoga, I would achieve health, become more handsome, more muscular, calmer, etc.   I noticed this, and thought that this was problematic, because it led to other confusions, including the one you mention in this article:  that there are positions that show achievement, and that if I could not do them, I had to persue them.

The other point in your article is that the body eventually stops working.  There are some of us whose bodies will open a bit, and will be able to achieve more difficult positions than we can right now.  But every body will lose the ability to do the most difficult yoga positions.  We will all die, and there will be no yoga for our bodies.  So why do yoga at all?

I think your post shows how important it is to have a meditation practice in addition to yoga.  As Ethan pointed out to me and others in a class some months ago, some practitioners believe that yoga is preparation for meditation.  Meditating after yoga is meditating after you are a bit calmer, looser, and more open (perhaps).  We don't need Hanumanasana to open, but we do need to stop striving to reveal what is present, and yoga can prepare us to explore possibility without striving for something.

Agreement and a Fine Point

Thanks for taking a moment Robert.  I agree that striving for something is often the issue.  Forgive me a fine point: I generally stay away from making a distinction between yoga practice and meditation.  I think of them as a seemless process.  Whether you are sitting in a cross legged position reciting mantra or breathing in a down dog position, the endeavor amounts to a focused and open mind.  It's true that a Hatha practice is useful in allowing a body to sit but I wouldn't want to limit it to just that and, in my experience, meditation happens in all sorts of ways.  Your point about the dissolution of the body is well taken.  I would only add that an appropriate yoga practice is merely a way of tending to the body as it plays out its role.

Thanks For The Great Post!

So good to read this. I often get really uncomfortable when spiritual practice and business intersect. I guess just always being aware of what one's true needs are is the key.

Your Welcome

Yes, indeed.  Balancing ancient spirituality with modern socio-economics is a slippery slope.  I do think authentic practice and succesful business are not mutually exclusive.  I agree that being aware is the key.

Amen (or its Buddhist

Amen (or its Buddhist equivalent, Svaha!)!

I understand that one modern expression of yoga is its purely physical benefits and I can respect that. However, that does need to be viewed within yoga's greater history and meaning (which can be accepted by anyone regardless of religious affiliation or belief): letting go of our attachment to the results of our actions. That is yoga's greatest gift to its practitioners and it is a message that is sorely lacking in one of its most representative journals.

Svaha!

Svaha! (or as they say in some yoga circles, Jai!)

Thanks for chiming in.  Cheers.

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