Have you noticed the rising number of blog posts and news articles being posted about Yoga causing injuries? Whether or not you think that what’s being done in those situations is actually Yoga or not, it does raise a pretty fundamental question: what is the role of force in Yoga?
If we take a close look at what we’re actually doing in any given Yoga practice, there’s always a certain element of force involved. Whether our practice focuses on the body, breath or mind, we are always interrupting the current dynamic to establish a new one, and that in itself can be seen as forceful, in the sense that we are enforcing our will upon the current situation. The question then becomes, how forceful can we be before it really isn't Yoga any more?
How to Use The Force
Like me, I’m sure you’ve heard that the Sanskrit word Hatha means forceful, and its true. For anyone new to Yoga, most of the types of Yoga practice you’ll find around the world involving group classes with postures and breath-work are considered to be a form of Hatha Yoga. A quick trip to the Sanskrit dictionary shows several meanings of that word, which revolve around destruction and violence. So its not even one of those fuzzy areas of Sanskrit-English definition problems. Hatha definitely means forceful.
Based on this word, and perhaps the earlier pre-Yoga practice of austerities (tapas), it appears that some modern practitioners justify a physically aggressive attitude towards creating the legendary diamond body (Vajradeha) that is the ideal of Hatha Yoga. So we push ourselves to go deeper, faster, stronger in physical practice, reaching far beyond our individual capacity. By the time we discover that this is a shortcut to nothing but chronic injury, exhaustion, imbalance and illness, sometimes decades later, the damage is done and it’s too late.
Is this perspective of Hatha Yoga as forceful simply wrong? Undoubtedly there are red herrings in the world of Yoga practice, and I’ve heard that the word Hatha means forceful only in the sense that such a practitioner will relentlessly pursue the goal of the Yogic state of mind, without allowing anything to get in their way. But I also wonder, if we step back and take a less physical view of this concept of forcefulness and destruction, does it all start to make more sense?
The ultimate aim of Yoga is to give us freedom to be just who we are (and have always been) at our deepest levels of being. Our tight hamstrings and non-contortionist spines don’t actually stand in the way of attaining such lofty heights. Our inability to get into a handstand or drop back into a deep back arch doesn’t generally make our lives less worthwhile. But our limiting self-concepts, mental projections and emotional issues almost always do. Perhaps the penny starts to drop when we consider that these embodied mental-emotional disturbances are often described in Yoga philosophy texts as obstacles or blockages.
A right understanding of forceful attitude comes when we see Yoga as a practice of applying effort (forceful direction) to the removal (destruction) of such non-physical obstacles. After all, Patanjali tells us in the Yoga Sutras that the work of Yoga should always progress from the gross (physical) to the subtle (non-physical). If we are intent on deeper transformation, how long do we really need to spend on changing the gross physical body before moving on to our our mental-emotional constructs? We surely need to establish a healthy foundation in our body, but then we can quickly move on to work with the deeper (psychological) issues that tie us up with depression, anxiety, confusion and bad choices.
All we ever need to do to start that process of accessing the subtle layers is repeatedly follow our breath down into our bodies to develop embodied awareness. Being so deeply connected with our breathing body as we practice Yoga’s disciplines of movement, breathwork and meditation, we will soon realise that physically aggressive practice can never be a shortcut to the Yogic state of mind. We can easily continue to practice whatever style or approach to Yoga we favour, but this simple shift to a caring, embodied attitude will pay dividends in progress and injury-free practice for years and decades to come.
The real secret weapon of Hatha Yoga then becomes our relentless (diamond) attitude to repeated daily practice. It is this forcefulness of mind that leads us, one small step each day, to the goal of Yoga.