“Don’t turn your feet out.”
“Never drink water during practice.”
“Flex your foot to protect your knee.”
“Don’t invert when you’re menstruating.”
I love it when a teacher tells me what to do. When a teachers sounds confident (or even better – arrogant!), some deep doggy pack instinct in me goes, “Follow this alpha. They will keep you safe! They know the way! Arf, arf!” Their certainty is a lamp in the dark, leading me down the right path.
We like teachers who seem to have found “the way.” We like following someone who seems “right.” We like being certain. Witness Donald Trump’s rise to success; part of his popularity is his stalwart conviction in his own good opinion.
Now, before we start a debate about the merits of Trump (I’ll leave that to other websites), I would like to point out that this addiction to certainty is not only political. I see it in yoga class all the time. Many teachers ride to popularity on the coattails of certainty. Whether or not they are accurate seems besides the point; the strength of their message is in their conviction. Teachers who take a more complex view of yoga alignment, sequencing, or philosophy seem to lack chutzpah. We confuse their nuance for uncertainty.
Does that mean we should toss out yoga rules and have a free for all? No, learning the rules is a great thing. There is a power to following the strictures of a tradition, and we discover our own discipline when we hold ourselves to a standard. Imagine if you will that the yoga tradition is a strange new continent, completely unexplored. When we are travelling into a new land, we need some landmarks to orient ourselves. These are the rules. For example, the YYoga teacher training that I’ve written is filled with rules; these initial markers provide an essential starting place for an exploration of practice. (“Place your feet heel to arch in Warrior II,” for example.) However, these landmarks don’t define the territory; they just give us our bearings. If we become too attached to our landmarks, we will never explore the rest of the country. And then we may start getting all judgy and dismissing anything that alls outside our rules as “wrong.”
Your teachers may not tell you, but the yoga practice is filled with ambiguity. How the feet are placed in Warrior I (ripe for discussion), how to effectively engage the core (another topic of hot debate), best sequencing practices (different in every class), or the correct way to really do a backbend (heaven forfend, the controversy!). Fellow yogis – the truth of the matter is that all of these questions have more than one answer. Each tradition has its own map of the territory, and each map may be a little different. No map can capture everything that is there. The answer to the question, “Is this right?” is almost always, “It depends.”
So, my fellow yogis, now is a good to in the world for us to beware of our dogmatism. Beware of the desire for absolutist certainty. Beware of getting it “right.” Route out your cherished absolutisms and subject them to loving scrutiny.
Visit the landmarks, get to know them, and recognize that the map is not the territory. It’s just there to get us started. Then go exploring.