It’s a term I’ve heard a lot recently – the idea, that there are certain postures that almost have the function of capturing and holding us back. They are, generally speaking, marichyasana D, bhuja pidasana, kurmasana, maybe gharba pidasana, probably urdhva dhanurasana.
Firstly, this kind of seems like an arbitrary differentiation in the first place. Indeed, these are often the most challenging positions for a lot of people, but we all have our own challenges with certain postures; to build these up in any way as ‘place-holders’ seems to create an unnecessary feeling around them of difficulty or dread.
Secondly, and more importantly, as usual with us, it is to focus on the outer-shape of the posture, rather than an inner-quality; its form over instead, understanding its function, quantity in terms of ranges of extension, as opposed to the quality, in getting the action, the ‘stretch’ or ‘opening’ the position is aiming at.
I am not suggesting that we all can’t benefit on doing less sometimes, and focusing our intentions on what’s in front of us tat remains incomplete. We have a limited ‘pot’ of energy, and if we spread it too thin, over too many positions, we risk cutting corners and leaving work undone all over the place. Doing too much, can be, in fact, to do too little. Yet, as mentioned, it’s hard to rein-back our minds from focusing on the most little sense of addition as progressing our practice; here, more always means more.
Whereas, in contrast, with yoga, a very unworldly terrain, the opposite is actually the case; less can often mean more. Profundity lies in the subtle details and indefinable feelings that can make all the difference. Still, we are not used to small things making a lot of difference; it is assumed that the big gestures usually lead to a similar advancement in progress. So, there is, certainly, on this front an argument for making slow and steady progress through the sequences; it does take time to get a grip of the muscles in an effective way whereby the posture is achieved on a deeper level than superficially as a shape alone.
Which, actually, is really where this idea of gate-keepers deposits us. For, what is being judged here? It allows people with generally loose ligaments to quite literally ‘strike the pose’ (as the great Madonna says), without necessarily getting any efficient work done as to stretching and conditioning the deeper body; regarding the muscles that support and control the range, ‘mobility’ of a joint that yoga entails. Instead, the joints can be overstretched and the posture can be taken as nothing other than an image. The problem being that, as a teacher, one can’t always notice the difference between the two; the one being incredibly effective and helpful as much as the other moves in quite the opposite direction.
This is why I am not interesting in the making of shapes, but getting the function behind the shape. It, therefore, doesn’t matter to me what position is being done; it’s a question of being able to access efficient work in the position. This, ultimately, is down to the individual to decide upon, as, like an iceberg, generally what is seen, doesn’t reflect the depth below. It is also then, of supreme importance the student of yoga is honest with us and themselves in making-up their own mind about their practice; starting to take responsibility for it themselves in developing a deeper perspective as to its goals and intentions.
Otherwise, yoga practice becomes just another measuring-stick, whereby we act as a guarantor of their shapes and their ostensible, seeming, progress from a visual, material viewpoint. What is going on underneath, never gets a look in in this way of nurturing a practice if, indeed, it can be taken as such. Instead, it is the most literal and unreflective teaching methodology, which, once again, sees our achievement in life as a linear-march forward in accumulating more and more value to ourselves. Yoga, in its original conception, is looking towards a very different kind of achievement; one that is not involved with demonstrating anything to life, rather than a inner-quality of contentment, acceptance in equanimity or peace.
Indeed, achievement in postures is never mentioned as anything particularly laudable in the yoga-scriptures; rather we come across ideas, such as sthiram sukkham asanam in the Yoga Sutras (the only thing said about yoga asana), that it is a ‘steady and comfortable position’. Evidently, this is quite at loggerheads with the clinging on to making a shape for dear life so as we can move ‘forward’ in our practice. Instead, real advancement is in the ease, and in this, depth, of experience that can be attained in an asana. Which is to say, not as to jumping over obstacles in order to get to the next position. This is nothing more than to take yoga in exactly the same way we do normal-life; where we are never at rest, always chasing an imaginary future where things are better for us.
But, does this future ever arise? Of course it doesn’t. Yoga then, is talking about the acceptance of the now. That we are already enough, do not need to prove anything to ourselves, or the world in general in the persona of the teacher – now a symbol of authority, a parent or such, that we look to to convey our value or lack thereof back to us. Real practice and the teaching relationship that is so helpful to nurturing this, has a different focus; a radical acceptance of the person as good enough already. Therefore, what we are working on, if, indeed, there is any progress that need to be made, is in a quality; the feeling of peace and balance that each asana can be made to reveal to us through the use of setting up opposing-forces in our material-bodies.
In conclusion then, as yoga asana isn’t a linear process of evolution, the postures should be done that one has a chance of feeling balance in. As I have said many times before, if to get past a ‘gatekeeper’, you have to crash against it, taking the gate right off its hinges, this is nothing to do with yoga. All too often, this seems to be the way that yoga is portrayed by teachers, which sets us up in a pushing and forcing kind of attitude where ‘going through’ is the only measure of our success. The idea, as is said in the Bhagavad Gita that ‘yoga is renunciation’, appears, quite often, to be totally forgotten these days. Teaching by restriction and superficial and material judgments is very different to the kind of stricture and guidelines used to attempt to convey this idea in a student. In fact, it does quite the opposite.
To finish on a practical note then, what I look for is a methodical and grounded approach to practice rather, than a demonstration of physical ability. Once the student has proved the attitude towards yoga being held is deepening, even if they face some physical limitations as to their age, body type, or so forth; let them do those postures whereby they can work on accessing the ‘comfort and steadiness’ that is the true benchmark of asana. That is, regardless of where they might fall in the sequence. To treat the sequence to literally, is to risk conveying that the goal lies somewhere separate from us in the future, whereas, yoga is the attempt to re-focus our attention to the fact that yoga lies within us; that the goal is always now and always ready and waiting. It is said along these lines in The Yoga Sutras; ‘tivra samveganam asanam’; ‘for the one that wants, yoga is always in immediate proximity to our being’.
I therefore, might suggest that we use yoga to confront our inner-notion that there are these ‘gatekeepers’ in the very first place; that life is based on achievement, essentially in competition and comparison to others and the world, as opposed to the much more intangible, yet potentially available (according to yoga) harmony with ourselves and our environment, which is to transcend all ideas of limitation and restriction.