for new yoga students
By Charles Spenella, R.Y.T., Houston yoga teacher, 2002
The Non-Competitive Nature Of Yoga
"An asana is a map of the territory. It is not the territory
itself " Anon
Imagine' that a group of students is taken
outside to warm up for a yoga class. They are invited to run
once completely around the block. For those in pretty good
shape, this might not be a great enough distance, For others,
not in such good shape, this may prove to be extremely difficult
if not completely impossible. So as long as our intention
is to perform identical actions no one benefits.
Now suppose instead that the same group was
asked to run the same course, but to listen to their own bodies
and to only run as far as they needed to in order to feel
warmed up. Since the ability of each student varies, they
would reach their limit and stop at different points along
the course. By shifting the intention from performing identical
actions to achieving identical effects everyone would now
experience maximum benefit.
How does this apply to yoga? If a class was
asked to bend over and touch their toes, some people might
be able to bring their heads very near their legs while some
might only be able to bend halfway. If the intention is to
perform identical actions (touching the toes) some students
won't be challenged enough while other students might be frustrated
by their inability to accomplish the task. However if the
intention is to achieve identical effects, then each student
would go only as far as their personal limit to experience
maximum benefit. So just like in the running example, it is
not important how far each goes as long as each person honors
their own limit. When performing an asana it is the edge of
that limit that we seek wherever it might be for us at that
moment. In fact, it is precisely at this point that the yoga
effect is released.
"What you can do, is what you should do."
Yoga must in no way be considered competitive.
Not only are you not competing with the yogi in the book,
on the video, at the front of the class, or anywhere around
you, you are also not competing with yourself That is because
the edge of your limit for any given asana will change from
day to day, with, the time of day, and even from minute to
So then how do you know when you are at "the
edge"? The edge of your personal limit is how deeply
you can painlessly go into an asana and still breathe smoothly
at any given moment. Your intention should be to approach
that point but to stop just this side. That is what is meant
by "playing the edge". Once again, while you will
often be called upon to exert effort in an asana, you shouldn't
lose control of your breath and there should definitely be
no pain. A slogan often heard in western exercise classes
is "No pain, no gain." In yoga a more appropriate
slogan would be "If you seek pain, you're insane."
The Space Between Asanas
Once you have worked the target area, you must let the muscles
involved rest and assimilate the effects of the movement.
If you were to attend a wine tasting, you would be urged to
take a sip of water and perhaps to eat a piece of bread in
order to "cleanse your palate" between samples.
If you go from one wine straight to the next their distinct
characteristics will become blurred and you are not likely
to appreciate either one. The same thing can be said for a
sequence of asanas. While the yoga effect may be released
at the edge, it is not until we relax after the asana that
we receive its benefit. Therefore the time spent between asanas
is every bit as important as the time spent in each posture
and ideally should be of approximately the same duration.