I stand, feet three feet apart, arms outstretched, ribs and spine extended laterally, on the unforgiving concrete floor. Triangle pose. A confusing chorus of the sharp, insistent voices of two teachers and two assistants bounce about the room. Instructions are being yelled out so quickly that I feel I can’t possibly perform them all. Every ingredient necessary for a perfectly aligned yoga pose is being offered here. If only I could piece it all together before they tell us to come out of our poses. The teacher slaps the inside of my left knee. “Wake up your knee!” he barks. Fifteen minutes later I still feel the sting. The tingling is not really painful, and I have to admit my knee is awake.
Since I began practicing yoga in early 1982 I’ve been pushed, pulled, slapped, scolded and made an example of—both as a model yogi and as a body fraught with flaws needing to be fixed—by more teachers in more classes and workshops than I can begin to remember. One teacher even yelled at me for not folding my sweatshirt properly. Even now, my hopelessly hyperextended knees cause consternation in almost every class I attend.
Images of perfect yoga poses abound. We see them on the covers and in the pages of yoga magazines, and in advertisements for commodities from Hyundai to lingerie. Lithe, muscled bodies bend and extend, seemingly impossibly, and with impeccable form. These are the images to which we feel we must aspire.
For years I studied tirelessly, practicing with great earnest to accomplish difficult poses and to perfect my form within them. I learned that attention to form has its benefits, and that conscious alignment provides a solid foundation for yoga practice. Awareness of alignment prevents injury. It allows the fluid systems of the body, such as the blood, lymph, synovial and cerebrospinal fluids, to move more freely. A consciously aligned body creates a balanced ground for the mind.
Still, as I began to succeed in attaining “perfect” form in the most impressive of postures, I found that perfect form—like the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect relationship or the perfect income—can not bring lasting happiness or peace. Another illusion shattered.
The root of the illusion seems to lie in concept and language. First is the concept of perfection. Perfection is too often rigidly defined by brittle parameters which set a static standard that can not tolerate deviation. Whenever the concept of perfection overlays an endeavor, the results of our efforts, no matter how inspiring or beautiful, will almost always fall short. A rigid definition of perfection tends to solidify and stultify creativity. There is simply no room.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed learning from teachers of many different traditions. Each tradition defines its methods and philosophies, often in ways that are diametrically opposed to those of other traditions. Often even the ideologies of teachers within a tradition seem to be at odds. So whose concept of perfection are we to trust? If we accept that one tradition’s philosophy is correct, does this make all the others incorrect? Does it make sense instead to develop our own conscious inner reference system and to trust what we know to be true from our own experience?
I’ve come to understand perfection to be more fluid. It is a process rather than a static goal, and its definitions shift in each changing moment and vary from person to person. Each individual’s genetic inheritance is different, as are the physical habits they’ve cultivated over a lifetime. It is neither possible nor appropriate for us all to look like the photos of “perfect” poses we see in magazines and books.
As a yoga teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to see that there are as many forms of perfection as there are people. Each triangle pose I observe is completely new and defies definition or judgment. Each person’s expression of a pose is a perfect expression of his/her Self in that moment.
In Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, the names of all but a few of the traditional postures end with the suffix, asana. It is asana that we practice when we arrange our bodies into specific forms designed to awaken various anatomical and physiological systems, and to free the movement of subtle energies. The most widely accepted English translation of asana is “pose” or “posture.” For me these words evoke the image of a concrete statue— a frozen form that can be aspired to and performed, and whose perfection can be lost when we dare to deviate.
Another definition of asana, the one I have come to prefer, is “rest.” Here the intention points to resting in the truth of what we are experiencing in each moment of our asana practice. We learn to relax into where we are. We can give up the struggle to attain something we believe is lacking in our experience. We can see and enjoy our intrinsic wholeness regardless of how our asana appears from the outside.
With this shift of intention, asana practice becomes not just a mechanical performance of a pose (or an exercise in frustration if our bodies are not willing to go there). It is a way to become familiar with our wellspring of equanimity that does not depend on “perfect” conditions. Each time we tap into our own center of peace, even when the physical sensation accompanying an asana is quite intense, the peace that is intrinsic to us becomes more accessible to us in the rest of our lives. A pose is something that we do; asana is something that we are.
I experience asana to be a living, breathing process. Each time I step onto my mat there is potential to learn something new. What is most helpful, more than a strong or flexible body, is what Zen master Suzuki Roshi called “beginner’s mind.” In his classic book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind, there are few.”
The mind that does not know is curious and open to explore what is being presented in the moment. The mind that knows all, or the body that has attained “perfect” asana, does not need to look further. When I practice from beginner’s mind, it does not matter how many times I’ve placed my body in the shape of triangle; there is always potential for joyous discovery. My inspiration to practice lies in the fact that there’s always something new to learn. And it is precisely in the understanding that there is no definable perfection to attain that I remain excited by and committed to practice.
Maybe perfection is better experienced than defined. If so, how might the expression of perfection look and feel? I see it in the student whose body dances in perfect, peaceful rhythm with his/her breath. I see it in the faces of students—in the calm of their eyes and the barely perceptible incipient smiles that well up from within. I feel it in the warm wash of quiet joy abiding in every cell of my being.