Can Yoga Make You Less Flexible in Life?

adam keen urdhva kukkutasana

I have come across many people over my years of teaching Ashtanga Yoga, who have either told me, or, otherwise it’s been noticeable, that they have suffered with difficulties around eating.  In the very first place, that we refer to it as suffering only goes to show that it feels like something happening to us, not within our immediate ability to control. It can seem as much as we try, that the all attempts only seems to exacerbate the problem.  Yoga practice may be taken up in an attempt to help with this; where, indeed, it may lead to a more regulated life,  better appetite, increased positivity around body-image. Yet, on the other hand, it equally seems, on many occasions, to compound the problem through the extra attention given to the body.

With, albeit to differing degrees, the gymnastic practice that yoga entails, which demands a certain lightness of body for progress, even feeling good about doing it, then it’s all too easy to get overly caught up within this feedback-loop.  Like anything, the mind starts innocuously enough at a basic attempt at logic; eating less, and taking more care, seems to help with yoga, and yoga seems to equally help with how we feel about life. Yet, the mind tends to lack the ability to refrain when a level of efficiency has been reached; it is not clear where the attempt is meant to end, where it’s attention is no longer needed. So, when at first, it was a much needed attempt at more conscious eating, it can equally tip over to a most unwelcome place, where the desired advancement becomes associated with increasingly restricting diet, or, the more general, less drastic though also unhelpful over infatuation with a very specific path with eating.

Indeed, it seems to make perfect sense; yoga results in feeling better about our bodies, therefore ourselves, and eating lightly or, very specifically, helps with yoga. In which case, an obsessive control of diet is directly related to feeling better. Yet, this is until the very method we are using starts to cause us pain. Then, a practice that ought to make life more relaxed, often serves to make it a lot less so. For, the mind is also fixed towards the need for constant progress, that it can only go so far, usefully, on the level of the body, means that this focus often turns within and to a more imaginary, less practical angle. Discipline is constructive up to a point; basically, until it becomes destructive. What we really want is to feel freer in life, not more constrained.

This is even true when a perceived place of ‘balance’ is reached as it appears for those people seemingly living a ‘normal life’.  For, filled with the fear of losing a source of pleasure and self-esteem, discipline still crystalises around the natural movement inherent in life, where its all too easy to become neurotic beneath the surface as controlling the tide of life – which, in actuality, is quite impossible. This can also lead to unnecessary anxiety and a distraction in keeping up a certain lifestyle deemed beneficial for the individual; which is not exactly the real issue yoga raises. It is a lesser form of neurosis, indeed, quite widespread, where yoga, or any other version of ‘healthy lifestyle’, is used as nothing more than an exercise regime to do with weight regulation. Here, an intricate dance of balancing eating with exercise is commenced, and one in which any attempt at anything more that yoga (or any reflective system of moving the body) may lead towards is completely overlooked.

Indeed, we have to move in order that the body keeps functionally comfortably, but, this is not ‘yoga’ in the sense that Patanjali meant it. Approaching this as a fitness regime aimed at our disquiet over body-image, is only entertaining our problematic relation with the ‘individual’, attempting to guarantee and define what can’t be, which is the very subject yoga tries to resolve.  A more productive approach then, is to attempt some sense of resolution on a deeper level rather than sticking a band-aid on what is not a superficial wound. It is all too easy to get stuck with the body alone, which means that the tool that could be used to probe deeper ends up turning on itself within this limited realm of contemplation. Practice used in this way becomes further constrictive to our sense of reality, where it becomes increasingly identified with the individual; what it eats and how it looks, which only ends in anxiety and suffering as to the attempt to preserve a certain idea of oneself.

On the other hand, this is a very understandable trajectory in a modern world where there are few indications that there is much else of value to us than body-image. Still, if the body is already a source of contention, the resolution doesn’t come from the effort to win at this game; for there is no winning when our over-infatuation is the very problem in the first place.  In which case, the attitude we are attempting with the ‘yoga lifestyle’ must be a great deal subtler as to its intention than most generally envisaged.  Here, instead of trying to achieve satisfaction on the material level, it is really to do with nurturing the spirit of enquiry, acting to widen the sphere of our personal interest so as we don’t, in fact, choke upon the newfound awareness of ourselves we’ve found through yoga.

What this enquiry means then, is that yoga is not used to function as a kind of ‘holding system’, where a very finite sense of conclusion is met with in a kind of temporary excitement with a more ‘pleasurable’ idea and feel of body. For, after this initial benefit (which, indeed, it is) life is led on a treadmill as to keeping this up; the process of a repeating a daily cycle that purposely, albeit subconsciously, prevents an opening to further questions and doubts, that yoga is really aiming at.  For, life doesn’t allow for an end until the last; in order to really be alive, we must also keep on going, keep exploring, changing; flowing. Yoga is meant to be a method to then move with life, not to close down over it, with increasingly rigid opinions and ideas as to maintaining the ‘yoga lifestyle’.

This can easily be used as a mechanism to keep up the, at least superficial, sense of comfort in the known. An answer that provides the control that converting an organic being into a mechanism, a set of rules, seems to bestow on life. There need be no longer any doubt, uncertainty, letting go; for a conclusion has been reached with certainty. As long as practice and diet are followed, it seems we are safe. Yet, this also means a necessary restriction of the individual, leading to an increasingly narrow, rigid, and unthinking kind of living. We are not machines, as safe as it sometimes may feel to treat ourselves as such, this is not an adequate resolution to a life that needs to feel alive, moving, as much as it is experienced as ‘happy’.

Instead, the only resolution that yoga will provide, which serves for questions of diet as well as living more generally is, that on a fundamental level there isn’t one for the sense of individual we might like to take ourselves for. But, at the same time, that it may be possible to become accustomed, even comfortable, with this fact. It is a practice in order to let go to the natural movement of life, without feeling we have also lost ourselves.  For, life is perceivably fluid, as mentioned; changeable and unpredictable, so the challenge is to conceive of some basic principles or guidelines that will allow the necessary movement within this, a framework so as we don’t get lost in the chaos of our experience. Indeed, this is what makes this whole endeavour so hard; the need for both flexibility and the stability of principles, at the very same time. What is normally done then, is either absolute flexibility in life, or, often, when contacting a certain method or ideology as in yoga, what we are discussing here; the absolute fixation and rigidity upon it.

Yoga is the radical reassessment of our wish for definitive and literal conclusions and resolution with living, but at the same time, using a fixed method. For, our physical existence is dependent upon, as well as the product of, innumerable outside influences none of which are our choosing. This necessitates that our sense of meaning that was looked for in seeking pleasure through this avenue must be ascertained from elsewhere. Because, to live by this plan is no different (at least, according to yoga thinking), than buying lottery tickets as a source of clear and trustworthy direction.

Applying all this back to the subject of eating, parallels can be drawn with the way we like to think of ourselves as an ‘individual’, that may help us with the confusion which enshrouds this topic. For example, with the  ‘fetishization’ of food that stands for our current solutions towards diet, whereby certain foods are randomly assigned magical status, whilst other demonized, which does absolutely nothing to help with the real issue, rather obscures it. A similar thing is seen with the infatuation with ‘superfoods’, over complicated regimes of exercise and diet of which the list is endless. These provide the protection we naturally desire, in the authority of definitive answers given by others only too happy to oblige (for a fee), so as we can feel similarly sure about what we are. In a way we have ‘pinned’ ourselves to reality, tried to make ourselves into an objective entity where we are not, by holding on too firmly to certain symbols of our certainty to exist as a guaranteeable and preservable entity.

What is really wished for at base, however, is the freedom that comes from acknowledging our own subjectivity of experience. This is the real aim of yoga;

a project of honesty with life, whereby we must take responsibility for our vulnerability of being, yet carry on living and acting anyway, conscious that there is no sure conclusion to our doubts on offer. Therefore, practically speaking again, the flexibility of a more general aim in eating is crucial. We may like, as seems to be the case, to objectify ourselves and our reality according to other peoples’ rules, although, this is never satisfactory to a human spirit that longs for freedom in the end over the comfort of ‘certainties’.

Perhaps, this may still be to ‘beg the question’ as to what to actually eat.  The difficulty experienced in trusting and working with our feelings is, indeed, a real one, and has to be surmounted. Everyone eats ‘emotionally’, but, the key is to see this. Then a framework can be constructed for daily life in order to help contain ourselves, yet, at the same time, with a lightness of touch. Gradually, the ability to bend with circumstances as well as maintain a consistent approach starts to become apparent. It has been said here, that there are no literal rules. Yet, there is also a need for certain principles to be decided upon and held to. Within these and the structure they provide, is hoped that a freedom in living and eating can also be intuited, so they don’t lead to rigidity, may be changed, amended, even discarded at times.  Evidently, due to its paradoxical nature, it can never be a matter that is solved from the mind and thinking alone.  Diet and yoga practice then, may be used as a shield against life, or as a door towards it. It depends on the attitude we are able to approach the method with; our depth of perspective. For, the method can be used to engender this unusual kind of freedom within discipline. But, approaching yoga from the mind alone, as to what we’re going to get out of it, all too often, yoga serves to only compound the issues we face over our sense of individuality.  

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