Upside Down

In one of my yoga classes last week, I guided my students into a headstand. After about 15 minutes into the practice, that is. I guess I broke a whole bunch of yoga rules by doing that (and it wasn’t the first time, I confess). As every yoga teacher knows, we are taught to incorporate inversions at the end of class. I don’t break rules just for the hell of it; I understand that there are reasons behind most dos and don’ts, and I do my best to at least know those reasons, whether I believe in them or not. I teach what I practice, and when I practice, I tend to listen more to how my own body feels, rather than going by some never-to-be-deviated-from script. The latter makes me cringe, actually, because who wrote the script and why should I blindly follow it?

Let me make something clear before the yoga police gets up in arms: The 15 minutes or so leading up to the headstand contained an appropriate warmup, and of course, I gave my students other options to invert (because it’s never about a particular pose, anyway). The intention of the practice that day was to expand, and using the first 15 minutes to come into a pose usually reserved for the last 15 minutes was one of the ways we could notice how stuck we may be in a belief that something should be a certain way. I loved seeing the shock on everyone’s face when I offered the headstand. But because I expected that reaction, I acted like a good parent would act when their toddler fumbles into a harmless fall: no big deal. And I watched my beautiful yogis come into their headstands like it was no big deal at all. I could feel their confidence and power, and what’s even better, I could sense that each one of them had a little breakthrough as they bypassed their minds’ rules for a moment and experienced pure freedom and joy.

After class, the excited chatter was all about how strong everyone felt in their inversion (because they weren’t tired like they would have been at the end of class) and how surprised they were that being on their heads felt easy and just good. And that was exactly the point of the whole practice (which involved a lot more than headstand): expanding our idea of everything, including who we are and what the world is. Within each of us lies this innate aching and yearning for the breakdown of all contraction and limitation, which we ultimately realize was put in place because of a simple and silly mistake we took way too seriously.

When it comes to so many rules we follow in our lives, whether we follow them consciously or not, we tend to stay in the state of contraction and do all we can not to scratch the itch for expansion. And we wonder why living life often seems like pulling teeth. How can we expect to maintain any sort of flow when, out of fear of leaving our familiar cocoon, we continually squash every opportunity to spiritually grow? When a bird hatches from an egg, it cracks open the walls of what until then provided protection and safety. But if the bird decided it wouldn’t crack the shell because it was too scared or it would be too risky to do so, the shell would no longer bring protection; it would bring destruction and would end the bird’s life.

How much of what you perceive is simply unquestioned belief? And most beliefs we cling to like our life depended on them are not even based on truth, but are simply uninvestigated fear reactions.

Like I said earlier, I don’t break rules just for the hell of it, and I certainly don’t break all rules. That would not be empowering but just stupid. We don’t become spiritually or intellectually emancipated by blanket rebellion but by a devoted practice of discernment. We learn to separate the wheat from the chaff not by adopting someone else’s gospel about what constitutes wheat and what constitutes chaff, but by finding out for ourselves. Each one of us has been equipped with the same superpower: intuition, which is simply intelligence that’s much vaster than the puny human intellect. It’s sad how little we use and trust that superpower and instead just believe everything we think, see and hear with our physical senses, or were taught. Haven’t we had enough of the blind leading the blind?

Speaking of this idiom, how many of you yogis knew it came from one of the Upanishads? “Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind.” (Katha Upanishad) And how much of the yoga world is all about following “tradition,” without even asking who decided on whatever supposedly became tradition? Most of the physical yoga practice, the asana practice, developed in the last 100 years or so and is a result of calisthenics, gymnastics and people making stuff up. I make up moves all the time in my practice and my teaching, and to me, that’s what makes yoga an art. As Pablo Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”

Please don’t be one of the fools going aimlessly hither and tither, as the Upanishad says. Don’t be what you were never meant to be. Be an artist; make up your own rules, without any aggressive defiance or fanfare. If you don’t know how to do that or what is true for you, go to your superpower, your intuition, and listen to the artist within your heart. Intuition is not something we were taught in school and it’s not something we see promoted in the mainstream, but guess what: even those rules may eventually change.

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