Approaching Yoga | The discipline from the perspective of a sceptic
I’m by no means an expert on yoga. In fact, I’m barely even a practitioner, primarily viewing my own practice as a mobility conditioning tool for other disciplines rather than an end unto itself. But I have been fortunate enough to learn from a diverse community of vastly experienced teachers and friends over the past few years, and what was once a discipline I avoided like the plague for all its esoteric fluff and dogmatic reputations has become an integral part of my training philosophy and routine.
I drafted these articles about three years ago now but never got round to publishing them—figured I might as well now, especially since Long-Covid means that yoga is now is the only form of physicality I can train with reliably.
Yoga is an interesting paradigm—from its original eastern texts to its contemporary western interpretations. It is a discipline filled with a bewildering variety of dogmas, pathways and downright falsehoods. These couple of articles are my take on approaching it from an objective standpoint; about finding usefulness and reality as part of a spectrum of physical aptitude and conditioning. It is about approaching it with the same practical and judgemental attitude with which one would approach any other discipline or ideology of mind and body training.
Going through my journals over the last few years—particular my notes during months freediving in Amed—these articles are the condensed and streamlined sum of many multipage rants of frustration at seemingly fluff-filled nonsense—concepts and reasonings that my conscience couldn’t accept as truth even despite cult-like affirmation from those around me—and the relief-drenched scribbles of thought processes that finally made the connections between firmly grounded neuroscience, anatomy and practical experience, and the theoretical lessons of yoga.
‘...take up the study of the yoga science as you would any other science of material nature and remember that there is no mystery nor danger in it.’
— Swami Vivekananda, 1896 —
This is part of a series of articles:
Approaching Yoga: The discipline from the perspective of a sceptic
I have always been sceptical about yoga as a discipline—the product of a societal bombardment of new-age Western interpretations and body-flaunting Instagrammers on the path of yogic enlightenment for their own egoistic purposes. And it was only in the last few years that I’ve begun to see the worth behind this false veil.
At first, all those who practised it seemed to me from afar either pointedly discontent with a logical paradigm of thought, or pretentious, and all those (admittedly few) of my acquaintances that preached it to me were typically otherwise negligent to all other disciplines of physicality and mind-body performance. Even these preconceptions notwithstanding, I always felt that yoga had little to offer me, at least in its conventional form, since I addressed its various (and ostentatiously proclaimed) benefits elsewhere: strength, balance and body awareness through climbing and calisthenics; mental resilience, mindfulness and concentration through freediving, ultra-endurance and free-soloing.
It was only in an empty fishing village on an island in the far eastern Philippines that I found it advocated for the first time by someone I could resonate with: an old man from the US—ultrarunner, climber and big wave surfer. After a long conversation of many incredible stories and insights on a vast array of topics, he urged me to give the discipline a chance, swearing upon its qualities as a complimentary practise to the hard-form physical development and damage profile of ultrarunning. As luck would have it, that very same year, I found myself in the ideal place to discover the discipline: amid a community of freedivers, well-versed in the dissemination of yoga to the more scientifically-inclined.
There, in the community surrounding the Apneista Freediving and Yoga school in Amed, Bali (of course it was in Bali…) I began to see yoga for its more evidence-based and universally-relevant principles: the interplay of mind and anatomy; flow-state and performance. It was a study my analytical mind thrived on, far removed from the faith and sensation-based guises of circular arguments and self-proclaimed gurus I had previously rejected.
I learnt that ‘yoga’ literally means ‘union’—that of the mind with the body—which according to my interpretation makes all athleticism and mindful physicality an expression of yoga: the essence of the flow state. I realised that, under such a definition, freediving, ultrarunning and rock-climbing are as much practices of yoga as any stretching or meditation routines.
Leaving aside interpretations of yoga concerning morality and the more esoteric (meant entirely without judgement) aspects of the ideology (I have neither the bravery nor interest to consider these here), yoga can be considered a training paradigm—a comprehensive framework for the exploration and development of human psychosomatic potential: the integration of mental and physical performance. It is an ideology that transcends the distinction between disciplines, with the practise of physical poses—but one branch of yoga: asana—merely being a mobility-focused calisthenics discipline imbued with and dedicated to a development of the principles of the yoga mind-body philosophy.
Nowhere is the mind and body as unified as free solo rock-climbing. The definition of ‘yoga’.
For me this was an important distinction: to understand asana as a conditioning discipline parallel, or even accessory, to others such as calisthenics, weighted resistance training or even running, climbing, swimming and freediving; and to draw theoretical separation between this as a discipline, and the broader yogic framework of mind-body integration, which is in fact as relevant and applicable (if labelled differently) to the training of any aspect of human physicality.
Content that I addressed the wider principles of yoga elsewhere, I saw major worth in the practice of asana—the physical discipline of yoga—specifically with respect to flexibility, mobility and body control. For me it represents (and still does) a controlled and choreographed practise of body-mind control and awareness, as training for the wilder and unpredictable natural-world amphitheatres of the other disciplines. I spent many weeks (and subsequent months thereafter) exploring the discipline alongside my training in freediving. Under the watchful eyes of a multitude of experienced friends and teachers from various yogic backgrounds, I began to develop my practice: a progression in flexibility and body control to compliment strength and capacity trained elsewhere.
Now, I’m still pretty inflexible… but I do believe that I’ve gained a massive amount from my foray into yoga, in terms of both physical conditioning, body awareness and prehabilitation, but more so in the realms of perspective with which I view my training and physical performance as a whole—paradigms on mastery, process-driven development and the importance of the psychosomatic link between functional anatomy and consciousness.
As one who takes pleasure in dissecting concepts to remove and discard the elements that add unnecessary fluff (or otherwise fail to serve me), the fact that I still practice and stand by the discipline today perhaps says the most. From a second-rate ancillary conditioning tool, my practise has developed into what I now see as a valid discipline in itself—yielding the controlled training of performance aspects—mind-body awareness, emotional control, mobility, strength-flexibility and full-body motor skill—that cannot be as effectively isolated or developed elsewhere.
In the controlled environment of asana we can develop the skills and techniques for mental and psychosomatic acuity for application to other more unpredictably dynamic disciplines
A thanks to all the vastly experienced mentors I’ve been lucky to call friends and teachers: those who have helped me to discover and understand a discipline I previously shunned: Lenica Reggie, Matthew Smyth, Lisa Price, Sophie Pskova, Maria Stern, Nina Escobar and Chloe Ireland.