Paradoxes of Yogaspeak

Why do yoga instructors sometimes make seemingly paradoxical
statements? As a student of yoga, it’s hard not to observe when your instructor
says one thing, followed by a statement with the opposite meaning later in
class. While these comments may initially cause confusion, they also represent
an opportunity to deepen your inner practice.

In eastern cultures, permeated by Tantra, Buddhism, and Taoism, seemingly paradoxical
statements are seen as representing different aspects of the same truth. Yet in
the west, stemming back to philosophers Plato and Aristotle, cognition
takes a black and white approach
, dichotomizing the world into this or that. This western mind-body dualism
starkly contrasts to the holistic, embodied wisdom traditions of the east,
where dichotomies may appear opposite, yet are embraced as two aspects of the
greater whole.

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In yoga, I often tell students “you are perfect as you are,
whatever your pose looks like,” then later provide commentary around how to
safely align and deepen into the pose. For western students, these may feel
like conflicting aims, for if we (or our poses) are already perfect, why then
must we bother with alignment? The root of discomfort with such statements
resides in the mistaken belief that our spiritual growth or actualization is
embodied in the physical expression of asana. In America, advanced asana are
often equated with being closer to God or enlightenment. Yet however
breathtaking the postures executed by gymnasts and advanced asana practitioners,
they represent little of one’s inner journey.

Perfection uttered in the context of yoga refers to innate,
inherent perfection; a divinity that endures regardless of external form. As
divinely perfect beings, we are equally imperfect, as depicted by the gods of
the Hindu pantheon and the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which captures the
imperfect beauty of a tarnished object. This (im)perfection is infinite, even
when we may not align with societal appearance norms or western hatha yoga’s
alignment-centric ideals. Nonetheless, instructions in yoga class to deepen
structural alignment, facilitating increases in strength as well as
flexibility, generate a stronger container for one’s innate divinity to be
expressed. Most importantly, no matter what our external form, it says nothing
about our inherent perfection—this is a constant.

As such, opportunities to incorporate more structural
alignment, far from contraindicating the notion that we’re already perfect,
simply offer an opportunity to embody a pose more fully without it rendering
commentary on inherent worth. In hatha yoga classes it is easy to lose witness
consciousness (mindfulness), for example through self-other comparisons and an
inner dialogue of “not enoughness.” Yet with the invitation to align internally
with mindfulness, self-compassion, and deep listening to the body’s needs,
space is created to receive and embody your unique external (physical)
alignment.

When balance between yin/yang, will/surrender,
strength/flexibility, and other seemingly opposite poles are embraced,
physical, emotional, and spiritual equilibrium results. This in turn enables
increased skillfulness in our asana—and more importantly, life off the mat.

What are some paradoxical yoga statements you’ve noticed
your teachers make? How do you make sense of them?

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