Riffing In Yoga Class

yoga practice
Photo by Cara Brostrom

Note to yoga teachers: When I modify a pose to deepen or come into a different pose during your class, it is not because I get an ego boost, to show off my flexibility, or otherwise seek attention. It is also not because what you are offering and you, by extension, are not “enough,” or that I don’t respect you. Rather, it is because my body craves more depth and expression in a given posture and denying this engenders poignant longing. This impulse bubbles up from deep within.

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This is why I lurk in the back corner of your class, because I anticipate these impulses arising and wish to be as non-distracting to you and fellow students as possible. It is also why I will often approach you, depending on your style and training background, to explain why I will likely need to riff a deep psoas, ITB band, or shoulder stretch to feel complete in my practice.

However, as I suggested recently, I’ve also found great value in tempering my body’s impulses to respect and honor the context and teachings. The unfulfilled interoceptive impulses that arise provide me with a rich laboratory to sit in the presence of longing. I’ve engaged with this often, particularly in classes where the lineage is less receptive to modifications or deviations. This is an important inquiry.

In my Kripalu years, I was a fixture in the back corner of class, where the culture encouraged engagement with the teacher as inspiration rather than prototype. I loved this. Why, I wondered, don’t more studios offer open practice space or classes where students are encouraged to use the instructor’s teachings as a riff for their own flow? When appropriately contextualized by the instructor, this can be inspiring to other students who learn that this expression is not attention grabbing, but driven by prana, the divine life force energy that flows through us all.

I quickly learned, however, that this unique approach was not often appreciated. While there is great merit in allowing the body’s wisdom—prana—to guide the flow, as it did years ago for kundalini master Swami Kripalu, I ultimately learned much from sitting with, rather than acting out, my impulses towards and avoidance of certain asana or practices. I’ve thus grown to appreciate that while the body’s intelligence should be honored wherever possible, when attending a yoga class it is important to honor the context. These days, I view the koshas—body, breath, mind, emotions, spirit—as continuous with the environment, including those who surround me, and temper my pranic impulses with this in mind.

This occurs, however, with varying degrees of success. At a recent Pilates class, after 30 minutes of full-on abdominal/psoas contraction, as if my body had a will of its own, in defiance it lifted into a delicious wheel pose. Guilt arose, as I sensed the instructor’s irritation. “Show off,” I imagined her thinking, though this was the least of my motives.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? If so, which aspect(s)?


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