When I went to my first yoga class, I was instructed to put my body in positions that I'd never seen before. Obviously, there were many things I couldn't do, and my goal became to make those shapes with my body. I wanted to put my head on my knee, or straighten my legs, or touch my toes.
For several years, this is what yoga postures were to me: effort toward putting my body in the shape. My mental picture of the final posture is what motivated me.
Over time, I realized that the shape of a posture is not the goal at all. Each posture is the result of specific muscular engagements, relaxations and weight distribution. When we tighten the proper muscles, release others, and hold ourselves balanced, the body takes on the shape that we identify as the postures. The postures are the result of proper physical practice, not the goal.
This is why we sometimes say that you get the full benefit of a posture through proper effort. Because the "posture" is not the shape your body ends up making, rather the specific set of muscular engagements. In this way, a student with less physical prowess can get more benefit from a posture - indeed, even be considered to be doing the posture better - than a physically skilled student who can make the shape of a posture with little, no, or incorrect effort.
Next time you practice a posture, ask yourself: what should be engaging? What should be relaxing, and what benefit you hope to get? You might be surprised at the new insight you find.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are scholars as well as practitioners of yogic postures, breath control and meditation. They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga.
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