Yesterday my kind and understanding boss let me leave the office a little early to get down to London to SOAS (the School of African and Oriental Studies) for the launch of their Yoga Studies Centre and their new online journal. I went mainly because there were talks being given by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton who are always so fascinating to hear speaking about the history and politics of yoga. They wear their scholarship so lightly, but the depth of their knowledge is apparent. I could listen to them talk all night. Seriously.
The theme of the talks for the evening was a consideration of the practice of inversions, charting the various benefits of or reasons for this practice and how the emphasis has changed through time, from medieval to the modern day — varying from a practice of tapas and thereby acquiring some sort of mystic powers, through physiological and scientific reasons (blood pressures and oxygen replenishment), or energetic subtle body stuff (retention of nectar, amrta, in the body), to spiritual awakenings or even ‘moral improvement’.
Some of the ideas presented seemed quite funny — but many are persistent in the yoga world. Whilst the audience giggled at the idea of headstand making one a better person and improving one’s moral outlook (sometimes linked explicitly to facilitating the practice of Brahmacarya, something about retention of semen, like the retention of amrta) I’ve been to a fair few classes where inversions, and the idea of turning one’s perspective upside-down, have been explicitly promoted as having a beneficial effect on one’s outlook, promoting flexibility of attitude much more than any explicit physical benefit. Not that the physical benefits aren’t also commonly touted in yoga classes also, and unquestioned by the majority of students, I think. But really I don’t know if standing on one’s head is always such a good idea, even though these are the postures many students crave.
I have a fledgling inversions practice at home behind closed doors. I’m not sure I’m really ready for these postures, but they call to me anyway. I don’t think it’s an ego thing — I’m not handstanding all over instagram in photogenic places, I’m just figuring out how to go upside-down, what it takes in my body and my mind. It used to feel like a big deal to be able to invert at all, but now that I can kick up a wall OK without freaking out from fear or worrying about knocking the wall down through lack of control, I find the interest shifts to notions of lightness, balance and grace, as well as wondering about the anatomical details of what’s needed and how to develop the proprioception in this plane. In that sense they’re just postures like any others in my practice, a place for exploration and observation.
If asana practice is a place for self-observation, so too are train rides with the space they afford for reflection and thinking. As I ate my dinner on the train quite desperate for some food, I could feel how very tired I was after an evening in London on top of a busy day at work and an hour of teaching yoga. But this level of activity wouldn’t have been at all possible even a short time ago. To feel this well and energetic feels miraculous to me. To want to balance upside down on my head or my hands too can just seem like asking for too much!