Saturday, September 18, 2010

Poise, Posturing, and Posture

Let me say upfront: I am NOT against postures. I am NOT against bodily exercises. I am NOT against bodily existence.

I am asking, however, whether poise is not more important than posture and whether all too often, yogic posture ends up as posturing. What do I mean by “poise”? According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (that`s a mouthful!), the word “poise” has several connotations, and one meaning conveys “elegant bodily carriage.” In the 16th century, the term was associated with “weight” and “weightiness” or “importance.” Another relevant connotation is “balance” or “steadiness.” For an object (i.e., the human body) moving through space, these are obviously desirable qualities. My own definition of “poise” would be something like: The physical disposition of the body sustained by an attitude of inner (i.e., mental) balance and mindfulness.

“Posturing” is first of all not mindful, not poised. It is a false stance springing from a false inner attitude. What is false about it is that it is shot through with egocentrism. By comparison, poise has a quality of self-transcendence to it.

The Yoga-SÅ«tra (2.46) defines posture as a meditation seat that is “easeful” and “stable.” It involves (2.47) a measure of relaxation and (2.48) of sensory inhibition.

A properly executed yogic posture thus includes mental poise, as understood above. Posture is poised and not postured. In other words, posture serves the ultimate purpose of Yoga, which is spiritual liberation.

In contemporary Yoga practice, posture is all too often pursued in a egocentric manner and without bearing its traditional objective in mind. It resembles more posturing than poise. While a postured Yoga posture can still benefit a practitioner in terms of health and fitness, its spiritual potential remains untapped. This, I think, is unfortunate. What is your opinion?

Georg Feuerstein


  1. Beautiful thoughts, Georg.

    Today I tried to apply these kinds of Yoga techniques to my weekly weight training routine, which is part of my tennis training. In the past this has been very much a "how can this help me win more tennis matches" kind of activity, and also kind of a chore.

    Today I spent the whole hour and a half focusing on the in and out of my breath, and nothing else. I tried to see if I could treat weight training exactly like it was a single-point-of-focus Yoga routine.

    At first it was difficult. But, as in meditation, whenever my mind wandered off to other matters, most of which had to do with how I was doing at this or that--as you say, more egocentric matters--I would gently bring my attention back to my breath, until, eventually, after about a half hour in, my ego seemed to sort of surrender, and there was only the movements and my breath, a small transcendence of sorts.

    Nothing major. Just another small step in understanding what you're saying in your blog.

    Bob W.

  2. Oh Georg, as far as I am concerned, you've nailed it! Just yesterday, I spoke about this distinction in my class. I gave as an example a nine-year old girl with Down's Syndrome that I worked with years ago. When she went into "Tree," she could barely bring her foot up for a micro-second without some tottering and lowering her foot to the floor. She would do this over and over, with a face reflecting an inner peace -- poise -- I've rarely seen in any hatha class.

    I used this as an example of 'stability and ease' of mind, even when the body is under stress, in a precarious new posture, or suffering from illness, injury etc. I said, "that girl was 'doing' yoga. If that kind of mental balance is missing, no matter how long you can hold the posture, you're just standing on one leg!"

    On a related note, and something I've written about on my blog, is this notion that as long as one is doing the postures, there is some inherent, inevitable movement to the deeper practices, so it doesn't matter what, why, or how the postures are practiced. My own perspective is that while I don't care what brings folk in the door, I don't think the postures themselves innately bring people into the deeper practices. I think it's the responsibility of a yoga teacher to at the very least offer the liberating aspects of mindfulness in their teaching. Again, I am also well aware that some (perhaps even quite a few) people who are drawn to practice for the physical benefits do go on to deeper practice through the transformation of their relationship to the body. I still think this has more to do with individual proclivities and character than anything necessarily innate in the postures themselves. I know too many folk who have stayed at the physical level to think otherwise. Do you have any ideas about this?

    And again, thanks for your writing!

  3. Thanks, Bob. I really have no idea what I’m talking about . . . but I’m glad it’s meaningful to some. :-)

    Thanks, Frank. What an inspiring story. As for your query, well, some move on; others don’t. All we can do is encourage. Does it really matter whether it’s the postures or character?

  4. Hi Georg,

    Thanks for your comment. I'd just like to clarify my point.
    I've heard many yoga teachers say that as long as people do the postures, posture practice will inherently bring them to the investigation of the deeper practices. Thus, these teachers often do not feel it their responsibility (some even see it as inappropriate) to introduce these other aspects of yoga. I think this is an abdication of responsibility and I seem to remember you once saying something along the lines that if someone is teaching merely from the physical perspective, it would be more appropriate to call what they were teaching "Asana Class" rather than "Yoga Class."

    I think at the very least the kind of mindfulness you speak about can be brought into any Yoga Class -- no matter how 'secular' the venue.

  5. Hi Georg,

    I had to laugh at your response to Bob because your message is extremely clear! Working with a group of people in asana practice I can usually (not always) tell who is 'in the moment' and who is 'look at me'. Not much to do about that except learn from it for myself. Change happens.

  6. I think that yoga asanas often ask us to move into unfamiliar positions where we feel less poised. With a good teacher we can learn to inhabit some form of the asana authentically without posturing, and thereby learn to embody the poise of spiritual mindedness while doing different things with the body. You're right that most asana-practitioners lose sight of this.
    Thank you Georg for your constancy in promoting the purpose of yoga. Thank you.

  7. Thank you Georg. Always insightful and to the point. I have been watching this process unfold for some time in the yoga community, reflected, if magnified, in the 2 major mainstream yoga publications. The recent discussions about advertising with a sexualized slant point to this odd schism and I have also witnessed it when attending conferences. On the one hand there is a lot of information: articles, books, conference programs, etc. that point us toward fountain of wisdom that yoga is, and on the other is the very obvious marketing of yoga and the rampant physical posturing of practitioners...and a lot of EGO. All too often, from my perspective, it's the instructors at conferences that embody this split! The upper tier of yoga instructors are role models for new and seasoned practitioners alike and they set the tone for everyone who take their classes or buys their DVDs and audio tapes.

    But rather than become frustrated by this, as it is very easy to do, we just keep doing our job of encouraging inner exploration and loosening the bonds of the ego, at least with the folks who attend classes at our yoga studio (and anyone else interested enough to listen).

    A few days ago the owner of another yoga studio came by to ask if we would help promote the Mid-Atlantis Asana Championship, which will be held locally in a few months. My wife was there to receive the request and politely declined. When she was asked why she would not support this event where other studio owners were quick to jump on board she went into an explanation of what yoga was about and how competition, no matter how one slanted it ("it's more like a show to inspire people") was diametrically opposed to the aims of yoga. So this is where we are. I think our role, however small and inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, is to continuously and insistently bring people back.

    I do think that anyone who comes into a yoga studio does so for a wide variety of reasons, most often for the physical benefits or to reduce stress. I find that, whether we espouse it or not, people begin to get glimpses of the inner life that yoga points us to. I see our role as facilitators: nudging, suggesting, having written material available, and insinuating the deeper aspects of yoga into class and conversation.

    Thanks for opening this line of discussion.

  8. celtickc. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this.

    Bob W.

  9. Frank - I did say that, and I meant it. In spiritual life, very few things happen of their own accord. There has to be a certain intention or readiness.

    Eleanor - Yeah, there are the “look at me” kind of folk and the “looking vacant” people. Very few are in the moment. :-)

    Cody - I keep trying…

    celtickc - Yes, nudging, suggesting, insinuating, and making relevant written materials available. Otherwise nothing may happen…