Often we assume that people begin to do yoga because they are stiff (steady) and want to become flexible (easy). In fact, there are many different body types. Flexibility and strength are to some extent determined by constitution. I, for one, am a loose-limbed person and always have been, no matter whether I am exercising or not. This is at least as much a liability as it is an asset; my joints and muscles are weak and vulnerable to injury. When I practice asana, many times I am striving more to find steadiness than maximum range of motion. Dramatic displays of stretching are enjoyable, but risky. What I need to do when I practice asana is spend more time on poses that demand strength and endurance (even though they are difficult and I sort of hate them), as these qualities are what I lack, and what will protect me from injury and ensure that my body continues to function well for the long haul.
I have a friend who is trained as an addiction recovery counselor, and she once told me something fascinating: evidently, people who become drug addicts gravitate toward the drugs that make them more of what they (constitutionally) are. That is to say, a naturally nervous, excitable person will become a speed freak. A couch potato type will become a heroin addict. Rather than seeking her opposite (seeking balance?) the drug addict seeks more of her extreme. Hm.
In herbal medicine, different plants are classified according to their medicinal effects. Obvious examples are stimulants and sedatives. There are also carminatives (relieve gas), expectorants (expel mucous), emmenagogues (increase menstrual flow), and many more. One special class of herbs is called adaptogens. These are pinch-hitters, stepping in to do whatever is needed in the moment. If the body is exhausted, they will revive; if over-excited, they will calm.
I don’t believe it is classified as an adaptogen, but this is what I always loved about nicotine– a drug I have indulged in more frequently and more recently than I would like to admit (not to worry, yoga purists: I am not currently a filthy smoker). It always seemed like a cigarette could magically provide whatever effect I might need–lifting me when I was tired or down, mellowing me when I was tense, or anything in between.
I think yoga acts as an adaptogen.
Where we are weak, it can make us strong. Where we are stiff, it will loosen us up. When we are stressed, it will calm us, and when we are tired, it will energize us. If it is to do this, however, we must take a different approach than the drug addict does. Instead of moving farther in the direction of our natural extreme tendencies, we must head in the opposite direction. This often means doing exactly that which isn’t easy, or what we don’t feel like doing.
And it is not a quick fix. Maintaining a yoga practice takes considerably more time and effort than, say, lighting a cigarette or popping open a bottle of wine. But, rather than leading us farther down the path of extremes, it can lead us away from our inherent imbalances and toward wholeness and true well-being.
To the question of how do we live in these human bodies, with their aches and pains, their desires and limitations, their frailties and also their unexplored capabilities, yoga practice offers an answer. Not the answer, perhaps. But an answer.