Coffee or Beer

Yoga practice only became really meaningful for me when I began to gain awareness of its larger potential as a teacher and guide for the life I live outside of the yoga studio. I see my daily practice as a little “scale model” of the rest of my life: the changing conditions of my body and my mind as they encounter the problems of different postures and practices are metaphors for (and often preludes to) larger situations within the context of my work and my relationships with family and friends. The only difference between having a meaningful practice and having a mechanical one, I think, is a shift in perspective. To have your practice become your teacher, all you really have to do is really pay attention to it. Perhaps you have to reach the realization that asana practice is basically a hamster wheel, and you have to get bored with the superficial struggle to gain ever more difficult postures (while realizing that, as you continue practicing, they’re undoubtedly coming your way). You have to be open enough to soften the focus of your gaze, to blur your vision and see these relationships across different contexts of your life. You have make room mentally, to clear some space amidst all the neurotic logistics for a little bit of expansiveness.

In a couple weeks I’ll be heading to Boulder, Colorado for a month-long intensive with Richard Freeman, a teacher I not only admire but appear to have some kind of magnetic pull toward. The first time I experienced Richard’s teaching in person was at a workshop in Chicago a couple years ago. One of the things that stuck with me was something he said in passing while discussing the physical practice. He was talking about how people arrive at yoga in very different physical and psychological states, and the need to acknowledge this. “Some people, you want to give them a cup of coffee,” he said, “while other people could really use a beer.”

He was joking, of course, but there’s truth in the humor. The coffee camp is more obvious: those of us who want to practice but have difficulty summoning the discipline, or are content to just go through the motions, always staying within our comfort zones. We need a little fire, a little kick in the pants, if the practice is going to ignite anything interesting or worthwhile in us.

But for those of us that are usually wound-up, that like to work hard and see the fruits of our relentless efforts, we have a tendency to overdo it. We caricature the physical practice, doing our best to turn it into a torture chamber, grimacing our way into our deepest binds and backbends. We could use the softening, the chilling out, the stop-trying-so-damn-hard. We have to find the delicate underside of the practice, become more receptive, and feel our way through instead of always pushing forward.

As for me, I’ve got a cup o’ joe in one hand and whatever’s on tap in the other. I need a little bit of both during my practice, sometimes a little bit of both within the same posture. My lower back needs the beer but my upper back needs the coffee. And so it goes off the mat: a little more of a kick here, a little more of a pat on the back there. I really credit the yoga practice with teaching me that there’s an art to how one applies oneself in any given situation, that not all goals or desires benefit from the same approach. Perhaps that’s an obvious lesson, but to a pitta-predominant type-A’er like me, it was something of a revelation.