The yoga virtuosos
By Alice Riccardi
I sat down with my decaf over breakfast and the Sunday papers. As I was browsing the section called “Audience” — the part of the paper devoted to arts and leisure (my favorite and usually the easiest to read) — the title of an article caught my eye: “In the quest for virtuosity, is enjoyment being left behind?” by Christopher Hyde.
The article spoke about the world of classical music and its focus on the expertise of musicians therein. It discussed the ever-increasing trend toward a mechanistic approach to playing great compositions and the focus on the complicated as opposed to enjoying the simplicity of the music itself — as might be demonstrated in the playing, appreciation, and listening that might occur with a Bach suite.
As I read this article, it occurred to me that this current situation within the world of classical music is similar to what is happening within the yoga community.
Recently, I have been thinking about yoga: what it means to me and the current community at large. I wasn’t able to quite put my finger on it until reading this piece. In the article, Hyde states, “Today’s musicians do seem to be able to play difficult works at an earlier age. Except for those who are born full-fledged, such as Mozart or Mendelssohn, this is probably a result of vastly improved pedagogy based upon anatomical and psychological realities rather than myths, hero worship, and sadism, which was the norm until very recently.”
More and more yoga students are becoming proficient at asana at an earlier age (see the Yoga Journal feature article “21 under 40”), perhaps due to better teaching and alignment methodologies, along with the fact that human beings are now generally more interested in physical health than they were ten years ago. This current atmosphere is giving rise to the focus on asana as a virtuosic endeavor with a lessening interest in yoga as a practice.
Years ago, when I was a dancer, I remember having the epiphany that just because someone has good technique, does not make him or her a good dancer. It is the content they bring to their dancing — not just their ability to perfect the execution of the movement — that makes their dancing inspiring.
Similarly, in yoga, the continual focus on doing more and more difficult asana or becoming “good” at it has begun to take the pleasure out of doing yoga for the simple enjoyment of doing yoga and reaping the benefits that come from that approach. Instead, we have yet another endeavor at which we need to excel, and if we cannot, we might as well not do it. Or we instead exchange our enjoyment for workshops on how to get better at it and accumulate more knowledge about it.
Now that virtuosity in asana is the goal — and isn’t yoga supposed to not be end-gaining? — the dedication to one person or story, or allegiance to one methodology (for fear of being cast out from community), is slowly changing to embrace a league of super yogis who will lead us to salvation! Just like in the music world.
In the last ten to fifteen years, the commercialization of yoga has led to a larger pool of talent. With popularization, more people become interested in doing yoga, and from that comes more and more specialization and expertise based on technical ability. The current trend of being “in shape” comes from external pressure to keep up, and it is beginning to replace the practice of yoga as a discipline. A discipline that leads to better health and wellbeing. A discipline that dissolves tension standing in the way of personal growth. A discipline that helps us understand our own humanity and the humanity of those around us.
The author of the article writes, “Another thought that is more sobering – that human endeavors, from arts to empires, tend to reach their apogee just before decline or disappearance.” If we, as yogis, continue on this path of good > better > best, what will become of the simple practice of yoga as a life sustaining discipline? So many who once practiced yoga have become disillusioned and discouraged with the world of yoga, as well they should, because it led them away from the very thing that brought them to it in the first place: the desire to understand themselves as an individual and subsequently their place in the world!
“Virtuosity certainly has its place, in the ability to play great works well, leaving room for interpretation and innovation without worrying too much about clinkers.” Hyde goes on to say, “but all to often it becomes an end in itself, an attempt to impress the audience with circus tricks,” and I quote. He goes on to say that this drive can make the best compositions seem lifeless and mechanical, “like a piece of machinery-made jewelry compared to the work of human hands.”
“After all, you can’t have fire without clinkers.”
Isn’t this true of yoga as well?
It’s wonderful to see those who are able to execute physically difficult asana with ease and talent. Yet one can’t help but wonder what will happen to those who teach and do yoga as a life-sustaining practice when what is promoted is just the opposite: more and more challenging asana?
And what about the “clinkers”? If we are practicing daily and becoming more conscious of ourselves, not just trying to get better at yoga, might we begin to see our “clinkers” in life and make changes, rather than just being good at one specific thing, like Scorpion pose?
I know, I know! Those who have stood on their heads in Classical Headstand have experienced a gestalt in regard to their life, but that does not mean that in order for someone to have a major shift in personal growth they have to experience headstand. Instead, it might mean simply walking into a yoga studio for the first time and taking a class. Experience is experience, plain and simple, and comes from the place we are in: not virtuosity but reality.
In the end, Hyde states “that the device of virtuosity widens the gap between professional and amateur musicians.” No one would even consider playing a Salonen at home, although they might be working with pleasure on a Bach suite or Haydn sonata. Isn’t this also true of our yoga? Even the most disciplined yogis who can perform forearm balance and jump back into crow would not necessarily put those poses on the top of their daily practice list. My own daily practice is something that I do to keep me on track, out of spiritual trouble, and grounded in reality. What about those who might never reach physical heights in asana, yet get great pleasure out of feeling their bodies move and flow?
Currently, there is a video promotion online for the Yoga Journal conference that shows master teachers doing more difficult asanas that are not part of the sequences that constitute the daily disciplines of the lineages they represent. This begs the question: what has become of this simple discipline as it has been presented? Perhaps the teacher (guru) has now been set to the side in favor of the asana? And not just asana, but difficult asana that is less accessible to the everyday student.
After all his years of practicing yoga, Mr. Iyengar says that his favorite pose is still Tadasana: Mountain Pose. Sometimes, the simplest things have the most value.
If yoga is focusing more on the asana as opposed to the practice, are we all to become virtuosos? What about those who are amateurs? The origin of the word amateur comes from Latin, meaning “to love,” and the origin of virtuoso comes from the Italian, meaning “skilled.” Are we working toward becoming skilled in practice while leaving behind our amateur approach? Or what about loving something so much that being skilled is less important, because being in love and loving is the experience we really all want at the end of the day? What about the realization that, in essence, life is messy, not perfect, coming together and falling apart with the regularity of the sun rising and setting.
Virtuosos in the world of music and yoga will come and go. In the end, it’s the amateur practice of yoga that will sustain and help to create the change!
About Alice Riccardi
Alice Riccardi is a Certified Baptiste Power Flow teacher and co-owner (with her husband, Charles Terhune) of Portland Power Yoga in Portland, ME. She started practicing yoga at 13 after taking lessons at a hippie head shop in 1972. Her on and off yoga practice led her to a professional dancing career, where she performed in NYC, Boston, LA and at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts with the international Butoh dance company Sankai Juku. So far in her life, she has also worked as a certified beer judge and spearheaded the supplements department at Whole Foods. She trained at the Dimon School for the Alexander Technique in Cambridge, MA and became a certified Alexander teacher in 1998.
Alice’s daughter Sophia was born in 1999, so she took a hiatus from teaching for two years to hang out and be with her daughter (read: best two years of her life, no kidding folks). Having gained weight during pregnancy and not able to lose it and feeling crappy, she went on the well known hunt back to find herself, wherever and whoever that was… and that’s how she landed at the Baptiste studio in Cambridge, where she quickly became a studio assistant, traveling assistant, and teacher. Being naturally independent and not one to follow the rules, Alice left the nest before being pushed out. She landed on her feet in Portland Maine. And now, five years later, Alice is hell-bent on encouraging students to remember it’s the practice that’s important and that yoga can be an unconditional love affair with oneself — not the teacher!