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More on whether or not it is “better” to practice only one type of yoga

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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Last week I wrote a post asking “Is it better to do only one kind of yoga?. The comments on this post were so insightful and interesting that I decided to write a follow-up post looking at some of the responses and saying a little bit more about my experiences.

Two of the responses came from women with whom I have travelled closely along the yoga path. They are kindred spirits so it didn’t surprise me at all that they, like me, described themselves as ‘straw-suckers’.

KL said “I’ve been a straw sucker myself mainly, and sometimes feel "less than" because I've been unable to dig deep in the desert. Is that just how circumstances have manifested around me or is it because I’m lacking in commitment and focus?

Laura F described similar feelings in her comment: “I think I may have been a bit hard on myself when, once in while, I feel like doing something aside from Kundalini.

I think these feelings of “less than” are very common and therefore important to acknowledge. So I love, admire and thank KL and Laura for their honesty.

Life is full of opportunities for us to feel shame about who we think we should be and are not. It saddens me that yoga and our yoga practice often becomes yet another one of these opportunities.

I know KL well enough to know that she has developed a high degree of shame resilience (to borrow a term from one of the best books I’ve ever read about social expectations, perfectionism, women and shame, by Dr Brene Brown), but not all women have this resilience and as a yoga teacher and compassionate human I am mindful of not providing new shame triggers for the women (and men) who come to me for yoga teaching.

Another close companion of mine on the yoga path, Kelly, had a much more positive take on her ‘straw-sucker’ approach.

“I am a serious straw sucker. Committed even. I think there is so much to be learned and there are so many wise teachings available to us on this planet that I want to stay as open as possible to it all. What I've found is that gradually, a certain pattern emerges from the nuggets of wisdom I've collected and forms a cohesive picture. Where there is convergence of information from many different sources, there tends to be a strong resonance for me. When the good people of the world, the serious seekers and the wise leaders have independently come to the same conclusion I know there must be a universal value or truth to their words. Where there is disagreement, there is still a wealth of value to be gained. The more information I have in my toolkit, the more people I can attempt to understand or to connect with. As a teacher, I find that immensely valuable. As a human being, I find that absolutely necessary.”

I personally share many aspects of Kelly’s experience. I’ve learned from many great teachers; some have been yoga teachers, some have been Buddhist teachers, two of them are my mother and father – born-again Christians who live with true service and compassion.

I also find it useful to be able to draw on different approaches when I work with students. Different styles, different language, different practices will work for different people.

On the other hand, I have total respect for the teacher who has found an approach, a language and a set of practices that works for her and who teaches this approach exclusively. She knows that she will attract to her the people for whom this approach resonates and works. That also makes great sense to me.

Evolution towards diving deeper?

Radha suggested that the difference between drawing from different traditions and immersing oneself in just one tradition was a matter of progression or evolution. She explained that in her experience:

“When you're ready, you'll find the one practice and stick with it, but until then will keep searching and trying different things, which will be useful, informative and help you grow and you'll convince yourself it's the right way because we all want to feel what we do is right!! When your consciousness evolves to the next level, you probably won't even talk about the one practice and one practice alone that you do. And you'll understand why, but there aren't words to emphasise the importance of one practice, just an individual souls own experience.”

I have to confess that this was the comment that gave me the most pause. Unlike all the other commenters, Radha seemed to be suggesting that one approach was better than the other. That one is an evolution on from the other, a progression, a deepening, an improvement. Perhaps she is right. Perhaps I’m just convincing myself that my approach is ‘right’ for me because my consciousness hasn’t evolved to the point that I can understand the importance of one practice. I happily concede this is quite possible.

In all fairness, my description of my approach to yoga and the spiritual path may not have been very clear. Radha seemed to have been left with the impression that I was “dipping my toes” into the water. In response to this she expressed a beautiful wish:

“I hope everyone finds their one practice soon, it will be nothing like the gentle toe dipping of different practices. It's like diving into water, however far under the ground it may be, and stopping breathing, and fighting and struggling for your survival, and then magically realising that it's ok, you can surrender because you have actually always been able to breathe in that very water, you just weren't aware of it. It's the hardest thing in life to do, but whilst dipping in different waters, you'll be safe from this experience.”

Deep water and thin ice

When I read this I knew that I recognised Radha’s description of the deep water. Although I am interested in learning about and from different traditions, I have certainly found the practices that throw me into my own deep water. I’ve felt the ground fall away from under my feet. I’ve been left floating in the waters of not-knowing and I’ve learned that – despite my powerful desire to hang on to something solid – it is possible to surrender to that not-knowing and let everything be exactly as it is. So perhaps the straw-sucking metaphor was misleading. Perhaps a better image is that I was always standing on such thin ice that it only took 21 days of a zen-style meditation practice to throw me in over my head in my own deep water.

Different appetites and a varied diet

On the other hand, my friend T-bone (yes, he was the person who I was eavesdropping on in the first place) proposed an analogy of our practices being like our food:

“I think of spiritual path like the food I eat. What works for me may not provide you with what you need and vice versa. Over time, my appetite changes and we all know variety is the garam masala. Personally, I like my diet varied with high concentrations of my favorites while having the odd import is good too. Samskara, Karma and Dharma is so intensely individual. What Marianne overheard was actually part of a very personal narrative. Rather than 'better' (after all upon comparison one always loses through dividing, separating) perhaps more union-fostering would be 'relevant' its more kind, non-violent even.”

Thanks T-Bone! You rock figuratively as well as literally. Yes, it is possible to be a sensitive and committed yoga teacher and a rock star. T-Bone is living proof of that.

Better vs. More Usef
ul – choosing union over separation

I was so glad that T-Bone took issue with the word “better” in the title of this post. It’s not a union-fostering word at all, and since union is at the heart of all yoga it seems a poor choice of word for this question.

I much prefer to ask what is most useful for each person. Which practices add most to your well-being and to your deepening awareness of the union of all beings? If the practice of yoga (and most Buddhist practices) is intended to help dissolve the illusion that we are separate, then it seems unhelpful to ask a comparative question that emphasises that very illusion.

Dhyan made a similar point, albeit more beautifully, when he pointed out that:

“There has never been any real reason to worry since all small individual rivers are already on their way to the ocean, to the Whole. It is not about swimming, it is about relaxing and to float with the river in a basic trust that life already leads towards the sea of consciousness, towards the Whole.”

Word, bro!

BZ also suggested that “once you've climbed the yoga tree, you can sit on any of its branches and get the same view.  … I've found that good teachers and different types of yoga help me to connect to the same source.”

This has also been my experience. The source remains the same. The practices and paths that help us connect to that source may vary, but we’ll recognise it when we get there.

We are all one, but we are not all the same

Many of the comments reinforced T-Bone’s point that “what works for me may not provide you with what you need and vice versa.” Jim pointed out that:

“Everyone is different. It is so great that many people can try different things in which to improve themselves, hopefully finding one or a few that really 'hit pay dirt' so easily. But like some of your readers pointed out, sometimes there are few choices. All things change. Maybe someone's practice is 'perfect' for them, but there is no guarantee that it will be that way for their whole life. Our 'outer' practice is just that. It helps with our 'inner' practice so one shouldn't get too attached to it, no matter how good it is.”

Kelly said:

“I think it comes down to knowing your own nature. Some of us are straw suckers and would never be satisfied only drinking from one well. Some have to go deep and stay in one pool. And I think it depends on who you are which path you take. I too, love and respect that deep-digger friend of yours immensely. It is my opinion that he is on the right path for him. And I think I'm on the right path for me. And we've got a lot to learn from each other. Beware judging yourself harshly. When you follow the path that feels authentic to you, whether it's a path strewn with holes poked by your straw or one deep channel downward, you can't go wrong.”

True dat, sister!

The final word on all of this goes to Laura F, who made a very good – and very practical point.

“Perhaps as a beginner, like me, it would help to dig deep – to learn how to stay focused, work on your commitment, intention etc, just to strengthen your yoga base.”

Laura, I think you are probably right. That’s certainly been my experience and the advice of my teachers and at the end of the day that's all I've got to go on.

Thanks to all the people who commented including the awesome comments that I haven’t quoted here because this post was becoming very, very long. I’d love to keep this conversation going so let me know what you think!

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3 Responses to "More on whether or not it is “better” to practice only one type of yoga"

  1. Emily Perry says:

    ah, this post is so full of goodies! i think the main thing i have noticed is that as we change (being the vibrant, dynamic beings that we are) our needs change, and so does our practice. this is true for both meditation and yoga. different practices and styles can support us at different phases. that being said, i think even being a straw sucker we can get to the point where we’re standing in deep water with nothing to hold on to. thanks for the lovely words!

  2. Potts says:

    More beautiful words and insights! Thanks Marianne. Based on the number of detailed comments on the previous post, you obviously tapped some raw energy here. Maybe this shows your effective use of the straw ;).
    2 more reflections from me (purely metaphorical)…
    – Water that is tapped from a deep source tends to be clearer and more full of goodness than water that flows close to the surface – unless the landscape that it runs through is high in ecological integrity. We’re often practicing in different landscapes.
    – When we plant a seed and nourish the tree, the roots do the ‘digging’ for us.

  3. Thank you for this. I thought I was being a ‘fly by nighter’ trying out different forms of yoga. I worried that I was not being true to yoga. But I like the diversity of how different styles move my body and stretch my mind in different ways. And I feel freer in my soul knowing I can try and explore different aspects.

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