One of the most liberally quoted lines in yoga is from the late K. Pattabhi Jois – the south Indian Johnny Appleseed of vinyasa yoga. There is no greater influence in the world of vinyasa yoga than the man his students called ‘guru-ji.’ The line is short, sweet, and occupies a hefty share of internet real estate:
Practice yoga and all is coming
If I get an email informing me that Pattabhi Jois never actually said this, I wouldn’t be surprised. And it wouldn’t make me re-think this essay too much either. It is not the origin of the quote in which I am interested. That is in the past. It is the present popularity of the quote that has captured my imagination.
The quote is just so romantic and full of hope. It is such eminently meme-friendly material. The quote comes from a story by a long-time student of Jois, David Williams. Williams is one of the first non-Indians to learn from Pattabhi Jois and one of few to be certified to teach his system of vinyasa yoga. The story goes that Williams once asked his guru-ji, on the night before his departure for India after his first tour of the United States, for some advice. The advice was something that Jois repeated often for his students:
Practice yoga and all is coming
It is an inspiring notion. The most impressive and gravity defying postures, the peace of mind and steadfastness of renunciates, and the spiritual ecstasies of transcendent bliss… all of it is coming if only you practice.
There is no questioning the determination and persistence of people who religiously practice Jois’s ‘ashtanga vinyasa’ system of yoga. It is physically challenging and well known, as was Jois himself, for pushing the limits of what is conventionally considered a healthy range of motion. Committing oneself to a daily practice will cultivate persistence and strengthen your personal resolve. And that is not the only benefit.
Cultivating and expanding ones’ range of motion seems like a healthy approach to living in one of these human bodies. Everybody knows your body starts to shrink and shrivel up in old age, so why not push out into the reaches of your range of motion if only that so you have a long way to fall as the body begins its final descent back to the earth.
However this embodied expansion project involves far more factors than just hard work and dedication. There are a number of genetic and cultural influences that shape and guide our path of development. Sadly, Jois was either wrong or overly optimistic.
Practice yoga, but all is not coming
Most of us will never do the splits. Most of us will never touch our foot to the back of our head in a jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring backbend. Most of us will never “float” from a seated position up to a handstand. If you can do one or all of these things, well…congratulations. That is very cool. But most likely it came with equal parts natural ability and practice.
A posture like lolasana (pendant pose) for example requiresthe right proportion of torso length to arm length in order to get your legs to lift up off the ground. It is true that with practice even people with little t-rex arms can get a some lift, but not nearly to the extent that somebody with the right proportions can get. Practice will not lengthen the bones of your arms.
Practice will not make a very broad rib cage into a narrow one. It will not make soft, gooey hamstrings out of scarred and rigid ones. Practice will not alter the shape of your pelvis, and there is a good chance the bones of your pelvis are preventing you from draping your torso over your legs in luxurious seated forward bends.
Practice is not magic. It cannot re-shape bones after 20 years of sitting in a desk. Practicing yoga postures can expand your range of motion and bring so many improvements in terms of how we move and feel on a daily basis. But there are limits.
‘Practice and all is coming’ is a mantra of sacrifice and reward. We are practicing not for what is happening now, but for what will come. Our practice is the sacrificial offering, placed upon the altar of our yoga mats, in the faith that we will be rewarded. It is an example of what Joe Hill called ‘pie in the sky’ in his 1911 song “The Preacher and the Slave.”
I will not practice for a promised a tomorrow that may or may not come. I practice yoga for presence…for being present and not for the future. Chasing after yogic accomplishments is a dead end. It is the American Dream version of yoga. At the end of your life, you will not care about what postures you managed to squeeze out of your embodied experience.
So let it all come. Or not come. Let some of it come. Whatever it is. That is not why we are here. This is our dance. We are writing poetry with our bodies. The song of our breath expands and contracts with our lungs. It is not an offering to the gods of progress and accomplishment, it is the hymn of the here and now.