Yoga is not the path of inaction, my friend and teacher recently reminded me. And it certainly is not. Owning a yoga studio sometimes feels like I’m trying to dance a waltz to Metallica. What we want and expect from the yoga world is something smooth and even and what we get is something that resembles the rest of life–often quite challenging or disappointing or sad even. Often when something goes differently than our expectations in class or in the yoga world, i.e. see-through Lululemon pants or scandalous relationships, I hear people exclaim that this is so not yoga. But like it or not, yoga doesn’t only describe a serene, perfectly clad person sitting in meditation. Yoga is the union of all; it is the yoking of the beautiful and the quite un-lovely in our world. And in our western world of consumerism and commerce, it is also these things. When we’re faced with the un-lovely many of us use the “this is so not yoga” sentiment as a reason for escaping or doing nothing within the face of change. When we respond to that which is challenging, imperfect, or even downright ugly as “not yoga” we create separation and suffering within the dualistic idea that we do not contain this “other” quality–that we are somehow separate from these things in the world. Yet, these are the times when we are most challenged to become aware of our reactions and grounded in our center so that we can elicit a yogic response.

I think this is part of the reason for strenuous and even non-strenuous asanas (poses). These poses help us to create a dialogue around our reactions and to note when we are too active, too hard, or conversely too passive, resisting dynamic action. Krishnamacharya, who was the father of most of the yoga poses we know in our modern practices, said that yoga is the practice of seeking out the obstacles to our freedom and working to dissolve them. A yogi, he said, is someone invested in knowing their self better, someone investigating their self. Certainly this does not describe a practice that is for the uncommitted or for those who want only to experience sugar and spice and everything nice. That is not what a yogi is made of. Being invested in dissolving the obstacles to our freedom, in knowing the self better, requires both action and strength, the kind of action and strength that emanates from the core. The poses that we catch ourselves suffering in, running away from, or struggling to beat, are the same kinds of “poses” that elicit the same response from us off the mat.

In bringing up the “core” I am not speaking of the “rock-hard abs” that our Western body obsessed culture longs to have. It is true that if the physical core of our body is weak or isn’t engaged, many of our poses will fall apart. More important is not how the center of our body looks to the naked eye or how much we try to corset ourselves in, but how we relate to this part of our body. What kind of story have we mentally written about our “core” and how can we begin to create and feel true strength in this area, rather than berate ourselves for some picture we don’t look like. Once we dissolve this obstacle to our freedom, we can get to know our core conceptually. Yoga teacher Coral Brown says to ask yourself, “What do you consider to be your core values, beliefs, and strengths? What truths do you subscribe to? Do your speech and intentions align with these truths? Recognizing your core values can help you create a personal mission statement.” This sort of work requires action and honest investigation and it produces a person who is able to align with both the beautiful and the ugly of the world.

I’ve caught myself as a mother doing something I’m sure most parents do–wishing that no one and nothing ever leave my children feeling empty and wounded. I know, also as all parents do, that this is an impossible dream and really, wouldn’t it leave them bereft of the kind of core strength one needs to become an interesting and compassionate being? We must remain centered in action, in the core of our beings, as our practices on and off the mat continue to please, disappoint, baffle and hurt us. This is the path of the yogi.