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Where is Your Peak Yoga Experience?

in YogOpinions

by J. Brown

Triumphant as it may seem, the vast internet array of photos depicting every budding yogi’s best arm balance is misleading. Assigning these images to the epitome of yoga detracts from the real draw and glory of yoga, which actually takes place outside the practice ritual.

In the 1960′s, an American psychologist named Abraham Maslow put forth the theory that people enjoy “peak experiences,” heightened moments in life where we feel in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings. He maintained two key findings: First, that these experiences happen in the seemingly most commonplace events and surroundings. And second, that the healthier we are, the more frequent such episodes occur in the course of daily living.

Last month, I had the pleasure of teaching a workshop on the “Fundamentals of Therapeutic Yoga” at a renowned holistic retreat center. The format requires an unusually accelerated process. Participants drop some considerable cash and suspend their lives for five days of renewal and transformation. The itinerary entails both a morning and afternoon session, totaling five hours of scheduled time per day. And then there are many more hours of elective options to choose from.

What proved to be the most challenging aspect was addressing the expectation that our time together was going to provide them a “peak experience,” that something would happen to forever alter the situation they had temporarily left behind. This is often the same in standard yoga classes as well but the sentiment is greatly amplified in the “intensive” setting. Notions of a gradual progression, small changes having the biggest impact, and simply being deeper, easily seem unsatisfying when we are faced with immediate difficulties, and don’t readily compete with the prospect of a magical answer or the allure of a black light and some pumped Radiohead.

Given my viewpoint in yoga (see When Yoga Empowers), I am expressly not interested in providing anyone a peak experience. I want people to have some information and learn techniques that they can utilize. I am hoping to facilitate practice that illuminates our interconnectedness and inherent beauty. But the fruition of that effort, the “peak” if you will, wants to happen not in my class or even in practice but rather in the natural context of our relationships. And when the time came for me to part ways with my new friends from the workshop, there was a clear split between those who were looking forward to returning home and those who seemed to dread it.

I was profoundly encouraged to receive an email from one participant who was of the former category. He described the first day following the workshop, starting with a new fuller experience of breath and pleasure in his simple morning practice. Then he wrote about spending time with his wife and daughter:

“We were happy just being all together. It was family day like we have not yet had. It poured rain all day but we didn’t even notice. This went on from about 11am-6pm, and then my daughter fell asleep in the 10 minute drive home. Now, her worst moods tend to happen when she is woken prematurely from slumber. This, combined with the tiredness and some hunger….well, she went off. For over an hour. Screaming. Very very loudly. For over an hour.

I hung in, I hung in. I retreated to the basement and my wife took over. I breathed. I felt my anger rise. I ran up the stairs, and stopped myself. No, you’re angry. Don’t go up if you’re angry. I allowed my anger, and the anger passed. Then I felt a pang of despair. I thought: ‘Today, I was literally the best me I could possibly ever be and my daughter is, at this moment, screaming as if being burned in hell.’

And then I took a breath, and I knew exactly what to do. I grabbed a candle and a stick of incense. I lit the candle and entered her room where she was screaming on the floor with my wife at her side. She saw the candle and immediately went silent. I sat next to her and asked her to hold it, and keep the flame steady. She did. And how still she was.

But none of us knew what to say. I certainly didn’t. So I breathed. Deep and long breaths. With some sadness cracking the breaths at times. My wife breathed to. After a few minutes, my daughter joined in. Our eyes met and she smiled at me. Thankful for the relief. The simple power of it.”

The appreciation he felt during his “family day they had not yet had,” and the inner space to overcome the torrent of his daughter’s night terrors in the way he did, are examples of peak yoga experience, in both celebratory and trying circumstances. If only there were a way to post on our Facebook timelines an image that might capture the sentiment of my friend with his family, with his daughter, and the candle, and the knowing look she gave him.

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com



9 comments… add one
  • Enjoyed this, J.

    Just posted to “Best of Yoga Philosophy” ​ http://bit.ly/13WYsIM, as well as facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin.

    Bob W.

  • Ron

    This is a common belief in the pantheon of yoga teacher beliefs and it’s one I do my best to dispel in each of the classes that I teach.

    The peak experiences of yoga, or meditation, or Scientology, or Buddhism, or Christianity, are life changing events much sought after and well worth the effort. Often, in a life full of grinding dullness, it is only upon the removal of oneself from the daily habitual patterns of behavior that we think of as “truth” and as “the way the world is” is a different view possible. Denigrating that historically important method for generating self change is counterproductive and wrong in my view.

    Can we go to a workshop, or into a meditation sit, and be disappointed because we didn’t get what we want? Sure! So what. Do it again. Success will arrive eventually.

    Can we go home from our workshop after a peak experience and still act like a jerk – continuing the patterns of behavior that happened before the transformative event took place? Sure. Happens all of the time.

    That is the task of the teacher. Create the environment for peak experiences. Cherish them when they occur. Then gift your students with eyes to see how to integrate them into their daily lives.

    Don’t live and lead the life of bland, unenthusastic dullness that has become so common in our world of equanimity seeking zeros. It’s not human, that. Be alive.

  • Yup. The best part of yoga isn’t what you can do on the mat, it’s how to take it off the mat and share it with the world in completely different contexts. It’s absolutely changed the way I interact with people in stressful situations.

  • Great story. Thanks. I once heard Sylvia Boorstein say, “In this culture we are all sensation junkies.” We all want the peak experience and we want it now. Every Eastern philosophical text I’ve read has been insistent about how peak experiences are not the path. Again and again I’ve read that these experiences, while pleasant and enjoyable, are diversions and can reinforce ego. In my experience of three decades of practice, I’ve found this to be absolutely true. The most skillful way of dealing with peak experiences is to be present for them and let them go—like everything else.

  • Go Yoga Girl!!

    JAI MA!!!
    and carry on!

  • Sherry

    Your writing is always a source of pleasure for me to read! This recent posting moved me to tears. Thank you so much for sharing such wisdom and such a beautiful story. Namaste

  • A really beautiful article and in way a source of reassurance for people like me who are new to Yoga.

    As Kelly has said “The best part of yoga isn’t what you can do on the mat, it’s how to take it off the mat” This I totally agree for in the 3 months that I have been doing Yoga I feel less stressful which transcends for a better family and healthy lifestyle


  • Great post! And I totally agree with Kelly’s statement -“The best part of yoga isn’t what you can do on the mat, it’s how to take it off the mat” Yoga has helped me to focus in my daily life.

  • Kelly is right. I look at Yoga as a way to focus on my internal world after dealing with the external world. Yes! I was elated when I mastered crow to handstand. That took me a year to figure out. But I was more focused on my chakras after while in the corpse pose. We are all human want a little attention but Yoga teaches us to get that approval from yourself not others.

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