Yoga and Chocolate Cake

Often, the way we think about something makes it unnecessarily complicated. Yoga is no exception.

I realized this one day a few years ago during an online class, when I was practicing and moving through asana (poses) differently from the “usual” way due to a recent shoulder injury. My instructor called it a “modified” asana.

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I heard the word “modified” differently that day. The instructor was making a general statement to anyone who wanted or needed to explore that pose in a way that was right for them. But I suddenly realized how it might sound to someone who has to do it for a reason they aren’t able to choose, as in my situation[MHG1].

This terminology is common in the practice of every yoga tradition. Many think that if you have any limit to the “full pose,” then you are taking a “modified pose.” But what does that really mean? Frankly, it always struck me as odd, but I had never really thought about why.

Maybe I heard it differently that day because I had no choice about doing the pose differently due to my injury. I don’t know. But it seemed as if it was a “limitation,” as if it’s not as good somehow as the “right” pose.

Then, a sudden vision of a chocolate cake flashed into my mind. It wasn’t because I was hungry or having a sudden craving. Having had a chocolate business, I have a deep affinity for all things chocolate. This cake gave me the insight into my question about why “modified” seemed such a strange term to use about an asana.

It was a realization: There is no such thing as a modified chocolate cake.

Think about it. There are many recipes for chocolate cake. They’re all just called “chocolate cake.” Whatever you put in there — dark chocolate, milk chocolate, sugar, butter, flour, eggs — and how much and when you put them in there — whether you fold them in or whip them in or use a spoon or a mixer, or whatever — doesn’t matter. You’re gonna end up with something at the end that is called a “chocolate cake.” It’s not going to be called a “modified chocolate cake” because you used more or less butter than the other person.

You can enjoy a cake that is made with milk and/or dark chocolate, one that’s vegan, one that’s dairy- or gluten-free, even one made with white chocolate! We don’t use ‘modified.’ Some days I want one kind, while other days, I want a different kind… I have freedom in my being to choose and feel what I want. None is “more ideal” than the other. They are all just different explorations of chocolate cake.

Even when you have “vegan chocolate cake” or “gluten-free” chocolate cake, it’s still not “modified.” You’re just calling out the fact that this particular chocolate cake is made so specific people with certain considerations can eat it. But if it’s delicious, do the rest of us care if it’s vegan or not? No. We care that it’s a delicious chocolate cake, and we’re too busy looking for a fork and a plate to worry about anything else.
You may like a particular recipe more or less than another… but they’re all just different varieties of chocolate cake. And others may like certain ones more than you do, too.

So why do we get into all this complexity about “modified” asanas?

I refrain from using this terminology in my teaching. The main reason is because “modified” has the shadow side of “less than.” So, if someone approaches an asana that does not conform to the “by the book” standard, they are doing a “modified” one. If the standard asana is ideal, isn’t the modified one less than ideal?
As I did my “modified” asanas to accommodate my injury, did it mean I could not still receive all the wonderful benefits of the pose? If I do a “modified” asana because I have not yet attained the flexibility to do the asana the “standard” way, does it mean I don’t correctly understand the pose or I’m not getting the most from it?

No.

I will say it again: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A MODIFIED CHOCOLATE CAKE.

Yoga is the same way. The physical pose is a detail of what one receives from experiencing the pose. There is breath, intention, focus, feeling, the body-mind experience.

In my teaching, I allow everyone to explore on their terms, doing what is right for them. In practicing and teaching, we often use props to access a pose in different ways to experience and or prepare the body to move deeper or discover something new. If someone has a disability or missing a limb, should we think of what they are doing as “modified” and therefore lesser? Or do they just have a different set of ingredients they’re using to explore their version of the asana? After all, it’s yoga. Where is the peace, love, and inclusion? What does it say in the philosophical teaching of the sutras?

When I am teaching, women come together in a safe environment to reveal themselves. I enhance the opportunity for them to be confident, feel unlimited, feel that they are not bound by norms. Women come to open up here they let it all down, and maybe for the first time be who they are — their true selves. I enjoy seeing a group come together all experiencing the same pose in a variety of ways. That is the best photo opportunity, in my opinion. We are not all exactly the same. As long as we are operating in a way that avoids injury, why should we all be bound to the exact same expression of a particular asana? There is no room in my teaching for that mentality. It is just too limiting.

Instead, think about this: What feels good? What is possible for you, as you are at this moment? There is such richness, such unlimited potential in the exploration of experiencing.

This is freedom.

So: What flavor of pose do you want to explore today? What flavor of life do you want to experience?

Let’s find out.

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