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There are a number of topics likely to divide opinion in the yoga world. Extreme Yoga is one that everyone has an opinion on. It was for this reason that I set up 'extreme yogis'; to elicit a response from people; to encourage some self-enquiry about what yoga really is...and indeed, to question if yoga is 'anything' at all.
In my more sprightly days (and still now, to a lesser extent with the advent of a family) I was attracted to pretty much any sort of activity that could result in serious injury or death: climbing high to the spindly branches of the tallest trees; 'bombing' the steepest hills and vertical ramps on my skateboard; competing in full contact martial arts; swimming underwater until my lungs felt ready to burst; and as I grew older, free-climbing and surfing winter waves in frigid Atlantic waters. Countless times I fell and cheated a broken back, broke another bone, or suffered more bloody injury; yet inexplicably I was never deterred.
I would fit well into what society calls an 'adrenalin junkie' except the truth was as far removed from this as could be; in fact it was during theses activities that I found the deepest sense of serenity; the single pointed concentration that meditation seeks to employ. A very absence of thought or 'self' at the very centre of chaos and a shift into pure consciousness.
No doubt, this state of awareness, that science calls the 'flow state' is the very reason so many 'extreme athletes' return over again to risk their physical bodies for seemingly no reward.
Of course it is an addiction and sooner or later your body, or your luck, give out.
In my case, as chance would have it, my body started to complain fairly early on. In my late-teens, crippling back pains and hyper-extended joints led me to a series of doctors, prescribing a medley of anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants until I happened to visit a locum one day at my local surgery, who happened to be Indian and would suggest nothing but yoga. In the UK at that time, over twenty years ago, yoga was something reserved for 'mature' ladies in church halls.
I completely ignored his advice and kept popping the pills, until a year later my girlfriend at the time (who is now my wife) decided to join a new yoga class with her friend and for some reason I agreed to tag along. Although a bit confused by the incense (that made my nose itch) and the chanting, I was inspired by the young, enthusiastic teacher. To cut a long story short, over twenty years later my wife has been teaching for fifteen of those and eventually, I conceded and started teaching as well.
My practise, like everyone, has changed from those first days. The concerns about what poses I could and couldn't do seem silly now, and physical asana has become secondary to the internal journey. What hasn't changed however is the need to push my limits to the very edge, whether I am meditating or practising my postures. And yes, sometimes that includes practising 'extreme yoga': handstands on the edge of a cliff, or natarajasana high up on a beam of wood; but don't be so hasty to label my practise as 'ego led' or as 'not in the true essence of yoga'. I am simply seeking to push past the mind-created barriers that are a creation of my real ego-centric self. That voice in your head that says 'you can't do this or that' - as soon as we accept that voice as 'real' we are stepping out of the moment and back into what the Buddhist tradition would call 'relative truth' which is to say, an incorrect perception of reality.
The version of extreme yoga that I need to practise is surely no different to the essence of aeons of saddhus, yogis and mystics; sitting in frozen Himalayan caves in an attempt to overcome the imagined boundaries of the mind and the physical body. As for those out there hasty to judge what is and isn't yoga, well maybe ask who set this imaginary benchmark of what yoga is. Could it be that you are subscribing to yet another manifestation of your own mind if you seem so certain of what something should and shouldn't 'be'?
Let me be clear. I am not advocating that anyone practise yoga in dangerous environments....unless it appeals to you of course; it sometimes suits me and I feel the internal benefit. I adore the internal quiet from practising hours of inversions and love, above anything, teaching arm balances to students that never believed they could even manage bakasana. Then later in the same day I will go and attempt to teach mindfulness to 15 year-old school pupils. Which one of these is the more extreme challenge?
I would never criticize a practise that should be very personal to each individual, and in all truth it doesn't matter whether someone judges 'extreme yoga' as valid or not. That is their issue to contemplate, not mine. What I hope it does though, is serve to provoke your own introspection, your own self-enquiry. Ask yourself why you hold such opinions. Are they real, why do you need to judge another person's style of yoga and is it conducive to the yogic lifestyle to do so?
At the same time ask yourself if you are pushing past your own mental boundaries? Are you an extreme yogi or are you going through the motions of practising yoga; staying within the limits of your mind; staying with what feels comfortable and safe? If we aren't moving forwards because of fear or apathy, then aren't we stagnating, undynamic and not evolving?
As I quote "You don't need to practise your balances at a great height or hold the most testing of poses. Everyone testing their limits is an extreme yogi, whether it is your first headstand or your first few seconds of internal quiet when meditating. As soon as we move past and beyond what we believe is possible we start to break down all sorts of boundaries in our lives."
Dan Peppiatt teaches a brand of extreme yoga, runs North Devon Yoga Centre and tours far and wide to any studio that will put up with his inversion and balance workshops hoping to create extreme yogis everywhere!