On Binding

Originally published on LiveJournal, 1.5.09

I’m at a state where I can bind in most poses. It’s an ego trip, because binding is supposedly the “advanced” version of the pose. But there a few poses which I can’t bind, or in which I’m sorta there. For example, there’s one-legged pigeon, a beautiful, elegant pose in the fully bound version. I can currently achieve my version of that beauty only on some days. My version includes a grimacing, jaw-clenched face. On those days in which I can’t quite get into the full bind, I feel frustrated.

I should know better. Not only are binds hardly a measure of being “advanced,” they are also one of the few techniques in yoga that can lead to injury. Forcing oneself into a bind is not advanced. It’s, in fact, stupid, and I find it troubling that many yoga teachers encourage binding more often than they discourage it.

Well, let’s start with this: Why bind?

I have yet to see a good definition of yogic binding. In many cases, it’s quite obviously based on grasping by the hands. Sometimes it’s one hand clasping another, sometimes it’s fingers grasping toes. But there are also more subtle binds, involving arms pressing against legs, torso, etc. In all cases binds serve two purposes:

1) They keep you from backing out of the pose.

2) They can help you deepen the pose.

It’s purpose #1 that people tend to forget on their rush to #2. And that’s where they get hurt. Being able to back out of a pose at any time is the foundation of a healthy yoga practice. In fact, it’s foundational to yoga: your breath is always your guide as to how deep you should go. Yoga is a slow and deliberate practice, demanding control and focus at every move into and out of a pose. Binding is thus almost anathema to what yoga is about.

Almost, I say, because it does have a very particular use. When one can very easily get into a pose, the bind can help deepen it. I emphasize “can” because there are often other, safer options to deepen the pose. And because binds are simply far too easy to misuse. A common misuse is to pull with the grasping hand. Pulling can be violent: it can move you beyond what you can comfortably get to on your own, and can also outsmart your ability to sense discomfort. By the time you feel the pain, it may be too late. In most cases you don’t want to pull at all, rather, you want to stretch yourself away from the clasp. The truly advanced version of the pose would be to get to where you can with the bind, and then to release the bind and stay in the same position. Or, perhaps just to hold the bind ever so lightly. It’s ideally hardly a grasp at all. Perhaps “touching” would be a better name for it than "binding."

To use a bicycling metaphor, the bind is absolutely not a training wheel for a beginner. Instead, it’s like a line drawn on the ground, which the advanced biker tries to follow in order to master control. Binding is a guideline. (To complete the metaphor, in yoga there are equivalents to training wheels: various props, such as blocks and belts and blankets can be used to help the beginner get into a pose safely.)

I should continue working on my one-legged pigeon. Right now, a one-handed “half” bind is easy for me, but the full bind is a difficult stretch. One day, it will be easy for me to reach back and touch my toes with both hands. And some time after that, to reach beyond the toes. Only then should I let myself attempt the full bind. My spine, and my health insurance company, will be grateful for my patience.