There’s a lot of coverage of Covid-19 variants these days and we’re all a bit terrified at the prospect of a vaccine-resistant strain developing that could plunge us all back into global lockdown.
This idea of the evolutionary journey of a virus (or, indeed over a longer time scale, any living thing) started me thinking about our own way of evolving our understanding of yoga practice.
My rudimentary understanding of evolutionary mutations is as follows: A living organism (in this case the Covid-19 virus) creates copies of itself (think of them as children if you like; or offspring at least). The genetic code that is handed down to that next generation is identical to that of its parent (or half of each parent if the organism is not a self-replicating one like a virus).
In some cases though, mother nature makes a mistake in the copying process and one or more letters of the billions of letters that make up the virus’s DNA are changed by mistake. This is called a mutation. Usually, this mistake in the DNA results in the offspring being defective in some way, and it doesn’t survive. Sometimes, however, the change in DNA causes the virus to be more effective at surviving.
Imagine, for a moment, that a genetic mutation in a baby giraffe causes it to grow up and have a longer neck than all of its siblings and any other giraffes around (the chances of this actually happening are so remote that it might only happen once every few thousand years). That giraffe will have a more abundant amount of tall trees available to eat from because the others can’t reach that high.
The long-necked giraffe is likely to survive in the wild for longer than its peers because it will be less likely to go hungry. If it survives for longer it is also likely to produce more offspring and therefore the genetic mutation that gave it a longer neck will be passed down to its own babies. Those babies, when they grow up, will have the potential to produce more offspring than the other shorter-necked giraffes for the same reason of more food being available to them than the others, and therefore the mutation becomes more prevalent in the population of giraffes. The giraffes with the longer necks produce more offspring than the shorter-necked giraffes for hundreds of generations until, eventually, there are more long-necked than short-necked giraffes and that’s when we say that the giraffe’s neck ‘evolved’ to become longer.
Of course, it’s more nuanced than that but you get the idea. For the sake of giving an understandable explanation, I’ve over-simplified the process.
With viruses and bacteria the evolutionary process happens at a much quicker rate because they produce copies of themselves – and therefore genetic mutations (mistakes on the DNA) – at such a faster rate than a mammal, for example. So a virus can evolve in a matter of days rather than over thousands of years.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. What the hell does this have to do with yoga practice?
Let’s take one simple asana that we all do every time we practice, just to use as an example. Downward-dog.
Ashtanga yoga students do downward-dog on the very first day they ever step on a yoga mat. And they also do it in every practice session for the rest of their lives.
There are around 60 downward dogs in the primary series. That’s around 17,000 per year if you practice six days a week and take moon-days off. Of those 17,000 repetitions, there is no possible way that we’ll do them all exactly the same way. So, in other words, downward-dog is a great candidate for evolutionary mutations. At least one of those 17,000 variations is going to be a better way of doing the posture than you were previously doing.
If you’re paying attention at just the right moment you will realise the discovery your body just accidentally made, and you’ll adopt the new, better way to do that pose from then on. 17,000 more attempts and you might find an even better way the next year.
So, over time, and without you having to do any huge amount of study of anatomy or physiology, you’ll find the best ways to do all of the yoga asanas through sheer repetition of the same asanas over and over again.
That’s the beauty of daily practice; you just need to show up every day and pay attention. If you do that, your practice will evolve to be something that will nurture and nourish you for the rest of your life. But you have to do those thousands of repetitions or the ‘mutations’ will take much longer to occur.