Practice and all is coming
– Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga
I’ve come to love yoga for so many reasons. I wish more people would give it a try because it has helped me with some of the anxiety and focus issues I’ve grappled with for much of my life; that many Type-As like me suffer from in our busy-obsessed culture. On any given day, there are countless unseemly interactions I have with strangers that suggest a lot of people are in need of something – anything – to calm them down; to give perspective to the insularity and self-importance that seem to drive a lot of ignorant behaviour. Most days, I’m pretty forgiving of it; it’s how I used to be, after all, and I’m not such a bad person, even if sometimes I do crappy things.
Yoga saved my skin when it felt like my life was falling apart and scattering in many directions. But it also helped soften my attitude toward things; things about myself and of others. It’s helped keep me solid and whole through some discombobulating upheavals in recent years. It’s given me the tools to mine the brightness amidst the reactivity that was my default; that in the past would have powered the negativity spinning outwardly from my reeling, pissed-off mind.
Just this morning I watched a facebook post that was so full of joy it brought me to tears. In the past I would have mentally vomited as my intellect summed up the whole thing as trite, common, gratuitous sentimentality. The kind of bile underneath the pit of negativity I used to wallow in makes me shudder. But I forgive myself because I wasn’t really aware of what was going on, at least not consciously. I did the best I could with the limited means to tap into wisdom I had. I am sorry for those who were unlucky in the past to have consumed my toxic sludge energy. I am sorry for those who, on a bad day, will be doused with it in the future. Trust me, I am working on it. I’ve got yoga on my side.
Many days I bounce around the office with a goofball air in my step. I like to be silly and share that with others, whether they ask for it or not. I respond to the feeling of joy and lightness that overcomes my body when I encounter it. I never used to feel that before because I was so taut with anxiety and striving. Actually, I think now, I was constantly fearful, perhaps of the consequences of simply being myself. That fear is still there at times, but far less so than in the past.
I’m really thankful for the ability to connect with my own neurosis the moment it occurs and to let it go in the moment as well. I feel the seething much more readily in my body now, and the discomfort kick starts adjustments that restore the ease – in both mind and body. It saves me having to fend off the regret later on because I could not get my agitated mind and body under control.
It’s still a work in progress. I still have fragile ego and still do set my antenna seeking perceived slights and fighting imaginary injustices. I still fight dissatisfaction, perfectionism, and impatience with people and things that I find stultifying. I work in a bureaucracy and some days there aren’t enough down-dogs in me to ward off the feeling that it’d be better if I shoved my head through a wall.
But the calm is starting to really take hold, I feel as much every day; a lightness I have not fully known since childhood. Even those bad days are not nearly as frequent or as intense as they once were. When I slip up I am aware more quickly of how it happened and how not to let it spiral out of control and light a fire through the day. For now, the nearby walls are safe, I suspect. I hope.
What helps is the increased ability to breathe deeply, paired with a much greater awareness of what my entire body feels like when it is too tense and reactive, and how this differs from how I feel when I am calm. I’ve been meditating for years, and I was able to connect with my mental sense of calm, but I did not register the degree of tension throughout the rest of my body. It was there, but it never struck me that it ought to be different. I assumed my burning knees were a necessary – if evil – aspect of sitting in meditation. Yoga has been essential in making my insight much more complete – and for alleviating my pain when I sit to meditate.
I am eternally grateful for the practice. Grateful to be here in one whole piece and not fragmented and feeling pulled in so many different directions by life. I am grateful to be capable of gratitude at all, instead of filled with cynicism. So, I’d like to share the insights I’ve had in my yoga practice with the hope if you’re struggling to find some peace of mind you will start down the path to changing that for yourself. Or, if you’re looking to be grateful for something when it seems like your habit is to be agitated or filled with dissatisfaction or ill-will, here’s something that may help with that. Maybe there’s some appeal in my experiences of yoga that encourage you to take actions to move beyond whatever it is within yourself that stands in the way of your joy and equanimity.
We tend to see the body and mind as two distinct spheres of our being, especially in the West. We are a mind over matter kind of people, a people who takes the body for granted and rests on the laurels of the mind’s ingenuity. We unconsciously abuse and mistreat our bodies for years and then rely on the techniques of mind – medicines, medical procedures and devices – to heal us when it breaks.
In reality the mind and body are inextricably linked; the body an almost perfect reflection of the mind, and certainly not something the will of the rationalizing mind is capable of mastering. Instead of dominating our bodies and willing our body to do as we please, yoga aims to strengthen harmony and awareness of ourselves by softening the clinging, externalizing mind with practices that “go inward.”
This should be a source of encouragement, even if your body seems ill-equipped for whatever it is you believe is yoga. You do not have to do poses that put your leg behind your head or have you balancing on your arms.There are steps well before that impressive end well worth taking. Just because some of us live to ninety and others live to fifty doesn’t mean you throw your hands up living. Do what you can with what you have. That is the principle. If you can open your eyes and breathe, you can do yoga.
The point is we can unravel the inner workings of our mind through conscious effort, without need of an MRI, or other technologies that require a direct examination of the brain to know what’s going on. We don’t need to look amazing in a photograph of ourselves posing. That is not the point of yoga.
The point is to gain awareness of ourselves by practices that orient our gaze away from externality and inward toward our bodies. This re-establishes awareness of the connection between body and mind and helps us to understand who we really are when we are free from the reactivity – which can be witnessed throughout our bodies. It takes lots of practice to get to that point but it is worth it because you begin to see far more similarities between yourself and others and all things if you stick to it. It softens the feelings of separation and alienation we can sometimes learn in this individualist culture we live in, which lead us into feeling as though we have to engage in combat with the universe to further our aims.
So, if we desire to feel good and be happy, one way to achieve that result is to cultivate good intentions within ourselves, doing so with diligent, regular practice and honest effort with that very simple aim in mind. The intention to practice. Simple. Not so simple once you start and see what lazy, novelty-starved, quick results-oriented Westerners we are.
In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga we begin with an opening chant to affirm the intention of practice. We are trying to get beyond the crazy un-reality of modern human life, to become more grand as beings than the impermanent artifacts of our material lives. The more we habituate to keeping the focus close to ourselves the more tenuous are the attachments tethering our feelings of happiness to external things. Most of all, we affirm and take responsibility for tending to ourselves, for being our own healers by practicing.
When you practice yoga with spiritual intention and not to achieve a nice body or to snap pictures of yourself doing cool asanas, you discover the fleeting and empty nature of the things you identify with; how they leave you with tension and agitation in your body for so long, for such little in return. In that respect, yoga can be a discovery, at least if practiced with a constant focus and effort. Just be careful to remain abreast of the intentions. At the start, be simple. Say to yourself ‘I intend to expend the effort, keep an open mind, and trust the process.’ Leave it at that.
The number of people injured in Ashtanga yoga attests to right intentions gone a awry because we bring our Western, goal-seeking egos to it. Just listen to your body as you practice diligently. Nobody has a body that lets them stretch until they tear a ligament. We do that by ignoring the signs our body is sending saying ‘please don’t’ and force our bodies to do the will of our striving mind. In this, the goal becomes about perfecting the pose on our timelines to the detriment of our bodies.
I’ve fought two major injuries since practicing that nobody except me is responsible for inflicting. It wasn’t the nature of the yoga, it wasn’t my teacher. It was me. My teacher can’t feel what my knee is telling me, he can only ask ‘is this okay?’ and trust when I say ‘oh yeah, it’s fine’ that I am really paying attention. I wasn’t. I was striving to finish Primary Series. That messed with my intentions and misguided my efforts.
Attentive listening and focus will guard against other, sometimes harmful intentions creeping into your practice. Erase the pictures you’ve seen of experienced yogis doing the asana in the Primary Series and focus on where your body is in the poses as you learn them (preferably Mysore style – sorry that’s my bias). Start with being good to yourself in this small way regularly and goodness will blossom from there outward. Be good to yourself first. Nothing teaches you how to approach that more than some of the poses in the Primary Series of Ashtanga. This is especially so if you’re like me tend to be self-critical, for reasons you’ll discover as you see yourself trying too hard – of not being nice to your body and inflicting needless pain – and then lightening up to really delve further into the poses.
You are Infinite
An antidote to the conditioning and reactivity, the constant motion of modern life is to still yourself long enough to get a good look at what’s going on inside your body and mind, to discover the essence of your being as it is, not to identify with the self who is engaged in the fast-paced auto-pilot that emerges from living among such busyness. You can see how your conditioned mind, your ego, has fashioned certain patterns of thinking, perceiving and behaving to help you cope and function in the world. You realize that identity is merely a relative thing, it isn’t real. It is the person we’ve erected through our experiences, by cherry-picking attributes we believe are most functional in the environment we typically find ourselves in. They help us get through, but they are not who we are; not entirely, at least.
Your thoughts, opinions, tastes, preferences, job, role, gender, or ethnicity is not the totality of who you are as a human being. Those are merely the scaffolding for the identity you’ve built, which is instilled with traits, perhaps by others, perhaps re-inforced by your own behaviours, but which you continue to cling to for your own reasons. But identity seen in this way is the narrowest version of your true self.
Although our identities serve a purpose to help us function in the world, it is not necessary to cling to them as if they were permanent or real, especially in settings where it is unnecessary to maintain those roles, such as when at home with friends or loved ones, or when alone. To do so is to limit the range of possibilities that exist in your life; to perceive yourself, others, and the circumstances of your existence as though they were basically parts of the same narrow reality you’ve created in your mind.
To break this habit requires a different, wider perspective, which is how practicing something like yoga or other meditative, ego-softening practices can help. A new perspective is possible. This is of so much value to anyone suffering from emotional or psychological illness rooted in distortions in perception that emerge early in our formative years; that keep most of us repeating particular behaviours that stand in the way of our own growth and wisdom.
Your mind is reflected throughout your body
When in the middle of a stressful day, stop and notice your breath. When you’ve just received a terse, accusatory, or pushy e-mail and are in the midst of a mental reaction, notice your posture. You’re driving home and someone cuts you off, or honks at you for no reason. Is your breath shallow and quick? Is your face taut? Your shoulders hunched up and forward? Are you slouching in your seat? Do you have tightness in your chest and hips? Are your eyebrows raised? Are you hyperventilating? Is your finger raised and your mouth shouting the words “go fuck yourself asshole!” Even though you never set out to be an irate cabbie from the Bronx you’re suddenly an irate cabbie from the Bronx.
Watch a young child moving actively. Notice how supple they are as the bounce off walls and contort their bodies in unfathomable ways. We are not born inflexible, but made that way by our habits and conditioning. Everyone’s identity has varying degrees of reactivity, anger, anxiety, need for control, dominance, escape, denial, or avoidance of reality.
The patterns arise in our early emotional development and the defenses we erect to guard our psychic need for security become common features of how we relate to the world. The nature of these behaviours can be discerned right there in your taut hamstrings, your clenching jaw, your inability to breathe deeply, your inflexible hips, and your wandering eyes, especially in difficult poses. The asana reveal in unmistakeable ways the nature of how we deal with change, adversity, and even the joys in life. For this reason, asana can be discomforting, literally and figuratively.
Hold a challenging pose to the count of five deep breaths. If you can reach the count of five without an interceding thought or undulation in your body, you may very well be the next Buddha. If you’re like the rest of us, you’ll be struggling to perfect the pose, or thinking “shit, this hurts,” looking between your legs to see how well the next guy is posing, or trying to unclench a twitchy muscle.
You won’t be breathing fully; you won’t be relaxed or grounded, most likely. That is the nature of our minds. It loves to order reality, opine, stir you into action, control, react, resist, force things, stimulate, arouse or avoid, and it does so in infinitely clever ways. And most often, it does so with a sense of urgency that is unsettling; that is wrought with either too much tension or total capitulation to the gravity of the circumstances.
Yoga can help you understand the flavour of those tendencies by connecting awareness of the thoughts to the tension or floundering in your body. By being able to relax the tension in some places, and bring energy and alertness to others you can lighten the urgency within the mind; which seized your body with its panic or fear. Body awareness is an alternate channel into consciousness when reality is highly arousing and has stirred the mind into habitual coping behaviours that bypass our consciousness, which limits our ability to impart wisdom into the circumstances.
That alternate gateway to an awareness of the mind’s instability can help introduce just a split second between the arousing event and behaviours propelled by reactivity. The awareness allows the opportunity to apply the techniques in yoga that re-introduce calm and stability to the mind by yoking our perception of things to our own true nature, rather than mooring it to external provocations that stir our egos into action. A mind that is pointed and alert, but calm and tethered to its own sense of morality and goodness, is much more attuned to the needs of any given moment than one that is overly aroused and easily caught in the grip of reactivity. The result is a being whose nature will be more happy and free, and whose conduct will be more skillful and wise.
Yoga is a spiritual practice that cultivates greater awareness and identification with our own intrinsic nature – understanding the nature of the energy we possess and the energy we project into the world through our actions and intentions. It isn’t just about mastering poses, and it isn’t just about ‘feeling good.’ It isn’t just one type of practice, but many. These methods connect the practitioner with his innate wisdom in order to relate to other beings and phenomena in the world in a spirit of harmony and goodness. The growth, an end that cannot be known at the outset, is in the process; the process of doing, and with focus and concentration, the discovery as the process unfolds.
So, just go do it. Go and practice, as guruji instructs. “Yoga is ninety-nine percent practice and one percent theory.”