In this next posting of "The Work of the Light," I share the lessons I've come to embody through a decade of practical experience, in hopes that you, too, shall seek, and find.
Real, practical embodiment of a lesson can’t be taught. Real learning — that intangible period when an idea takes shape within — can only take place through direct application and experience of the thing. This holds particularly true when the lesson involves some interplay between mind and body, as does coming to know the practice called yoga.
Yoga invites us to know our own best, highest Self through a prescribed path of study and practice. An important element of the eight-limbed path, particularly in its current, western incarnation and dissemination, is its associated physical practice, yoga asana.
While yoga can be studied, texts read, dissected, recited, understanding yoga can only occur through direct experience. Yoga asana becomes a conduit whereby the principles of the spiritual path can be practiced, and thereby embodied. Though I could write for pages on the spiritual path, I dedicate these next paragraphs to the physical practice of asana. And rather than give specific directives on how to do a single pose, I see more value in sharing what I’ve learned throughout my own practice of the process called yoga.
Inevitably at first, asana is about “doing” the pose. Newer yogis seek external affirmation and guidance. Enter role of teacher: the language of yoga is not yet comfortably spoken, and student looks to more experienced guide for assistance in translation. As in learning any language, first exposure is to the most basic vocabulary. As one practices, familiarity is gained with more complex parts of sentence, with descriptors and action verbs. Capacity to comprehend, to communicate, deepens as one practices—and only with practice. Real fluency is not only a product of study, but of raw, vulnerable engagement; in learning to speak yoga asana, practitioner necessarily surrenders to being challenged and uncomfortable, and in doing so connects to an inexhaustible wellspring of strength and ease, within.
At first, body uses mind to work its way into pose, to evaluate physical construction, and to modify accordingly; as comfort develops in posture, mind uses body to explore feeling of being, to evaluate mental construction, and to modify accordingly. While body uses mind to ensure healthy “doing” of pose, mind eventually turns to body to understand its own patterns of process. Can posture become a place where acceptance, rather than judgement, can be practiced?
Over time, mind and body merge. Yoga asana becomes neither solely physical, nor only psychological. Yoga —through practice — becomes a fundamental melding between body and mind. The space between thins, and practitioner finds that while on the mat, the present moment is. Over time, that capacity for full presence — and its gifts of self-acceptance and joyfulness — spill from mat and soak into every moment of daily life.
In my decade of practice, and over 1500 hours of formal training, I’ve learned these things about yoga. I’ve learned them because I’ve studied, but more essentially, because I’ve practiced.
And while nothing I’m about to share can actually be taught — real learning only occurs through direct experience — in these next paragraphs I’ll impart some essential components of doing yoga asana, at least as I have come to know the practice. I know the embodied joy available to every committed practitioner; in seeking, I have found. And so I have been called to share the means by which real joyfulness can be both sought, and found, within.
Step 1: The architecture of the Pose:
In life — and yoga — you can’t build without a good foundation. Build your yoga poses from the mat on up. Every structure relies upon the firm and balanced grounding of its base points; a yoga pose rests upon that same fundamental.
Take a pose like down dog; if your palms aren’t firmly pressing, whole hand spread, weight distributing evenly through surface area, your wrists and elbows and shoulders — and everything else connected — will bear the potentially injurious consequence. In a standing balance posture, foot must spread and ground firmly, and from that firmly rooted place, knees, hips, and rest of body arise. When trying to build a pose like side plank — modified or “full” vasisthasana — stack your bones. Begin with well-set base points, and from there, build the posture mindfully, consciously, and patiently. Constructing your postures in this mindful way not only informs a healthy physical body, and the strengthening of musculature and muscle memory to support intelligent movement, but so too is your mental body honed and toned. Paying attention to the body in space is the essence of yoga asana. From this mindful, grounded, rooted place, the rest of your practice will grow.
Step 2: Sthira-sukham asanam:
The only mention of asana in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the practice’s main associated texts, reads that “the postures should have both steadfastness, and ease.” I have come to understand this edict as the offering of principles to explore within the pose, the intersection of which result in something essential to yoga asana: balance.
When we explore sthira-suhka within a posture, we invite the body to both root, and to blossom. We find the place in between too much strength, or heaviness, and too much ease, or lightness. Were a pose to be all “steadfastness,” we’d find our bodies rigid, stuck. Were a pose only ease-full, we’d potentially sacrifice grounding and stability. This practice of seeking balance between “too much” and “not enough” makes balance the most essential component of the posture. We see what transpires in nature when things are out of balance; we are nature, embodied.
For a meditation on the sukha, sthira, within, imagine yourself the seed of an oak tree. You make your way through solid earth, rooting downward. Rainwater comes, your hard shell eases, cracks, and the first sapling becomings of your mighty oak reach upward. But the tree can only rise as much as it roots. And as you grow, your downward path reflects your upward growth. The process continues. Guided by gravity, new rains reach deepening roots; water, infused with fertile soil’s nourishment, rises upward to feed stretching branches, leaves like fingertips reaching toward the sun.
Step 3: Partnership between movement and breath:
Breathe in, deeply; notice expansion. Breathe out, fully; notice contraction, release. Your breath is your partner in this process of seeking and finding within the posture. Your breath, in moments of constriction or holding, will tell you when you’ve gone too far. An ease-full, easily deepening breath will invite you deeper into a posture.
Your breath may quicken as you move more quickly through a sequence, evidence of cardiovascular challenge. In those moments, notice how you can, through conscious engagement, invite ease and length into quickened breath, informing change.
Take a moment, now, to notice your body’s natural stance. Are your shoulders rolled forward, torso concave? If so, try and take a deep breath; you’ll most likely notice constriction. Now, roll shoulders down back body, gently reach heart forward as you lengthen spine, and breathe deep. Notice how a physical change can invite a change in breath capacity, which, in turn, invites a physical and mental change.
Breathing is essentially connected to both your physical and mental well-being; conscious breathing can down-regulate the mind-body stress response, and clear the path toward engagement in the body’s capacity for ease and peace. Your body is the container in which these deep, full breaths can find their shape. Practice moving mindfully, and mindful, ease-full breaths will follow.
Step 4: Presence in transitions:
Though we live most of our time in the space “in-between,” we are trained to value, most, “arriving.” Transitions between places become moments to weather, to endure, to find ways to check out of via handheld electronic device. How we move in life — geared toward achievement, destination, numbed then to the journey — shows up on the yoga mat. And yet, as in life, most time on mat is spent in that rich space in between postures.
Indeed, this space in-between — such as the transition from downward facing dog into a standing lunge — can be some of the most vital, strengthening, practice-building movement in body and mind. The practice is not the lunge; the practice is noticing every muscle necessary to lift the leg, to move slowly, to roll vertebrae by vertebrae, all the while hugging knee to chest center, and then to place sole of foot softly upon mat and rise, grounding downward to blossom upward. The final arrival into lunge is still only one fleeting moment; the space and time spent within a lunge offers it’s own kind of “in-between,” as does then releasing out of posture, moving into next shape. The practice is, ultimately, one breath-linking practice of "in-between-ness."
Moreover, the mental muscles strengthened in all of that sweet attunement to body as it moves mindfully between places—this is the practice: embodied presence. Just as the value of a breathing does not rest at the end of a breath, neither does the value of a moment rest within accomplishment or achievement. Every moment matters. There are no ordinary moments. Practice noticing every ounce and inch of life; the noticing is the practice.
Step 5: Gentleness and Curiosity:
If your practice is guided by these two principles, you will never go astray. If you move into and out of a pose with curious gentleness, you will approach your natural edge, and — unattached to external validation of accomplishment — stop before you go too far. Curious gentleness demands rigorous, compassionate presence, which is, as each of the previous steps demonstrates, the essence of this practice.
Be gentle with yourself! And move with out attachment to where you might arrive! Your body is your one, true, life long partner. It’s always speaking to you in the language of sensation. Yoga asana is the process of caring enough, of getting quiet enough, of being patient enough to listen, and compassionate enough to respond. Let every movement you make — every time you “go deeper” — be an invitation of the body, and not an imposition of the mind.
And then, take curiosity and gentleness “off the mat” and into your daily life. Let it inform your relationship with yourself, and others. See how it changes…everything.
Step 6: Humor and Joyfulness:
Laugh at yourself. You will stumble. You will fall. There will be moments of total ungracefulness on the yoga mat, opportunities for comparison with others around you, and consequently for self judgment and criticism.
And if you’re employing the five preceding steps, none of that will matter. Ultimately, you will recognize that there is no pose deserving of your attachment, no pose that is worth being a container for your self-judgement. You will find that there is no such thing is failure: that it is all part of the process. You will see that the trying, the falling, the coming back into the pose, the process of yoga asana as the practice. And you will be grateful for every opportunity to practice compassion, resilience, empathy, patience and determination, ease and steadfastness, mindfulness, balance, rooting, and blossoming. You will be joyful in the face of challenge, for in doing the process of yoga, you come to recognize that the real challenge is practicing accepting yourself no matter what shape your body takes.
As we say in my meditation tradition: May your God accompany you on your way. Ultimately, I have no idea what your practice should look like, or even your internal processes as you practice. I know what I have learned, and by some force beyond myself I’m called to share it. Do the work to find your own way within the practice; doing that work, ultimately, is the practice.
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