Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Practice of Doubt

There comes a point in most practitioner’s journey when the questions of 'why' am I practicing and 'if' the postures of yoga are worthwhile begin to surface themselves. Doubt (one of the 9 kleshas) as laid out by Patajalim in the Yoga Sutras is an affliction or mental aversion. As my teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha told me it is best to deal with doubt as soon as it arises otherwise it will follow you and wreak havoc with your practice. But this is not to imply that it doesn't come up again later on. In fact, it may be masked by other feelings such as frustration, pain or recklessness. The main point is not how it appears but rather that it is acknowledged and dealt with. From the perspectives of the teachings of yoga it is a part of the path; not something to be thrown away or rejected. It can be used to strengthen practice and oneself provided it is properly understood.

First, in the Yoga Sutras the concept of doubt is a mental fluctuation arising from past karmas and deeply rooted in the mind. Second, doubt is not as solid as it looks and feels, but changeable and workable. At a time when you'd love to skip the sequence, jump the track and move onto something else doubt, frustration and impatience keep you stuck. In many ways this is something to be grateful for because the practice will not let you bullshit yourself. Either you have practiced the basics well and are ready to move forward or you have not. Simple. There may also come a time when one thinks they have practiced enough to be deserving of certain postures, but the reality of yoga and its evolution does not work with this equation. In my practice and after learning many of the advanced postures my teacher did not let me practice them when I studied with him. He lead me back to square one; i.e., to the basics. It was a painful place to remain for the ego.

The whole idea behind this was to never forget that practicing yoga is not about physical mastery alone. As well, it should include chanting and meditation, and become a life-time commitment. However, impatience and feelings of wanting it all now can cause a lot of doubt to surface. When someone asks me how long it will take to master a certain pose I usually say for the rest of their life. They roll their eyes and nod at my seemingly trite reply. However, it is the truth. Because even after reaching whatever goal you had set out to obtain the very nature of the mind is to be off in another direction and looking for the next thing to achieve. This has a lot to do with cultural conditioning and if learn to move faster and get there sooner you might get to the top. And yet, 'true' yoga does not gel with this myth.

It really becomes important to be reminded that the practice of yoga is not just an end result in physical proficiency but an inner state of transformation. Or, perhaps one should say being open to this possibility. Asanas are the invitation for creating and developing an inner fire, a heat called 'tapas' that ignites change on all levels. Patajalim stressed seated asanas not handstands and vinyasas. Postures like sukhasan (comfortable seating pose) or padmasan (lotus) are the ultimate goal in then learning to meditate.

The funny aspect of doubt is how it can bring to light the two extremes the mind jumps between. That is, feeling as if it is taking too long for any kind of decent result (usually directed at the physical level) and trying to compensate for this by over-practicing. Or, having the idea that practice owes you something for all your hard work and trying to rush through the sequence to arrive sooner and faster. Yet, the bottom line is nothing can be achieved from a haphazard approach. The sutras painstakingly remind us that practice needs to be consistent and constant.

Certainly this is not easy to swallow in a fast thinking and product orientated culture for which the West is famous for. But this is where yoga outshines other practices and disciplines. If you learn to hang in there you may just see all of this ‘stuff’ for what exactly what it is: the mind’s game to throw you off or away.

The basis of the yoga postures lies in training the mind to move with the body in a continuous stream of prana (or known as the breath). Ultimately, it is not about touching your feet to your head or sitting in lotus as it is about understanding the scattered behaviour of the mind. Usually the mind is good at undermining your practice especially if there are bigger expectations than those which have been achieved. Saying this, however, does not mean that a healthy dose of vim and vigour should not be taken into one's practice. It is more about awareness and seeing the mind’s silly game. In fact, having a sense of urgency in that this might be your last practice is helpful especially if there is a tendency to be passive or in auto-pilot.

Many years ago my teacher actually told me to think while practising, stay longer and be still. It is very similar to Shri K. Pattahi Jois’s well known phrase in which he said, "Practice and all is coming". By this he did not mean practice mindlessly or blindly, but practice with vim, vigour, sincerely and with all that you can devote yourself to. Practising like this will take one further than expected and throw out the mind's limitations, and fears. It is like George Bernard Shaw who said,

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,
for the harder I work the more I live.
I rejoice in life for its own sake.”

I feel practice can become like this. That is, for its own sake and not for the sake of only a physical goal. My own teacher’s simple but powerful statement has always stuck with me. By 'think' he meant learn to concentrate. As well, you can go on looking for results or enjoy your practice as it comes. B.K.S. Iyengar (a Yoga Master in Pune, India) was good at repeating something in the same effect. “Do not practice from memory. Forget yesterday’s practice and focus on today’s practice." He was also adamant that one should not practice only what they know, but enter into the arena of what one cannot do. The former helps build confidence while the latter reduces arrogance and unnecessary pride.

I personally believe when doubts surface and questions like 'why' is it taking so long appear it is a call toward understanding oneself at a very deep and profound level. If we can 'catch' ourselves just at that second and remain open rather than shutting down, the same doubt that produced thoughts of inadequacy can be a vital force. Rainer Marie Rilke said it best and I will not copy-cat or even try. He wrote,

And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrased, perhaps also protesting. But don't give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers--perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.

― Letters to a Young Poet

Becoming a Master of Yoga or anything for that matter is like being a student all the time. And for those who do they are very clear about this battle and learn to practice.

~ Om tat sat.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Comparing Asanas along the Path

In yoga it is taught that comparing ourselves to others is not a good way to walk along the path. Frankly speaking having a bit of what I call 'heathly' comparison is not a bad thing. Furthermore being competitive is not necessarily wrong either. Let me explain.

First, with respect to comparing outselves I am referring to comparing asanas across the board so that we can learn not just about the posture itself, but how it works in our own bodies. Done wisely and well, this helps us better understand why when I bend my knees my back moves forward and when I lift one leg the other turns out on an angle. Second, I have never had an interest in beating someone else out I do have an interest in improving myself. I would like to stay competitive to my former selves rather than continue with the same stuff, unchallenged habits and general automatic pilot tendencies. I wish to reflect on what I am doing, why and how.

When we look at the postures of yoga we often see them as being separate from the others. There is a fascinating discovery in coming to know, however, they are much more integrated and a part of each other. Comparing asanas and movements help us not only to understand how the body works, but also how the mind gets trapped into thinking about ‘one way’ of practising. There are many ways to practice hence the large number of Masters that have emerged over time.

If we look more closely we may see that the forward bend, backbend and standing straight pose have certain elements in common. These present three different (and polar opposite) movements. When standing straight there is pressure on the heels and the legs are strong. In the standing pose of yoga (samasthithi) the buttocks and thighs are contracted, the abdomen drawn in and the sternum lifted. In forward bend, the legs are strong to support the stretch along the back, with the chest moving out as the shoulders roll down and the abdomen is moving inward to support the lift and stretch in the back of waist. The spine is folding downward but essentially resembles the same way it may appear while standing. In the wheel (a familiar backbend to many), the feet are strong and the thighs are pressing upward. There is more pressure on the waist and back, which is not felt while standing or folding forward. However, the movement of the abdomen as well as the arms lengthening as if they were beside your body while standing is similar. Gradually folding back and into a forward pose can begin to feel like a continuum; different beads on the same mala (a garland used for meditation).

In my classes, I teach people to sit in a vajrasana (kneeling pose) or sukhasan (a comfortable cross-legged position if required) between the postures they are practicing. The purpose of this is to return to a calm inner place and to feel the affects of the asana. An equally important objective, however, is to lead the student indirectly to the threshold of their own mind. If the teacher points out to the student where they are not breathing and where they are approaching the asana with a “fixed” perception it usually does not penetrate the students' mind. This is why at a certain point (unlike the conventional Western way of teaching), the yoga teacher lets the student explore on their own. Self-discovery and self-reliance are two of the best gifts that yoga can offer. I do not believe that the teacher's role is to try to define anyone's practice. Suggestions and insructional points are a must, but the entire premise of a yoga class is to create an atmosphere conducive for self-exploration.

While it may appear like an abstract view for some, it is certainly more of an approach that will nurture what yoga intends to provide. That is, a path to know what works, what does not, how your body reacts and to discipline the mind from its continuous identification with "me", "I" and "other".

One of the greatest points that is often missed is that the teacher guides the student toward being their own inner guide. It is the understanding you have all you need to practice and to travel along the path. What has not happened is the knowledge that this is actually the case.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Meet Your Edge, Explore It and Go Overboard

"Consistent practice leads to changing perspectives.
An altered perspective leads to taking greater risks and
not just meeting but going over the edge."

While practising the postures it is becoming popular to hear teachers and students talk about meeting 'the edge.' This is usually in reference to the place where you feel challenged or that elicits fear and/or resistance. It can also refer to the place where you are holding back, not letting go and wanting to make it happen in 'your' way. We may perceive our edges as the limit in which we can only physically bend. But what about internal edge? The places of fear and the areas we dislike, ignore, neglect and reject within ourselves?

These are also edges but because they are internal (and ingrained reactions, responses and behaviors) they are far more difficult to explore.

The edge really then can be understood in a number of ways. The main point from what I have understood with my teacher is that this is the place you need to stay; not run away from. Moreover, it is not so much the external edge (that was the edge that got you there) but the internal one we need to turn our gaze (the drithi) toward.

In teaching backbending and in particular the drop-back from standing to wheel the edge or external limit is often reached very quickly. In other words, it is such a challenging move for many students that fears and feelings of doubt surface rapidly. This is the internal edge and quite often the place where many give up or run away. Looked upon from a different perspective it can also become the perfect place to explore 'the edge' and therefore our perceptions.

The zen story about the overflowing tea cup reminds us about how we need to shift our perspective. If the teacher keeps pouring tea into a full cup it will continue to overflow; there being no room for growth or expansion. The same is true when we come to the teacher with fixed notions or want to force the body into a prescribed shape with only an external viewpoint. Lacking an internal focus or awareness in both conditions is like the tea that spills over the cup, onto the floor and into the sewer.

So when the edge appears and we are faced with how to move beyond it, it may become counter-productive if in fact we are not able to undo, let go and challenge our 'known' perspectives. It is like being too full, however, at the same time still wanting more. People tend to forget that the whole purpose of yoga practice (including yogasana) is not to continue to "get stuff" but rather to let go and loosen up. Practice is far from being about acquiring more tools as it is about un-doing and un-learning.

Trying then to push past the edge usually does not work. It will surface again in another posture. Forcing it will not work because the physical muscles have not been trained to endure it and the mind is not familiar with what is happening. Iyengar once wrote you cannot tell the knee to bend with the brain. While everyone may want to learn the classic lotus pose it is not doable with this approach. Iyengar suggests in a very poetic like fashion to study and understand the intelligence of the knee; slowly removing its stiffness. The limits we come across in practice whether in the back or the knee (re: the physical edge or mental one) can be understood as a relative point in time, practice and space. It is subject to change. But more often we tend to perceive it as something solid and not subject to change with time and practice.

Of course writing all of this is just a bunch of words. How does it apply to actual practice? Here are a few ideas to kick around. However, do bear in mind that not every suggestion will be suitable for all. In fact, the cookie-cutter approach leaves many people thinking yoga is only for the born flexible. These are only a few starting points from how to approach the standing pose into the wheel.

  • Contract and relax the muscles of the buttocks and legs. This is one part of two. The second part is to allow the spine to rise and fall and become aware of this being the natural tendency. The contraction/relaxation should be done over a series of breathings not up/down in rapid movements. It works better to hold the pose, breathe and contract followed by relaxing while breathing and isolating certain muscles over each other. Re: the legs contract and the buttocks relax.
  • Train your mind to never stop feeling and thinking of the breath. Every move (whether it is big or small) is generated by the breath. This is how it really goes whether you are aware of it or not. Learning to “wait for the breath” and then combining with the body is challenging. This method will aid you in learning to stay longer without letting the mind direct the posture. It is a way of understanding how the prana (the vital force) is more powerful than the physical body and its fluctuations.
  • While practising consider the central theme(s) of yoga beyond the flexibility of the body. It is the teachings about how the mind is a container of fluctuations. This should not be misunderstood as suppression or denial. It is through the physical body we are working. However, it is not through the physical body alone that you will move the body deeper. It is by channelling the energy, the prana, focusing the mind and then shaping it with the body.
  • Monday, October 3, 2011

    Breathing and Backbending

    Photo: The Indian Sky (Mysore)
    It is surprising to realize that our longest standing companion, who has been with us since birth and will only leave us at death, is often the most taken for granted and neglected aspect of ourselves. The breath (the vital source) that moves the body provides the energy and drive to sustain it in all postures. The breath is always there even if we are not. One of the most common approaches to practice is to think of the breath after stretching the body. However, in yoga it is the other way around. The breath is first and last.

    Improper exercise and quite possibly the aerobics era made breathing obsolete. Learning how to breathe is the first lesson of yoga and especially if you learn it in India or from a guru. Most people in North America are introduced to yoga with the Bums to Steel approach; later on recognizing that yoga is actually a whole of practices, thinking and even ritual. In fact, yoga is far less exercise as it is mental discipline. Yet, we start from where we know and what we can understand said B.K.S. Iyengar in many of his teachings. And that place has to be the body before getting to know some of the more subtle and/or obvious aspects of practice like the breath.

    Here is an exercise that will increase awareness and an appreciation for the breath (the latter is perhaps more important).

    Take any posture of yoga and practice to observe your breath. Is it short? Is it long? Can you suspend your drive to force the body and listen to the breath? Are the breaths the same duration? Which one do you favour (the inhalation or the exhalation)?

    Generally speaking if you are not breathing you are probably trying to force your body into the position with your mind. Depending on much strain you can take this approach might work but only to a certain degree. It is actually a very limited approach and why many people end hurting themselves and not understanding why. B.K.S. Iyengar said a very interesting thing which was recorded in The Tree of Yoga (a series of lectures recorded by his students). He said if you take the lotus pose and tell your brain, “Let’s do it.” Your knee will break. Your knee cannot be drive by your brain and your knee does not have the mobility to simply fold over. What is needed is an ability to study the mechanics of the knee and to systemically remove the stiffness. It cannot be done in one or two moves. It might even take a few years to understand the knee mentally, emotionally and physically.

    Because every yoga posture is a point of concentration when you stop the breath you will also lose your focus. Becoming aware of these habits is a central the purpose of practice. This is why it cannot be overemphasized that it is holding a physical posture which is harder than just “getting”. You breathe to feel your body, to relax your mind and to open yourself to the experience. Whatever comes up mentally, emotionally and/or physically is the raw material for practice.

    For example, if there is pain this is a sign you are doing something wrong. If there are strong sensations you may need to deepen your focus on how you are breathing. If you feel emotional you may have noticed you stopped the breath, which is a sign of control or withholding.

    How this applies to the practice of backbends is multi-faceted and invigorating. Some backbends are simple while others are complex. They are rooted to our mental patterns and hidden tendencies. Ultimately whatever you are working with in practice is your canvas. It is your mental attitude, expectations and desires, which have labelled them as being either good or bad. That is why yoga is not just grapping your ankles and you're done. The pose cannot be judged from the outside because it is ultimately an inner experience. Just because the gal beside you in class looks super ‘flexy’ does not mean she has reached the depth of the asana on the mental level. Although we have come to judge the posture by the physical practice this has left out what it really is about.

    Here are a few methods you can apply to your practice using the breath:
    1. Practice to observe without judging yourself (re: "I should be doing more." "I am not very good at this pose."
    2. Develop the opposite reaction (re: if you are not breathing in wheel you begin to tell yourself to first relax and breathe).
    3. Discover if you gravitate to either your 'in' or 'out' breath.
    4. Free yourself of thoughts of ‘trying to do’, ‘forcing’ and a competitive attitude (yoga is meant to be a practice to reduce externals and to focus on internals). Don’t ‘try’ just ‘do’.
    5. Return to number 1.

    For more advanced thinking try these ideas:
  • Visualize yourself not as physical body breathing but as a breathing body;
  • Understand that you cannot move well or fully (or really at all) without the breath;
  • Slow your mind down and move only with your breath.

    Above all, have some fun while practising. One of my first yoga teachers said yogasana is like 'play'. People get very upset with themselves when they cannot perform well. But where does this kind of thinking get you? The practice is like a game; sometimes you do well, other times you do not. Perhaps you even learn more if you don't always win or succeed in 'getting a posture'.