Our culture has the impression that a good workout leaves us tired. The sweatier and more exhausted we are afterward, the better we have done our job, we think. But the yogi's perspective of physical health and energy is different. A yogi seeks to understand, harness and even control his or her natural energy, not burn it off or expel it from the body.
One of my teachers likes to say that we should learn to "be an energy reservoir, not an energy sink." It is easy to push our bodies and minds to the point where we are expending energy in our physical practice. For me, it comes from years and years of being told to give "110%."
Another of my teachers says that each Posture should leave us feeling better, more relaxed and more energized than the one before. Our practice should harness and build energy, not burn and expel it. When we cultivate a practice that harnesses our body's energy, we grow in strength, willpower and confidence over time. We become more energetic than we ever thought possible.
I recently saw photos of Buddha Bose doing Physical Postures (Asanas). Buddha was one of Bishnu Ghosh's top students before Bikram, basically one of Bikram's older classmates. There are three things that strike me about the collection of pictures: the highly developed muscles, the generally tame "flexibility," and the hip rotation.
1) Highly Developed Muscles - It is well known that Ghosh was a proponent of "muscle control" and that he lifted weights. Modern yoga traditions seem to carry little, if any, focus on muscle development. There is certainly muscle awareness and strength that is necessary, but I have never heard or seen any teacher encourage muscle development with the adamancy that they encourage flexibility, stretching and "opening up." Perhaps that is a symptom of our culture, but it seems like yoga in the west has veered more toward gymnastics, even female gymnastics, with an emphasis on beautiful lines, deep bends and flexibility.
Which brings me to my next point...
3) Hip Rotation - Despite the lack of focus on other forms of flexibility, several of Buddha's postures have rotated hips, like this Lotus Pose. It is not impressive to look at, but it takes significant flexibility in the hip joints to achieve this posture.
All of these things make me wonder about where we put our focus in modern yoga practice. We encourage depth, alignment and beauty but not strength, muscular balance or broad functionality, like rotating hips.
Seeing these pictures and pondering their significance is making me reassess my own Physical practice and yogic approach.
I found this written on a scrap of paper among my things. I think it is from last December. I don't know the context under which I wrote these down, but I thought it worth sharing...
"Yoga is strength, balance, integrity, dedication, hard work, progress, enlightenment, presence, awareness, stillness, peace, seeking, energy, connection, practice, determination, flexibility."
To that list, today I would add that Yoga is breath, union, emptiness, quiet, divinity, oneness, happiness, surrender, compassion.
"Work alone is your privilege, never the fruits thereof. Never let the fruits of action be your motive; and never cease to work. Work in the name of the Lord, abandoning selfish desires. Be not affected by success or failure. This equipoise is called Yoga."
From the Bhagavad Gita.
It might just be me, but I always judge my actions by their fruits. What will I accomplish? How will I and others be affected? I am not entirely sure how to detatch from this, though it seems like profound advice to not "let the fruits of action be your motive." I find this inspiring and challenging.
Flowing Yoga (some call it Vinyasa), where the body moves with the breath, is like a river. It breaks down blockages in the mind and spirit, washing us clean. Ghosh Yoga, with its focus on absolute stillness, is like a mountain. There is great strength and unity as the yogi ceases to be separate from the universe.
Flowing Yoga, with constant movement and unity of body and breath, is a profound process of unification and purification. We carry so much tension, so much anxiety, so many fears, so many ambitions that prevent us from simply being. When we first come to yoga we are far from our true selves. Instead, we are a conglomeration of our ambitions and fears.
By unifying the breath and body in the constant motion of Flowing Yoga, our anxieties are broken down bit by bit, like a river smoothing the stones in its path. Blockages give way to a freer flow of energy and confidence, and a stronger sense of self.
When our inner-selves have been purified a bit and our energy is flowing strongly, we find greater unity in stillness. Our energy flows with greater power when the body ceases to move and the mind stops thinking. This stillness is the foundation of Ghosh Yoga.
These three elements are fundamental to the pursuit of Self-Realization. They are the bricks on the path that we follow every day.
Above everything else is Practice. We must continue our pursuit despite setbacks and obstacles. We will inevitably encounter difficulties, discouragement and doubt. But, when we regain our composure and determination, we reset our direction and continue on the path. Such is the nature of Practice.
One of the essential concepts for us to practice is Non-Attachment. Our egos are attached to possessions, status, fears and anxieties that we perceive as our true identities. Pleasure and pain distract our minds by pulling them out of our bodies into the world of the senses. The more we can rid ourselves of attachments and distractions, the closer we come to uncovering the true nature of our selves.
How do we achieve Non-Attachment? A One-Pointed Mind is a focused mind that is free from distraction. Have you ever noticed that you are happiest when you are immersed in an activity or a hobby? That is because a mind that is focused and free of distraction is a unified and happy mind. In pursuit of larger goals like Self-Realization, hobbies don't accomplish the desired direction, so meditation, mantra (repeated phrases) and prayer are often used. These practices quiet and focus the mind and also point it in the right direction.
Above all is Practice. If we are to make progress, we must try regularly.
I have heard from several sources that it is not great for the body to eat too soon before going to sleep. Having food in the stomach means the body is digesting when it should be simply resting. So we end up not getting good rest and wake up sluggish and tired.
I have noticed this in my own sleep over the past few weeks. I like to snack at night, whether something salty like potato chips or something sweet like cookies. And sometimes my schedule doesn't allow me to eat dinner until 9 or 10pm.
On the nights when I have eaten early, like 6 or 7pm, and not snacked afterward, I have slept better and woken up more rested. Then if I eat late the next day, I feel groggy and un-refreshed.
In a recent NY Times article, there are several quotes from scientists and nutritionists about calories, nutrition and the body's health. The whole article is here, a few excerpts below.
"In recent studies, Dr. Ludwig has shown that high-carbohydrate diets appear to slow metabolic rates compared to diets higher in fat and protein, so that people expend less energy even when consuming the same number of calories. Dr. Ludwig has found that unlike calories from so-called low glycemic foods (like beans, nuts and non-starchy vegetables), those from high glycemic foods (such as sugar, bread and potatoes) spike blood sugar and stimulate hunger and cravings, which can drive people to overeat."
"100 calories of fat, protein and carbohydrates are the same in a thermodynamic sense, in that they release the same amount of energy when exposed to a Bunsen burner in a lab. But in a complex organism like a human being, he said, these foods influence satiety, metabolic rate, brain activity, blood sugar and the hormones that store fat in very different ways."
"When people eat high-fiber foods like nuts and some vegetables, for example, only about three-quarters of the calories they contain are absorbed. The rest are excreted from the body unused."
"Dr. Wang said that studies consistently show that sugary beverages, potato chips and other high-glycemic foods are indeed associated with weight gain. But this is because they are rapidly digested and easy to consume in large amounts, “not because they bypass our energy balance."
"The old masters defined concentration as the ability to keep the mind on one point for twelve seconds without a break. Twelve concentrations - or two and a half minutes - equal one meditation. Twelve meditations take a half hour. If you can concentrate without any break, if the flow of concentration is uninterrupted like oil pouring from a spout, then you've achieved the last state of yoga, samadhi, cosmic consciousness."
From the introduction to Asanas: 608 Yoga Poses by Dharma Mittra.
Pyramid Pose is a dedicated and intense stretch of the hamstrings. Hip alignment is very important because it will determine what part of the hamstrings are getting stretched. When I do Pyramid, I do it with 3 variations: 1) the usual way with hips square, 2) with the back hip rotated up, and 3) with the back hip rotated down. These get at very different parts of the leg.
Pyramid 1 - hips square. This is the usual way to do Pyramid Pose. It stretches squarely into the hamstrings of the front leg, straight down the back of the femur and across the knee. These are big, strong muscles that get very tight on most people, especially runners.
Pyramid 2 - hip up. For the second part, lift the back hip up and back away from the front foot. Notice how this moves the stretch. The sensation comes into the inner upper thigh of the front leg. These are the rear adductor muscles that we use to draw the legs together.
Pyramid 3 - hip down. For the third part, drop the back hip down and forward toward the front foot. You won't have to go very far before you feel this stretch move into the outside of the hip, leg, ankle and foot. These muscles and tendons on the outside of the leg are more for stabilization, so they are stiffer, less flexible and more uncomfortable when stretched. Try to relax and experience the sensation.
I like to revisit Pyramid 1 with even hips on my way from 2 to 3 and also after doing the 3rd part. It helps me learn the complex alignment of the hip joint. This way I will know good hip alignment by what muscles I am accessing.
This journal honors my ongoing experience with the practice, study and teaching of yoga.
1) Sridaiva Yoga: Good Intention But Imbalanced
2) Understanding Chair Posture
2) Why I Don't Use Sanskrit or Say Namaste
3) The Meaningless Drudgery of Physical Yoga
5) Beyond Bikram: Why This Is a Great Time For Ghosh Yoga