When a student comes into our class, we become largely responsible for their health, well-being, and physical and spiritual growth. It is a big responsibility, one that takes constant vigilance and care.
We must pay attention to the students' use of their bodies to make sure they are not injuring themselves in a practice that should be healing them. We should correct any student who is executing a posture in a way that can be damaging. That includes incorrect alignment, intention or depth.
We must also keep a watchful eye on the tendencies of each student. Some prefer to push very hard, some prefer to do very little. As teachers, we should recognize the differences in our students and encourage them to balance out their practice - the students who like to push should back off a little bit. The ones who tend to back off should push a little bit.
This is a lot of responsibility for a teacher, and it gets tougher as the class gets bigger. It is much easier to regulate the practices of 5 people than it is to regulate 30. But our intention should be the guidance of our students' practice, not just choosing what pose they do next.
"Practicing yoga for the sake of one's health, a firm body, or enjoyment is not the right approach. Only the purification of the body, sense organs, and mind, and the dedication of all actions and deeds to the Almighty, is the true way."
From Yoga Mala by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
Here is an interview with my teacher Tony Sanchez from Asana Journal.
We are constantly encouraged to practice every day, whether it is soccer, music or yoga. When we do something every day it becomes part of who we are, not just what we do.
With yoga postures there is some danger in practicing the same postures everyday, especially if you are not under the watchful eye of an expert teacher, and especially if you practice in heat.
When we do physical exercise we damage our muscles. This is how they become stronger and more flexible. When our bodies repair the damage, it regenerates stronger than before. When we practice the same postures every day, we damage the same muscles in the same way before they have had time to heal. If we compound this over weeks or months we can do serious damage to the muscles and tendons that attach them. And yes, stretching does as much damage as strengthening.
The danger of injury is greater if we practice with poor form or alignment. If we are not using our muscles, joints and tissues the way they are intended, the damage will be greater and quicker. If we practice under the direct guidance of a master teacher, they will ensure that we are using our bodies correctly, thereby decreasing the likelihood that we will become injured from misuse.
Practicing in heat makes muscle and tendon damage more likely. Heat loosens the muscles and numbs the nerve receptors that usually tell us when the muscle has reached its limit. When we practice in heat we should back off of our effort and depth to protect our bodies.
We can still practice yoga everyday, and we should. We can simply exercise different parts of the body. Focus on standing postures one day, stretching postures the next, and maybe inversions on the third. This way, when we return to the same postures, our bodies have had a chance to heal and strengthen.
Over the past year I have developed a home practice. I decide when I practice, for how long, what postures and exercises to do, how long to hold them and what to focus on. This has allowed me to begin what teachers call "finding your own practice." As I get to know my own body and mind better I realize that certain exercises and approaches are better for me than others.
When we practice in a classroom with a teacher, it is the teacher who dictates the postures, the pace and the tone. Perhaps this this is why most yogis will gravitate to one teacher or another, because that teacher's guidance coincides with their own tendencies and needs.
Practicing at home takes our individuality one step further. If yoga is the journey toward union within the self, it makes sense that at some point we turn inward to follow the path within.
These days I occasionally take a class with a teacher and other students. I usually find them challenging. Not necessarily physically challenging but difficult to find "my practice." I am not able to reach that deep place in myself that I seek when I am alone. Out of respect for the class I listen to the teacher and follow his or her pace, postures and guidance. But it usually keeps me from reaching that deep internal place that I have begun to find in my own practice.
I wonder if there will come a day when my practice is so stable and so deep that the external guidance of the classroom will feel welcome instead of frustrating and confusing.
We have only one body. We won't ever get another. But how often do we appreciate it?
Mostly we notice our bodies in frustration when we are sick. "Why is my body holding me back?" we ask. Or we notice it when we are weak, sore or stiff. "This darn thing is getting old," we say. "If only it would do what I ask of it."
It is our only body, a vital part of our human existence. We would not be human without it. We should love our bodies and tell them so. You might be surprised at how much happier you feel and how unified.
"Skin, feet and ankles, bones, muscles, blood, heart and lungs, stomach, intestines, liver, nerves, eyes, ears and tongue - I love you."
There is a phrase often used to describe the nature of Posture practice - Sthira sukham asanam - which means "Stable and easy in the posture." The phrase illuminates the dual nature of the practice - hard and soft, strong yet relaxed.
Today I notice the mental elements of the Postures too. The mind should be calm, quiet, soft, easy. While the body is rigid, strong and engaged.
In the postures, the body is strong, stable, Sthira while the mind is calm, peaceful, Sukha. A balance of effort and ease.
In the past few months I have read in several places that it might be best to practice Postures/Asana in the evening when the body is a bit looser from the day's activities. Early morning, they suggest, is a good time for Energy/Breathing/Pranayama practice, to still the mind and focus the energy for the day ahead.
So I have been trying this approach - Breathing in the morning and Postures in the evening. The early morning breathing has been wonderful. It clears my mind and has a tremendous centering effect on my energy for the entire day.
Trying to practice Postures in the evening has been a challenge though. Often I have obligations that make it difficult to schedule in a couple hours of practice time. I also have trouble getting my meals and practice to cooperate late in the day. Sometimes lunch is big, so I need to wait until it digests. But then I might have an obligation later. Or I might have time to practice but be terribly hungry. Basically, if I wait until the 2nd half of the day to practice I have trouble making it work.
So I have gone back to what I was doing months ago, which is practicing Postures first thing in the morning. This way my stomach is empty, and even though my body might be a little tighter from sleep it is better than the alternative, which is waiting until later in the day and hoping my schedule works out.
I still intend to practice breathing in the mornings, probably after my posture practice. I might have to get up earlier.
We must seek stillness in the postures, for without stillness in the body there cannot be stillness in the mind. Each posture is a meditation where the body and mind can unify and be still.
What we seek is a calm and still mind, so we must make the body still as well. Movement will exercise and bring health to the body, but it will not unify body and mind nor bring mental stillness.
"Be still, and know that I am God." - Psalm 46:10
"Those who have attained the summit of union with the Lord, the path is stillness and peace." - Bhagavad Gita
I have been finding lately that balance simply means that my awareness is faster than my movement. Especially in balancing postures, including arm balances, if I move my body faster than I can be aware and compensate, I lose my balance. When I move slowly and pay very close attention, I can stay in balance.
The funny thing is - this ends up looking a lot like stillness. In order to stay present and be aware of every tiny movement of my body, I have to move very slowly. There are always small movements, but this slow, controlled movement looks remarkably like stillness.
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