As discussed in The Purpose of Yoga, Part 1, the goal of yoga is the transformation of our perception of ourselves and the world around us to see things as they truly are. Physical Postures/Asana is one of the steps on that path, often the first and generally considered to be the simplest.
How can we practice asana to aid our progress in that direction? What does asana offer that transforms and purifies our perceptions? Does physical health have anything to do with it? What about strength, flexibility and balance? What role does cardiovascular health play? What role does stress play?
The most challenging element of Physical Practice is that it is easily clouded by the many peripheral benefits like strength, flexibility, weight loss, reduced stress, etc. These benefits are real and they are wonderful, but they are side-effects of the yoga practice. Or rather they are sign-posts that we will pass on our journey.
If we make these the goal of our yoga practice - if we exercise to lose weight or reduce stress - we are missing the forest for the trees. We are losing track of the bigger picture to focus on one small element within. We will attain the benefit we seek, but we lose out on the much greater possibilities that are available in a yoga practice. We are like a child who uses the pages of a textbook to make paper airplanes. The paper airplanes might be wonderful, but there is so much more available if the child were to look a little deeper.
In Asana practice we use the body as a tool of awareness, presence, control. We start externally, farthest from the mind, bringing the physical elements of the body under control and understanding. It is control and understanding in the broadest sense; control of the muscles, limbs and body, external elements. Motion, tightness, strength, balance, pain, will-power. We use the body to develop the mind, learn about the mind and our preconceptions through the lens of the body.
We build strength simply through using the body, by challenging it. Strength is not necessarily a goal of the practice except that it allows proper usage and function of the body. If we have areas of extreme weakness, like in the lower back, our spines and intestines will suffer and deteriorate. Building functional strength is therefore valuable in promoting full-body health.
Flexibility is another product of asana practice. We challenge the body and our perception of it. You know that creepy, uncomfortable feeling you get when you stretch a tight area? That feeling is closer to the true yoga than the flexibility it creates. The discomfort of the mind and body facilitate change - our minds relax and focus, our bodies relax and "stretch". This promotes mind-body connection and gradually creates a change in perspective. We once thought of ourselves as "tight" or "inflexible" and so we were. Over time we grow to think of ourselves as "relaxed," "present" and "open" so we are.
Balance is the element of asana that is closest to the true goals of yoga practice. Because it is difficult to balance on one leg or upside down with a wandering mind, the practice of balance encourages mental stillness, complete presence of mind, and mind-body unity. It is very simple in concept but very powerful. Practicing balance is the most powerful thing we can do with our asana.
Most physical practices reduce stress in the mind and body, and yoga is no exception. By putting the body under stress and learning to relax the mind and body, we become skillful at responding to challenging situations. We become mindful and present and it becomes hard to shake us or wind us up.
My teacher, Tony Sanchez, has said that yoga is all about creating health. If we practice the right postures we can improve our physical health: our digestion, metabolism, sleep, endocrine, circulatory and nervous systems. Asana can massage the internal organs and glands, enhancing blood flow and therefore promoting healing of our tissues. Improved health facilitates the ultimate goal of yoga by freeing the mind and body from concern with physical issues. It is hard to do more advanced yoga, like meditating, if our body is full of pain and our mind is restless.
In the grander scheme, asana puts us in touch with the greater forces that lie within us. We become aware of the energy that runs through us; we learn how to recognize it and focus it. We begin to control and quiet the mind which will lead us to the next area of yoga, Pranayama, which is a dedicated focus on recognizing, focusing and controlling the energy of the body and mind, usually using the breath as a tool.
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 1: Introduction
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 3: Energy Control/Pranayama
Why do we practice yoga? Is it for strong abs? To be able to touch our toes? To stand on our hands? To get our heart rate up? To calm our minds? To lower stress? To know God?
Yogis practice for all of these reasons and many more. There are as many reasons as there are people on the planet.
But what is the true purpose of yoga? It is a practice with many physical, mental, spiritual and emotional benefits. Which of these is yoga's true purpose and which are side-effects? Playing guitar will make your fingers tough and calloused, but few would claim that callouses are the purpose of guitar playing.
Yoga is a complex endeavor. Traditionally it has between 6 and 10 diverse areas of focus, or limbs. These include Disciplines and Values, Physical Postures, Breath and Energy Control, Inward Focus of the Senses, Concentration and Meditation, Chanting and Ritual. Some yogis focus intently on one area, others dabble in all of them.
I will explore each of these areas in some depth over the coming weeks, discussing how they aid and hinder us as we progress toward the true goal of yoga. It is simple in concept but unending in practice: to see things as they truly are.
We see the world through a filter that is unique to each of us. Our perceptions are colored by our own experiences and the mental constructs that we have in place to explain the world and the people in it. This is why, if you ask 5 different people for their explanations of an event, you will get 5 different but equally plausible answers. We all see the world differently.
The purpose of yoga is to purify our perception of the world. In the words of Pattabhi Jois it is the "purification of the sense organs." We change the way we see the world, how we interpret and interact with it. Step by step we notice and dissolve our individual prejudices and preconceptions, from the most obvious all the way down to the ones we don't yet know we have.
As William Blake put it, "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern."
With this in mind, let's explore the various practices of yoga, starting with the most common: Physical Postures (Asana).
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 2: Physical Postures/Asana
The Purpose of Yoga, Part 3: Energy Control/Pranayama
Ida and I have decided to compete in January. It is two months away. We have never been "competitors," especially not in yoga, and it has taken some time to wrap our minds around the idea of mixing yoga and competition.
A lot of people say that competing is against the greater goals of yoga; that competing is about winning, looking good and conquering your adversaries while yoga is about self-exploration, compassion and unity of self and community. I suppose all of those things are true.
I am not competing to win. I don't expect to win, and I have no intention of shifting all of my energy and focus toward physical perfection and presentation. If the past year has taught me anything it is that my own practice is different than everyone else's, and it is my responsibility to honor that uniqueness; to follow my own path.
Already, though, the renewed attention on postural details - the locked knee in Standing Head to Knee, the teardrop shape in Bow, and trying to touch the head to the toes in Stretching - has revealed new depth and focus to my practice.
I have heard other yoga competitors say that competition is not about winning but about doing your best. I am finding that to be true. Since physical, mental and spiritual progress take years, it is impossible to force your way into good postures. And since the actual competition only allows 3 minutes per contestant, it becomes simply a display of your current abilities. For better or worse. There is no time to "go deeply" into the postures, only enough time to come to a comfortable place and then move on.
As I prepare mentally for the stress of performing 7 postures, I realize that I have no choice but to be where I am. I can practice and prepare, I can progress, but that is no different from any other day of practice.
I am excited and empowered by the idea of getting up in front of a crowd of people and simply exhibiting my ability. I may fall, I may wobble, I may be tight, but that doesn't seem to be the point. The point is that I find the confidence to do it.
I just stumbled across this open letter by Yoga To the People owner Gregory Gumucio regarding the settlement of their lawsuit with Bikram Yoga. It was written in December of 2012, right after the settlement. The letter is a partial explanation of the lawsuit and settlement, and also an explanation of Greg's thought process throughout the lawsuit. Below are some highlights. Read the whole letter here.
A little background: Bikram Yoga sued Yoga To the People, claiming to have a copyright and therefore ownership of the series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises known as Bikram Yoga. The US Copyright Office determined that Bikram's copyright had been "issued in error." The litigation was settled out of court. Yoga To the People no longer offers "the 26+2" or "Bikram Yoga."
From Greg's open letter:
"I find the idea of anyone claiming ownership of yoga asanas, or sequences, counterintuitive to the essence of yoga. I believe that this sacred and traditional knowledge is a gift to all mankind, and thus beyond claims of ownership and copyright."
"My wholehearted objection was to the concept of copyrighting yoga sequences, which I felt had to be prevented...This, in my eyes, was a fight for the future freedom of yoga for all."
"Regardless of [Bikram's] personal feelings for me, I still have an incredible amount of gratitude in my heart for the impact that the crossing of our two paths has had on my life. There was a time when I considered him not just my teacher but also a dear friend. He shared yoga with me, we broke bread in each other’s homes, and he opened his family to me."
"I had always thought (maybe even counted on) that Rajashree would one day lead the Bikram community to a renewed place of honor, respect, and understanding. However, during her deposition...it became abundantly clear that the Choudhuryʼs are entirely united in the determination to own the sequence or postures known as Bikram Yoga."
From the US Copyright office: "Choudhury claims that he arranged the asanas in a manner that was both aesthetically pleasing and in a way that he believes is best designed to improve the practitioner's health. While such a functional system or process may be aesthetically appealing, it is nevertheless uncopyrightable subject matter."
An interview was just published with Tom Sutherland, a yogi and yoga teacher who has studied with both Bikram and Tony Sanchez. There are many yogis out there who have studied with both, including Benjamin Lorr author of Hell-Bent, but this is the first article I've seen that directly addresses the differences between the two teachers who come from the same yoga lineage.
I recommend the article to any interested yogi, especially those in the Bikram/Ghosh lineage. Here are some of my favorite parts:
"At Bikram training we're taught to teach one way and that this is the only way."
"There's nothing rote about [Tony's] system at all."
"[Tony's] biggest thing is about sustainability."
“It’s been very difficult… I was a very different, very outcasted teacher… I was actually fired from two studios and had to quit from another.”
Read the whole article by Kara-Leah Grant here.
There are a lot of positions we can will ourselves into. We can pull harder in stretching postures, we can dig a little deeper in strength postures. But as I get deeper into the pursuit of yoga, I find that many elements are about patience, perseverance, humility and surrender. A few of these elements are balance, backbending and pranayama (breath, energy and the nervous system). Today I am thinking about Backbending.
Backbending can not be forced. It is incredibly difficult to push ourselves deeper into backward bends as it usually results in shortness of breath, panic and lightheadedness. We must relax and surrender into backward bends like Camel, Bow and Half Moon.
When we Backbend, the front side of the body is stretched. We don't have a lot of big muscle groups on the front side, only the abdominals (which should be relaxed as much as possible when Backbending). Mostly we have complex nerve centers at our solar plexus, chest and throat along with connective tissues. When stretched, these elements are tough and intense, far more resistant than the muscles on the backside like the hamstrings or erectors.
When we stretch the nerve centers of the front side by backbending, we experience panic and distress. I continue to be lightheaded often when practicing backbends. A couple years ago I even blacked out in Camel pose. To get through this physical and psychological distress, we need to enter backbends slowly, letting the panic arise bit by bit, calming ourselves with breath and concentration, then deepening slightly and repeating the process.
In this way we can gradually deepen our backbends. And by refining our ability to sense our own distress and calm it, our entire yoga practice and life benefits. We become more aware, more controlled, and more relaxed.
"There is a proverb: 'Many sages, many opinions'. The highest goal in yoga is attainment of kaivalya, the point at which raja yoga culminates. Ultimately, all spiritual practices and branches of yoga lead to that state, but there are as many ways of reaching the goal as there are individuals in the world."
From Muktibodhananda's commentary to the Hathapradipika.
Tiger is an inverted posture done balancing on the forearms. It is often called Forearm Balance, but in the Ghosh tradition it is called Tiger Pose. Also in the Krishnamacharya/Iyengar/Ashtanga traditions it is called Pincha Mayurasana or Peacock Feather. All the names refer to the same posture.
Practicing Tiger is about two main elements - shoulder strength and tricep strength. This includes the chest and upper back which are necessary in the motion and stability of the shoulders. When we go upside down and balance the entire body on the forearms we need lots of strength, stillness and balance.
There are 3 stages in practicing Tiger: building strength against a wall, building strength and balance slightly away from a wall, and balancing without the wall.
Stage 1: Building Strength Against a Wall.
Start on your forearms with your fingers an inch from the wall. Kick up (gently) and rest your feet against the wall. The wall helps with balance, so all you have to do is build the strength in your arms and shoulders. (See picture 2)
Practice this way until you can hold it easily for a minute. Then move to Stage 2.
Stage 2: Building Strength and Balance Slightly Away From the Wall.
Move away from the wall so your fingers are 3 or 4 feet from the wall. Kick up and let your kicking leg come all the way over and touch the wall. Your trailing leg will stay in front of you. It will look sort of like the splits. (See picture 3)
Use this stage to start to find your balance. You will shift both forward and backward. Use your strength and be as balanced and even as possible.
Start to lift your foot away from the wall. Find moments of balance in this splits-like formation. Gradually straighten both legs upward until they are together and upright, like in Stage 3.
Stage 3: Balancing Without the Wall.
Finally, move an extra foot or two from the wall. For awhile you should stay near one so if you start to fall backward you can catch yourself like in Stage 2. But in this stage the goal is balancing upright with the legs together.
At the beginning you may only be able to hold it for a second. One second will become two and two will become five. Keep practicing.
Find stillness, find balance.
It took me about a year of practicing these stages before I could balance for more than a few seconds.
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