Do you ever feel like you need to start over from scratch? Like your habits have piled so high that you can't even find the bottom - the pure intention or expression that made you start?
Sometimes I find imbalances in my body, ruts and movement habits that I have reinforced over years of movement. It is so difficult to undo them. I find myself returning to the beginning - the simplest movement, the smallest bend. I try to engage the proper muscles, use them evenly, with control, not just plop down deeply into a posture relying on my habits and imbalances to support me.
It is funny, because I feel like the deeper I get into any given posture, the closer I am to the beginning. Somehow I am simultaneously progressing into unknown territory and at the same time retracing my steps backward to undo my bad habits.
Today is the first day of a new era for me. Our books are finally at the printer, so my days of endless proofreading and editing are over (for now, at least). I am returning to my practice with a renewed passion and vigor.
So much time in the past few months has been spent focused on instruction, both with our books and the regular classes I teach. I have noticed the lack of personal focus, development and progress. I am eager to explore some new depths of myself and continue on my own journey.
I have kept up my practice enough to not slide backward too far, but I can feel the build-up of un-tapped potential. I am so happy and relieved to be returning to dedicated practice.
Also, I hope to return to regular posting here in my online journal!
When we come to our practice each day, it is easy to bring expectations and baggage. What has this practice meant to me in the past? What was I capable of yesterday or last year? What do I expect my performance to be today? This is especially true if we do the same or similar practice each day.
While it is generally desire that brings us to our practice - the desire for fitness, stress relief, spirituality or something else - once we arrive and begin practicing our postures, breathing or meditation all desire and expectation should be discarded. The practice becomes immediate, with complete mental presence in the moment. There is no future and no past, no expectations and no baggage. Only right now, only our body and breath and mind right now.
(Has it really been a month since I've posted?!)
Practicing for myself has always been easy. Who else would I be practicing for? Recently, two developments have unfolded that make it more difficult for me to practice. They are revealing about the ego.
First, I have been teaching more. A lot more. Big classes, small classes, vigorous classes, gentle classes, fast ones and slow ones. Much of my focus is on the students, what they need, and how to communicate effectively with them. Each class needs a different approach, both a game plan beforehand and also the ability to change when things inevitably don't go as planned.
As I teach more, I also practice more. I demonstrate many things in class and often accompany the students in the postures for solidarity and motivation. I also practice a lot in preparation to teach, to familiarize myself with the movements and breath that I will ask the students to do.
But all this practice is not for me. It is focused on communication and service of my students.
Second, as my personal practice develops it moves inward and out of sight. It still requires time and concentration, even more than before, but Breathing exercises and Meditation are invisible. They don't develop new muscles or fancy new postures. So if I base my progress on my old measures, like growing flexibility and strength, it sometimes feels like I am stalled or sliding backward.
This only means that my relationship to my own practice is changing. It must change if I am to keep moving forward. My measures of progress will have to change, away from depth of stretch and drops of sweat, toward balance of energy, stillness of mind, and awareness and control of breath.
I dislike pictures of people doing yoga postures in beautiful places: mountaintops, beaches, meadows at sunset. It promotes the idea of yoga as a luxury and as something that is distant from the everyday life. I think yoga should be promoted as a lifestyle, simple and essential way to be healthy and happy. Like eating healthily or getting enough sleep.
Above on the left is a picture of me doing exactly what I dislike. On the beach in Los Cabos, Mexico, the day after completing Advanced Practice with Tony Sanchez.
On the right is my ordinary practice at home. No fancy props or beautiful backdrops. Just my body, breath and mind. And my dog Bug, who has become a big part of my practice. He has a way of coming into the room at the perfect time, when I am upside down or in deep concentration. He licks my face or jumps up on me. I consider it part of my practice - to maintain focus and stillness regardless of what is going on around me (or licking me).
It is not strength in the muscles
Or flexibility in the joints
Or standing on one leg
It is not balancing upside down
Or holding the breath
Awareness of every fiber of the body
Every impulse of the nerves
Every beat of the heart
Every twitch of breeze and breath
The goal is to feel and control
Each element of the body and mind.
Each muscle contracts or relaxes intentionally.
Each breath enters and exits on purpose.
Each thought... the thoughts are few and far between,
Focused on stillness and awareness.
Here are some things that Tony said during our week of Advanced Practice.
ON PERSONAL PRACTICE:
The positions need to be cultivated in a gradual way.
In the 3rd set you will be able to reach the maximum of your ability.
You will get a lot more benefit when you find that place of stability and hold it motionless.
When you have reached your limit [in a posture], it is important that you learn how to stop the world.
The only way to make your practice simple is by practicing a lot.
It's not just doing the practice, but also studying; increasing your knowledge.
The mind can be very, very effective. But for most people the mind is very, very lazy.
We are like carbon. We can become diamonds, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of work.
The idea is to keep practicing no matter if you achieve those things (like samadhi) or not. Devotion to your practice.
A yogi becomes transparent, almost invisible.
ON HIS PERSONAL APPROACH:
I'm so happy just doing my own practice and ignoring the world.
To me, sustainability is everything.
The power that I want is not human power. It is divine power.
For me, the hands and the feet are assisting the position; that is my spine.
When people do things a certain way because "this is how Tony teaches it," then it becomes dogmatic. I don't want it to be dogmatic.
ON BEING A TEACHER:
You have the responsibility to stay healthy. You are the role models.
At least half of your class needs to be the standing positions.
Your objective should be to cultivate what is missing in [your students'] bodies. (strength or flexibility)
ON THE PRESENT AND FUTURE OF YOGA:
The standing positions are the most important for our society right now.
It is like practicing yoga in hell. (during a discussion of heated yoga studios)
Scientific yoga has to rely on all the other sciences.
We're in a big rush to get somewhere, but we don't know where we're trying to get.
Savasana is the most important posture in the whole class.
It is the last day of Advanced Practice with Tony. We will only do a morning session today and have the afternoon free.
We waste no time in getting to the exercises. Almost immediately Tony instructs us to stand. We do some qi gong movements to warm up before proceeding to the Standing Deep Breathing and then to the Complete Series. It seems faster and more effortless today. I think it is because I know this is the last time we will do it. I want to go slowly, to embrace each posture and each instruction.
In Short Man, Ida and I are upright on our mats, right next to each other. Tony say, "Are you having a competition to see who can stay up the longest?" We weren't before, but we are now! We stay in the posture for as long as we can, and Ida ends up winning (!).
After going through all the postures, we proceed to go through all the Mudras and Bandhas we learned this week. The breath control slows my mind down, and I become very relaxed.
Then we are done. With no ceremony, Tony thanks us all and gets up to leave. He puts on his baseball cap, picks up his backpack and, just like that, he is gone. The rest is up to us, either individually or collectively. Will we continue our practices with dedication? Will we teach or run a studio? Will we honor and pass on the tradition that we have learned?
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