The High Purpose of Asana

I think we can all agree that yoga, these days, appears a little absurd.

People carry their mats in stylish little bags and spend most of their day in pants especially designed to enhance your down dog. Great! May all our down dogs be so happy for the assistance.

Now what do those pants offer my mind? Or my heart?

The deeper practices of yoga intend to take any of us who are willing into an experience of bliss. What does that mean, actually? A quiet mind. In the stillness, your Self. The capital S indicates its importance. It’s your true nature. The resident of your heart. The eternal you that is not confined to your body or ego. The you that realizes how to move beyond suffering. It’s a spiritual thing, for sure. It’s the science of Self-realization. We are the scientists of ourselves. We use the system, experience its effects and consider the results. No one can experience it for us. And no one can tell us, really, what our bliss will be. Not your teacher. Not your mate. We can only study ourselves and find out. That’s the dance.

A neat thing about the dance is the variety of steps for your particular rhythm. You can plop down and meditate until you know the choreography, but this isn’t completely feasible for folks who have to work to pay rent and may also have some back pain. You can study the old texts a ton but the shoulder tension could distract you from that ultimate realization. Who knows?

Which is why yoga is a system. It’s got a bunch of options available to you as you progress in your practice. It also has a variety of tools to aid in the progression. And to help you understand how you should practice, Patanjali kindly offered eight steps to guide you: yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana samadhayo ‘stav agani. The eight limbs of yoga are social and personal conduct, posture, breath control, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and absorption.

Oh my gosh! Asana is in there! Long live yoga pants; long live my down dog!

In the West, most people equate yoga with asana. If people learn I’m a yoga teacher, they want to know my favorite pose. (Savasana. Duh.) To most, yoga means a form of exercise. Or, gentle yoga means a form of stretching. Or, restorative yoga means a form of napping. And, more recently, yoga therapy means a form of rehabilitation. All fine. Each of these forms are good and helpful. But there’s so much more. Taking asana to be the whole world of yoga is to take the spot where you currently sit as the whole world. Please don’t limit yourself.

Asana is just a fraction of a greater system. And the system is more vast than even Patanjali’s simplified rubric. Still, asana absolutely is part of the dance. Here’s why.

The practice of various poses will help you figure out the physical and energetic disturbances that keep your mind hurtling at mach speed. The appropriate practice of asana will balance your energy, so you can learn to settle your mind. It may be that your body requires physical purification. Certain asana, done in certain ways, are very effective for this. It may also be that your body requires greater strength to sit still. Certain asana are effective for this as well. In coordination with the asana, we also should learn to regulate our breath. This sort of integration of appropriate asana and pranayama gets us moving toward a greater understanding of our energy (and how to work with it) and how to start focusing our minds.

Another lovely aspect to asana is the familiarity it will give you with the temple housing your soul. Your body isn’t going to live forever. I’m sorry if I’m the first one to tell you. It also isn’t redeemable for a trade-in. The one you have in this life is the one you have to work with. You can look around these days and see a ton of variations on the theme of body-neglect. Folks in pain. Folks eating crap. Sedentary folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies move through space. Highly active folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies rest. So many people have forgotten how to be friendly and loyal to their bodies. They care more for their pets. (The reason we love down dogs so dearly?)

An appropriate asana practice can help you start to pay attention to what your body needs. That lovely body of yours is constantly sending you signals. You may be familiar with those for hunger and those for ouch. Listening in more carefully, you can hear it ask more specifically. It may ask for sunlight or a siesta. Touch or a banana. Protein or the feel of dirt under your toes. The body knows what it wants. It’s amazing how often we fail to give our bodies what they want. How we fail to provide an appropriate offering to the temple.

Finally, an appropriate asana practice is a kick in the pants for self-discipline. It’s a thing these days: we prioritize everyone and everything but ourselves. Some people even hold this habit up as an achievement. Well, it ain’t gonna get you on the shortlist for sainthood. Just suffering.

Having a short sequence of postures to do in the morning or evening will help us learn to create space and time for ourselves amidst the noise. Even to realize that the noise is not all that noisy when we learn to integrate it properly.

So. Asana. Purposeful. But not everything. Pants or no pants.

Final note: I’ve mentioned several times the word ‘appropriate.’ Yeah. Intentional. If you’d like to know more about what’s appropriate, contact me. And if you’re shy, just think about this: would you expect a 30-year old marathon runner to do the same series of movements as a 70-year with a recent hip transplant? Do you think a new mother, post-Caesarean, with barely a moment needs the same movement patterns as a 45-year old dude who works in a cubicle all day and drinks beer all night? Good. Now send me a note and let’s talk.

I love you and your yoga pants.

 

 

Learning to meditate.

Someone called up and said she’d been reading about the benefits of meditation. She said she wanted to get started. She said, ‘I want to meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night.’

Great, I said.

The woman said, ‘I have so much stress in my life. I usually work more than 50 hours a week and my husband and I have been going through some conflicts lately.’

I’m sorry, I said.

The woman said, ‘It’s going to be hard for me to get to you, though. So can we meet somewhere? I have to drive a lot for work. Maybe we can meet quickly somewhere or you can just give me some guidance over the phone?’

Hmm, I said.

I wonder if you can guess the issue that will arise if this woman tries to simply sit down on her own to meditate for 20 minutes. Even 10?

Here’s a clue: she won’t. Or she will for about 3 minutes and then she’ll fidget. She may check her phone. She’ll get up and come back. Within a week, she’ll decide, ‘I’ve been trying this for a week and I’m not enlightened.’ And then she’ll stop, concluding, sadly, meditation isn’t for me.

Which is precisely why there’s this gift bag of techniques offered up by traditional yoga.

Does your back hurt? I promise you that learning to meditate with a sore back is unlikely to bring you peace. Is your mind spinning? Same story. Do you struggle to be kind? To tell the truth? To rein in your greed? Yeah, well, deepening the practice of an asshole only deepens the asshole. Which is to say, someone who isn’t looking closely at herself to determine appropriately non-violent, honest and selfless behavior is only going to strengthen the patterns that keep her looking every which way but in. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we’re provided with the yamas, a set of restraints for worldly interactions, and the niyamas, a set of observances for inner processing. Toward others, be kind, be honest, don’t steal, be moderate, and free of greed. And toward yourself, be clean, content, disciplined. Study yourself and be devoted to something.

Not surprisingly, these are the first two of eight limbs meant to guide a seeker from raucous mind to absolute peace. From there, move the body. Then the energy on the wind of the breath. Tame the sense organs. Learn to focus. Become fully attentive on the object of focus. Then, give up the object and remain fully attentive. That’s meditation. By practicing that for a long, long while, with adequate preparation, maybe someday we’ll all comprehend the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the pure potential of consciousness.

In the meantime, we’ll be more peaceful, healthier, clear-minded, less stressed and more compassionate. It’s worthwhile, even if we don’t all become Buddhas.

But it starts with a careful sequence. A series of steps to prepare the body to feel, to relax, to sit comfortably. Another series of steps to prepare the energy to withstand the process. And then practices for the senses. Practices to train focus. For some, mantra japa. For others, chanting. Maybe yantras. Maybe murtis. There’s a lot in the gift bag, curated over millennia to address various personality types, physical conditions and social conditioning. These yoga practices aren’t simply isolated magic tricks or exercise regimens. They’re tools of a system. They help the seeker see herself clearly and complement each other as the we develops her skills. And each tool serves some element of our daily interaction with existence—body, energy, mind, intellect, spirit.

It’s such an incredible gift bag. So thoughtfully compiled. All about you. The greatest gift of all being the compassionate recognition that plopping yourself down in lotus to ascend into mindless absorption isn’t natural after decades suffering and delighting in life.

So. Yoga. A system to know yourself. A system to lead us toward clarity of purpose and calmness of mind. A system to teach us all that we are all Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Mahavira. If we let it.

That woman? To start, I gave her an asana sequence with breath regulation. We did a short visualization before she settled in to rest. She said she had a marvelous experience in savasana. She wants to learn more.

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The technology of Yoga

What an honor it was to spend the last few days at the Yoga Journal Conference in San Diego assisting my teacher, Gary Kraftsow. Curmudgeonly Gary. He has the onerous task of traveling widely to these corporate-sponsored events—for whom poses do a better job than self-inquiry of selling— to say again and again, ‘Yoga is not simply asana.’ He says it kindly at first. And then he repeats himself. And then he take a long, deep breath when someone raises a hand and asks, ‘so should I keep my feet hip-width or not?’ His answer should be trademarked under the American Viniyoga Institute: ‘It depends.’

I don’t believe I run the risk of learning too much curmudgeonry from Gary. For this, I can thank earlier teachers, the law and a healthy few millennia of past lives. But in the spirit of curmudgeonly cooperation—curmudgeonly community?—I offer this little echo of Gary’s broken record and a hopefully helpful metaphor.

Every time I’m introduced as a yoga teacher, someone is sure to say, ‘oh, you must be really flexible.’ Or they harumph: ‘those poses are for circus freaks.’ Or maybe, ‘I should stretch more.’ Even funnier lately, when I meet fellow yoga practitioners and they tell me, ‘I just can’t get a good workout in your kind of yin class. I need to sweat and get my heart rate up.’

Okay, right. Where to start? Honestly, with a small sigh. And then a little bonk of my heart to jostle my compassion muscle. It is absolutely the case that we are all perfect souls seeking higher consciousness. Our paths need not always converge or even cross. And I’m grateful for the tension that I may practice the discipline of patience. Breathe.

So, what does yoga mean to you?

If yoga means poses, you’re not wrong. You’re just missing the forest for a tree.

(If yoga means racerback tshirts with wacky sayings—’puppies, lattes and yoga!’— you’re totally on the pulse of the Yoga Journal Conference of 2016. But you’re a little distracted. Please pay attention.)

In fact, yoga means union. And the union it seeks is within you—body, mind, spirit— and beyond you. It is you learning how to master your body and mind so that you can be you. Your best you. It is you discovering that you are infinitely connected, absolutely perfect and invested with unconditional joy.

The history of yoga is long, circuitous and complex. The tradition, however, can be viewed quite simply. For several thousand years, humans before you have sought a path to find peace. There have been masters—sages like Jesus, Buddha and Mahavira— and there have been millions of ardent practitioners. The ardent practitioners discovered from the masters that an steadfast effort toward self-exploration and discovery can transform their microcosmic power. With this greater personal power inside, they can spare a little to contribute some positive change to the macrocosm. This potential is the birthright of every individual. And yoga is simply a means of finding it.

Wow. That’s awesome, right? But how?

Around 2600 years ago, a guide book was offered. This is the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It’s generally accepted that this small compendium of yoga advice brings much older wisdom into one location. And it’s by no means the only book to consult on yoga. But it’s so well-organized and this post is already going to be way too long. So. The Yoga Sutra. We’ll start there.

In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali lets us know that yoga is a system. Followed diligently and with humility, it will quiet the fluctuations of the mind. It requires discipline and patience, deep self-inquiry and devotion. There are eight limbs that must be practiced. They are, in order, the ethical restraints, internal restraints, postures, breathing practice, sensory control, concentration, meditation and integration.

You’ll note, poses are one-eighth of the practice. And the poses we find familiar were not described in print until the Hatha Yoga Pradipika came around… in the 15th century CE. Which isn’t to say that postures were not taken to assist a practitioner’s ability to sit still for meditation. But they probably weren’t taken in conjunction with an awesome playlist, live DJ or stand-up paddleboard. Although, what do I know?

All of this is to reiterate, as Gary says, the poses have no inherent value on their own. It is the poses practiced for the purpose of self-discovery that come to mean something. The poses, like the ethical and internal restraints on behavior, like the breathing, the concentration, the meditation, all of it, serve as a mirror. These are tools that serve us as we pursue our paths of self-discovery. As tools, they are fantastic. Practiced for the sake of the tool itself, they are meaningless.

Think of it like this: if I show you a bridge between two land masses, do you immediately think of the cranes used to build it? Do you want to know more about the bolts used, the brand of cement and the grip on the wrenches? Maybe yes, if you’re an engineer. But the engineer will see the bridge for its utility, its harmony, its safety and know that its construction required more than a knowledge of nuts, bolts and the wrenches to bind them. And this is precisely how an engineer of the self must think: though we may be fascinated by some of the tools we use, ultimately, we’re building a bridge. It’ll take more than a tool or two to get there and we’re going to need to change our tools as we progress. And age. And learn.

We want to move from the chaos of our minds toward the peace in our souls. If we obsess on the wrench, we’re never going to move beyond the tightening of nuts and bolts. And there’s a lot more to a bridge than nuts and bolts. Just like you are so much more than that beautiful body containing you.

Now, what’s yoga to you?

I know. It’s about the pants.

What was I thinking?

(Please note! You may also be interested in reading up on Tantra. Which actually means system. And will be the topic of some other post, some other day. For now, I have to go balance in eka pada koundinyasana. Until I find enlightenment.)

(Also, if you’re interested in learning more about the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, please join me at 8 Elements West on the first Wednesday of every month at 6pm. We’ll chant the Sutra and discuss.)

Here’s a simple little bit about love.

Every morning, I say thank you. First thing. It’s a practice.

When I put my feet on the ground to get out of bed, I take quick account of my many gifts. Legs work. Cognition: check. Hands open and close. Eyes see. I’m fortunate. I love my life. Thank you.

And then the day starts.

I share this because I’ve come to realize a few things in the last year of living alone. Whether you’re fortunate enough to have a love share your bed or if you’re simply growing love in your heart, it’s the love that counts. Not the partner. Not the bed. Not even the legs or hands or eyes that function. It’s the love YOU have. It’s your love.

We may initiate other practices to help us stabilize the love inside us. Some people choose to scrapbook memories; some people bake cookies for their friends. Other people surf, go to church or volunteer somewhere. We might cook or clean or teach or draw horoscopes for people or make necklaces to give away to those who need them. Our practices are usually about being of service, whether to ourselves or others. About taking ourselves out of our routines and offering ourselves to another moment. And in that other moment, we rediscover our connections. To ourselves first. And then with others. And the world around us.

And when we find those connections in whatever idiosyncratic practice we keep, and when we let ourselves experience a sense of gratitude for the connections and the practice itself, we discover a totally cool feeling. The connection we’re feeling is just a longer word for love.

Check it out for yourself. I’m pretty sure I’m not wrong. We all love love. We all have our little ways of cultivating it. I, for one, practice yoga— did you know it means union? Another word for connection.

But my practice doesn’t mean I buy $100 mats or sticky-soled socks. It just means that I do my best to remember—no matter what I’m doing—that I conduct my life honestly, kindly, moderately and with devotion. I take care of my body and my mind. I study myself. I express gratitude. I do my best to be compassionate. I remind myself to see the light inside myself and inside others.

But all this, with all due respect to yoga, is somewhat of an abstraction. A necessary one because it helps to have a practice that guides me. But an abstraction nonetheless. The practice simply helps me remember a very simple thing.

Which leads me to my point. The simple bit. What if you remembered on a daily basis that your entire purpose on this fine earth is the act of making connections? Of creating love? That your highest and best use is to be of service to love. Whether you share love with another, teach others about love, receive love without condition, inspire others to love or help love to grow where it hasn’t yet rooted.

The only important consideration for you and me and everyone else is connection.

Love.

It’s the whole point. And it makes the whole point much, much clearer when you just surrender and accept it.

I love you!

Tell your mind: Just hush.

At certain points in your life, surely you’ve heard an inner voice talking to you. Who am I kidding? That voice is talking to you all the time. Am I right? It’s talking to you right now. It’s saying something like, ‘why are you wasting your time with this. You have so many other things to do. Like… oh, when can I get some fro-yo?’

And you may have noticed that the voice isn’t always kind.

It might have said things like, ‘I can’t believe they asked you to dinner,’ or ‘you’re going to wear THAT?’ or ‘well, they’re just being charitable so bow out and eat that pizza from the freezer instead.’

Maybe your voice gets straight to the point: ‘You don’t even deserve their dinner or their charity. Look at you.’

Or maybe it’s more socratic and it does that open-ended thing like your dad used to do that shuts you down immediately. ‘What are you thinking?’ Ugh.

(How’s that for a funny, almost paradoxical question? I mean, THAT is precisely what you’re thinking. Come on, mind! And also, lighten up! I’d be thinking something so much better if you didn’t ask everything with that horrible tone.)

Oh, that voice. Imagine that voice in a body. Sharing your living space. Telling you how little you’ve made of your life. You’d be looking for a new housemate. If it took you to the beach for a fun day out, then told you how crappy you look in your bathing suit the whole time? Please say you’d ditch it. Go for a nice swim. Enjoy your time alone.

Right?

But this voice, we can’t really escape it. It keeps talking. Just today, I laughed when I heard that voice suggest that the meditation I was starting wasn’t going to serve me at all. Wouldn’t it be better, it advised, if you just had a cup of coffee? ‘Oh voice,’ I had to say, ‘just hush.’

Which isn’t to say that it should always be quiet. Sometimes it has really interesting information for us. Like, turn left, avoid that pothole, pick up the wedding present and call your clients.

But sometimes, for a little bit, it would be awesome to get a little silence. So we can listen into our deeper wisdom. Which may sound bonkers to you. Or not. But here’s the deal. That voice you hear endlessly yammering is the voice of your mind. For a lot of us, it get so consistently loud that we lose track of the messages that our intuition has for us. We can’t access that deeper intelligence and power through all that ruckus. For even more of us, we’ve completely forgotten that we have a source of wisdom deeper than the mind. We just… forgot.

And that’s because the voice of the mind tends to go on and on and on. Ceaselessly. Amidst all that flibber flabber blah blah, we forget that we have any control whatsoever over its agitation. All the negativity—the fear, doubt, grief, shame, guilt—that it broadcasts can actually be turned down. We can even work to prioritize a practice that will minimize these emotions. And when we do, we can start to seek peace in our wisdom with a peaceful mind. How can we possibly expect to find calm with the help of a distracted, confused and agitated mind? We’re lost from the first step.

But we have the means and ability to quiet that voice. We can say, ‘just hush, my dear dynamic mind.’ We can ask it to settle for a bit while we explore the reservoirs of joy, intelligence and knowing that come stock in all of us.

How so? Deepening your yoga sadhana to include breathing techniques that will help you understand and shift your energy, meditation practices that will help you identify your mind’s processing patterns, mantra practice that will guide you toward focused attention, and prayer to build your trust in all that surrounds you. These are just a few elements of an integrated yoga practice. This is how yoga brings you to a place of balance. This is what it means to be in union: to master the ceaseless fluctuations of your rambling mind.

Send me a note if you’d like to chat a bit more about this. I’d love to hear from you.

Putting it all together

The thing I love most about my Viniyoga training? Gary Kraftsow’s stubborn and persistent message that yoga is more than asana. Thank goodness for Gary. Thank goodness for the students who came before me who confirmed his path. His teaching is authentic and it works. Bodies change. Minds change. More importantly, people change their perception of themselves. I’m honored everyday to be his student. I’m grateful that he hasn’t altered course despite what I imagine would be some strong pulls for him to consider other paths.

In my funny beach ghetto, yoga is widely understood as a physical practice that takes place in a studio, on a rubber mat, in specially designed clothing made from organic hemp or body-slimming plutonium or something. The innovation of all the inconsequential components of a yoga practice is a mesmerizing example of the distractions our society enjoys.

Did you know you can practice yoga without a Lululemon bralette? I promise you: you can. You can even practice without a playlist. Your breath can actually serve as the rhythm of your movement. Astounding. We are amazing beings, us humans. Even without our toys and gimmicks.

Especially without them.

When we begin to set aside the unnecessary parts of what is commonly known as a yoga practice, the bones of a practice become apparent. In the quiet, in the austerity, we can begin to notice what our practices might be missing.

For example, I have a student who used to do his asana practice to music. As a result, his ability to observe his breath was pretty weak when we started working together. He’d never really listened to it. When he started to hear it, he discovered how labored it was. How his inhales caught in his throat. How he never let himself exhale completely. It took only a few sessions and he was suddenly able to move with more comfort. His breath changed. And lengthened. He started to notice that he could relax himself when he got in bed, simply by extending his exhale. He discovered an amazing tool for himself—a tool completely free to him, not available on Amazon or at the gift shop of your favorite yoga studio.

Another student had pushed herself in some serious hot yoga classes. This is a woman who was already dealing with high stress in her personal life. She experienced frequent anger—at herself and those she loved. She came to me with a yoga blanket, a yoga towel, a water bottle, really short shorts and her phone. She resisted when I initially told her that she wouldn’t need any of those things to lie on the floor for a while. She gave me funny looks when I asked her to move with her breath into a sequence that would calm her nervous system. But she came back because she felt better after resting, after eliminating some of her body’s suppressed energy. When she learned how to settle herself, she discovered that she felt a deep connection to her own vibration. Now she’s learning to silently and verbally chant as a way to explore this vibration. She’s incorporated a mantra into her asana practice and she spends more time in child’s pose, feeling her body learning how to relax.

When we surrender all the toys we gather to distract ourselves—when we strip down— we start to discover who we are. From that place, a yoga practice can be developed that integrates so much more into the physical practice. We can work on the breath, we can learn to control our senses, we can come to stillness, we can concentrate and meditate. We don’t turn our back on our asana. Instead, we discern the appropriate movements for our current condition and we incorporate breath or mantra or sound.

Our practice becomes so much more interesting at that point. Like the former hot yogini (though temperamentally cooler, she remains a hot woman), we might discover other methods of practice to complement our idiosyncratic potentials. Some of us might want to incorporate mantra with our practice. Some might like prayer. Or maybe a little bit of everything.

There’s so much to explore beyond the material fiddle-faddle; there’s a whole smorgasbord of practices to focus the mind and body toward joy and freedom. We need only become willing to release our attachment to the things that identify us as yogis and look a little more closely at the patterns that have allowed those attachments to form.

And this, my friends, is why I love my Viniyoga practice. And why I enjoy sharing it.

If you’d like to explore the potential of an integrated practice for yourself, please join me on the next two Saturdays, July 25 and August 1, at Eight Elements West, for the last two workshops in a series called Moving Toward Stillness. We’ll be looking at the things that prevent us from sitting still and learning more about using our breath to help us train our attention and feel our inherent joy.

The point of yoga is you.

I’ve got some rubberband hamstrings. I love to stand on one foot. Most of the time, gravity is challenged by me. And sure, I did hanumanasana in the cradle. A man once told me that he wanted a girl who slept in half pigeon. Well. I may or may not have fed that fantasy.

So it’s not surprising I do yoga. It pretty much came with the body. (A functional body for which I am grateful.)

But here’s the rub: I started doing yoga as an angsty teenager who wanted to find something greater than the world I perceived. I saw malls and bad movies and ugly fashion choices and made my commentary by scowling heavily. As in, I just didn’t have anything else to pierce to lodge another complaint against the world and its inhabitants. So I made myself look at the world differently.

Lucky for me, my crunchy-granola high school offered yoga. Unlucky for me, the teacher really liked my hanumanasana. Not in a gross way. But certainly in a way that pet my ego. I tolerated it because who doesn’t like to be pet sometimes? Plus, I was 16.

As I got older, and the brawn of my ego waxed and waned, I always knew I had hanumanasana. But I also kept hoping to see the world differently.

I meditated sporadically. Did asana with the ardor of a Sound of Music nun. And I played around with pranayama and meditating occasionally. Never enough to feel any different, if I’m honest. The only thing I was finding in yoga was a body moderately changed from adolescence. A good feat, I admit. But at 30, I suspected that my mind had stalled as well. I sometimes felt angry about my life choices. I’d become a lawyer in the middle of all that asana. I was fighting all the time for causes that would never resolve in a fight. I was sad. Sometimes, I was angry.

The truth I was missing is that yoga is a philosophy AND a practice. Or, to be more clear, understanding the philosophy is PART of the practice. And the way to understand the philosophy– in addition to studying it carefully– is to recognize that yoga offers a system for anyone to attend to their body, energy, mind, personality and heart.

The first step, I think, to appreciating this system is to gain control of your breath. When you start to regulate your own breath the deeper purpose becomes much more clear. But controlling the breath takes practice. Pattabhi Jois used to say, ‘practice, practice and all is coming.’

So how does this work? What does the breath have to do with anything?

Pranayama, or the practice of breath, is the fourth limb of the eight-branched system of yoga. It follows the guidance on personal discipline, social conduct and the method of asana. Krishnamacharya, my teacher’s teacher, said ‘Control the breath, focus your mind, and direct it into the heart. That is the meaning of spirituality.’ The breath, then, helps you bridge the divide between moving your body and the more subtle stuff. In Patanjali’s Sutras, it is sandwiched between the practice of asana, or poses, and pratyahara, the mindful taming of our senses. It’s that part of the yoga infrastructure that leads you toward the integration of your body, your personality, your intellect, your energy, your heart. But like bridges in America, we might have let it crumble a bit. Despite having to use the bridge daily.

We really should be a little more attentive to the state of these things.

To jumpstart that attention, look around for a teacher who can help you learn to regulate your breath. It really is just that simple. You can even call me, if you’d like. I promise I won’t totally freak you out.

Though I may ask you to consider your commitment to your own sadhana—your personal practice. This means reconsidering your relationship to your yoga. Not the yoga of poses and studios. The yoga of you. Are you simply doing a series of poses at the gym so your hamstrings get lengthen? Are you even aware of what you’re asking of yourselves when you hang out with your asses up in downdog? Or are you engaging with the science of a personal practice?

I hear you: Ugh. A personal practice. You mean I have to think about what I need? Or, maybe, like a student who recently complained that she didn’t like moving at the pace of her breath, you’d prefer to keep bouncing around like an acrobat for a little while longer? It’s cool. All of this stuff only works when you’re ready. As Patanjali put it: ‘Atha yoganusasanam.’ You have to get to the atha—the now. You have to be ready to perceive the now.

But when you do, you’ll be intermittently overwhelmed by the transformation that happens. Seemingly without your own effort, though, of course, you’re the one doing the work. The thing is, you’ll just be preparing yourself to breathe. Then breathing. Breathing to do the work better.

Which, I think, is the whole point of yoga. That you’re changing yourself for yourself, so you can explore the relationships you nurture—between yourself and your body, yourself and your mind, yourself and others, yourself and your higher purpose. Ultimately, the whole point of yoga, I think, is to help you love yourself. And that love—regardless of the length of your hamstrings, the shape of your downdog—is the highest and best use of your life.

So I guess what I’m saying is that the point of your yoga isn’t yoga. The point of your yoga is you.

Let your yoga grow up.

For years, I practiced Ashtanga.

With all the enthusiasm of a kid, honestly.

Intermittently, my practice may have been a touch irresponsible. I pushed myself into certain postures for no other reason than I wanted to achieve. So simple; so rambunctious. Urdva dhanurasana, with an ankle bind, is a good example from my old circus repertoire. I knew my body would eventually give into the pose because my hypermobile body does that. And my mind, well, it’s an achievement-oriented mind anyway—anxious to prove and succeed. Very little gets in the way of my mind.

If I’d been a little more thoughtful at the time—or prepared for this kind of thinking—I would have recognized that a better way, for me, would be to challenge myself to be strong enough to forego the pose. Or, let’s say, honor what might be a principled tightening of my body to strengthen the musculature around my loose-goosey ligaments. And that, honestly, might have yielded a better experience in the pose. I might have actually experienced the function of the pose, rather than appropriate the form for one silly purpose: showing off.

And I did show it off. To my teacher, to other students, to my students. I didn’t blow up balloons or throw confetti. But I always knew I could do it. Gold star for me. Woo.

Until I was injured. Whoops! I had to go through 6 months of physical therapy to fix my shoulder. I was 31. Sigh. It sucked to discover mortality.

But a little suffering is okay if it doesn’t get in your bones and sink you. And that experience, honestly, became the catapult that made me learn yoga. It made my yoga grow up.

I’d been practicing for 12 years when I hurt myself. I honestly believed that challenging poses would quiet my mind. And they probably did. Sometimes. But I hadn’t come to understand what yoga really meant for me. That the quiet mind would come with the practice of calming detrimental instincts. Like needing to achieve at the expense of my humility. Like believing I wasn’t good enough if I couldn’t achieve. Like ignoring pain.

What I realized then was that, as a teacher, if I planned to share yoga with others, I had to figure out how to be safe about it. And it’s taken me another few years (and some really good teachers—Gary Kraftsow, Juris Zinbergs, Neal Ghoshal and Vincent Bolletta, among others— to work my way through this idea. Here’s where I’ve arrived: safety means understanding the principles of yoga as a system of transition. Not a system of achievement.

My teacher Gary refers to Nathamuni’s stages of life when he describes the way yoga should change as we age.

For the first 30 years or so—what Gary calls the sunrise period—we’re growing, cultivating power, learning balance, discovering morality. Through this period, yoga should be rigorous, disciplined, designed to improve character. From this point of view, practices like Ashtanga make sense. Training the body restrains the mind. But then the body starts to change. And so does the mind.

We approach our midstage—midday—and our interests shift. We find that we’re subject to death; we want to delay it. We want to protect our health so we can nurture others. We want to protect our bodies so they carry us along a journey whose distance we start to appreciate. This is when we discover that asana alone isn’t resolving our stress or helping our diet or improving our relationships. If we’re lucky, someone suggests that we might want to refine our asana to move with our breath. We may want to work with our breath. We may start to meditate. Even if we’re not so lucky, we intuit these things and seek our way alone. We age.

By the time we reach our sunset phase, we might be well-oriented toward self-realization. Or not. But inevitably we’re going to have to turn inward. Maybe. Or, at least, we acknowledge the fact of an approaching demise (may the approach be languorous and quiet). Yoga in this phase should focus on meditation, prayer and ritual. On the ways that allow us to manage our impermanence. To resolve our karma. Arguably, this could be the most strenuous phase. Especially if we haven’t learned the discipline of asana and breath.

The thing about yoga? It’s a system. It’s so much more than asana, if we let it grow up.

Yoga offers a practice for every phase of life, for anyone breathing, for everyone willing. From asana to pranayama to meditation, prayer, ritual and conduct, it’s a comprehensive system comprised of discrete, but complementary, elements. And these elements are available at every stage for anyone looking to find them. Someone at 25 may want a more transcendent practice. Someone at 75 may want to keep up their asana. It’s all good. Yoga provides. And it transforms.

Because everything is always shifting. The way we do yoga, and teach it, should respect this by becoming as mature and wise (and generous and playful) as our natures will possibly bear.

Just what does a teacher know?

In the last few months, I’ve had the neat fortune to meet a variety of new students. Cool students. Nice students. Funny students, highly intelligent students, friendly students who daily teach me that I know almost nothing. These students are also generous enough to trust me to work with them. It’s a privilege and I appreciate them. They teach me about my blindspots—about what I don’t know, which is too much—and keep me more than a little nervous that I won’t be able to help. And I want to help. That’s in my nature as much as causing trouble and talking too much.

The truth is: I worry. I worry about these people—body, mind and soul. They come to yoga because they want something. They want for something. It might be a physical yearning for flexibility that gets them in the studio. A hope for strength or balance. Or it might be a suspicion that the life they’re leading could be different. Somehow.

Regardless of how acceptable yoga has become—in gyms, churches, schools—it carries the legacy of mysticism. I don’t write that lightly. Exploring the mystic is at the very heart of yoga. Acknowledging the students’ curiosity into this union between intellect and the divine is probably the greatest, and most delicate, responsibility of the yoga teacher.

And that’s why I worry.

I don’t want to sound precious, but yoga ain’t just moving around. When someone wants a guide to usher them toward something interesting and deep, the guide better have at least a small torch. With extra batteries. And maybe a compass that isn’t broken.

Which increases the responsibility of the teacher, doesn’t it? Because the yoga teacher is helping bodies breathe then move and align as appropriate. From there, she invites minds to notice the breath and movement and alignment so the experience becomes internal. And if she has the will, she invites the spirit to observe the interaction between the body and mind.

To teach, then, means to be willing to look into these areas personally. And that’s not always easy. I don’t think I’m kicking a sacred cow when I acknowledge that yoga teachers are, with a few rockstar exceptions, poorly paid for their work. Most of them are just a teacher training ahead of their students, and that training may not have included much more than a sequence, a script and a little exposure to anatomy. The first teacher training I attended, in the way back, spent five hours on lining up trikonasana, another hour on music choices but only a short morning session on the Yoga Sutra limited to the yamas and niyamas. (I’ll always be grateful for my disappointment with that course; the utter banality of it got me to India—a trip that taught me to always study the self as carefully as the guru.)

As a teacher, I want folks to find a way in yoga that will endure as long as they do. As long as they have an interest in yoga, I want to provide some insight and knowledge for their consideration. And I find this challenging, to be candid. Because I don’t know everything I’d like to know. And I don’t have all the insight I want. Not for myself, and certainly not for others. But I try to admit what I don’t know. I wish I could chant without blushing and recite the Sutra and meditate really peacefully. I wish I could offer prayer without first questioning its value. I wish I could breathe without losing count, that my body didn’t occasionally hurt and my mood didn’t occasionally sour.

But this is me. And the best thing I can offer, I think, is my absolute conviction that a little bit of yoga, carefully done (no playlist required, folks!), with connection to the breath and a generous and enthusiastic heart, is going to calm the mind. First, a little. Over time, more and more. And then even more.

And I remind myself that it’s a matter of happiness and will and faith and finding stability in what I know. Also, that my own teachers are flawed and funny. And unabashedly aware of it.

We are all a mess with an instinct to become art. As I interpret Patanjali (visoka va jyotismati, 1-36), finding joy despite or because of this may just give us a peaceful place to rest.

 

Yoga on the inside.

Ah, re-entry. I’ll use the metaphor of that awesome Philae probe landing on a hurtling comet to announce myself back in the world: where are my harpoons?! (I would also sing for you. Like this.)

Fortunately, like the Philae, I’ve made a ‘fairly gentle landing’ and I’m curious all over again about what’s what. This old, familiar terrain is new again. And because I’m more human than machine, I get to feel out the sensations of shift even as I operate ground control. Whoop!

So what am I on about? For two weeks, I camped and learned at a phenomenon I call hippie-yoga camp. I do it twice a year with the American Viniyoga Institute’s Foundations for Yoga Therapy program. We are a strange batch of yogis. If yoga remains in anyway subversive, this form of yoga is perfectly tailored—or, maybe, purposefully left seamless—for the misfits.For two weeks, we discuss body mechanics, the physiology of the breath, yoga philosophy, sequencing skills and a bit of esoterica. The asana practice, while understood as the gateway for the west into yoga, is taken fairly lightly. We don’t pretend that perfection is possible. Not in the physical manifestation of a pose or in the emotional result. We are flawed and deteriorating bodies. Our goal is to rot gracefully, as free from our neuroses, attachments and silly limiting behaviors as possible. The time we spend cultivating this grace is what yields the grace itself.

(I won’t prattle on about how much I’d like the training to go on and on; you can snoop on my love letter yourself.)

When the two weeks end, we disperse to our worlds. The worlds where we didn’t/don’t fit so well. We try to figure out how to fit again with this insight into the things we really should leave behind.

So here are some impressions. The rocks and dips around me matter far less than my internal topography. Which is to say: what is outside me is all perception gathered by my busy, seeking mind, which, in its great hubris, has decided to identify as me. The thing is, my mind is overstepping its place.

What I am isn’t a matter of the elements around me but an inherently balanced energy within. Because my mind is so damn communicative, however, I’ve listened to it for most of my years. What a nag. Let this be a lesson to us highly verbal humans: watch the word count else others begin to believe our bullshit.

Being heard has given my mind power to say that it knows how to describe my nature better than anyone else. It says things like, ‘you should be really worried’ and ‘people probably don’t want to read this blog.’ Oh mind of mine: please hush yourself.

I write this now because I’m highly aware that the privilege of hippie-yoga camp is the access to these kinds of insights. As time distances me from the wild turkeys who accompanied me down the hill every morning, and the deer who gathered at my campsite like I was some sort of Snow White, my mind will probably regain some control. Or maybe I’ll be able to keep it at bay? Asana is a start. Pranayama is a whole other experience in silence. And the moment after I let go of controlling the breath? That’s the glimpse of quiet that I’d like to grow.

Defenses usually dismantle upon observation, just like monsters in the closet. And if the mind is offering anything to any of us, for the most part, it’s a fortress hiding the light of our true nature. With practice and letting go, these obstacles clear up.

Patanjali said, abhyasavairagyabhyam tannirodha. My teacher says that it’s practice that allows the letting go. So, onward to the yoga. In all of its forms. It is the cause and effect of innate faith.