Monday, 23 July 2007

Good Yoga?

By Vedran

The quality of your practice is, for the most part, defined more by what you bring into the practice than what you get out of it. Because what you brought in tends to color what you get given.

I used to be a freak about yoga. I struggled with my discipline in a following way: I would practice almost every day but I had a preconcieved notion of exactly what I had to get done in order to be able to see my practice asy "good". This, of course, resulted in quite a bit of strain as my daily yoga turned into a chore. So, "good" meant that I reall made myself feel the burn, that I was satisfied with the definitiaon of my muscles when I was done or that I finally did some position right. While I practiced, my mind was erratic. If I did my asana practice, I was good. If not, I was bad.

Over the years, I have come to learn that putting labels such as "good", "bad" or whatever on my yoga practice not only limits the practice but that it actually dulls it. Judith Lasater says that practice is being present in each moment. No matter if you are working the coolest bakasana ever or doing the dishes - you are practicing.
Yoga is not so much about thinking - it is very much about doing. This is reflected in what we often call good discipline: Overthinking what you are going to do, when you are going to do it, if you are hungry or not or maybe if you are tired often results in NOT getting things done at all. Do not think too much: Just roll out your mat. I find that this approach works well for me. I do it from the point I am at at that given moment. Wholesome practice is maybe not so much about the level of your athleticism but about you doing what you`re doing in the best way that you can. This means that 20 minutes of flowing, breath fueled practice done regularly is better than two strained huffing and puffing hours during which your thoughts race from yesterday`s bowel movement to today`s dinner. Yoga requires focus. In many ways yoga actually IS focus. So, we have to practice the dristi and we have to focus the breath and be aware of bandha control. If we are not, it means that we are preocupied by something else. In this way, your asana is not necessarily yoga.
Having said that, a little bit of self indulgence now and then can support your practice. Most of us who are mere humans aren´t always capable of keeping that guru-esque 100% fixed gaze on just the right points and that mula bandha sometimes gets forgotten. Or maybe a little bit of music helps you get through your practice? Maybe you don´t exactly follow the prescribed asana sequence?
On the one hand, you have got the so called bhoga yoga that Mr B.K.S. Iyengar calls "look good, feel good, do no good yoga" that pets your ego parading as your deepest Self, telling you that your pincha mayurasana makes you look like a yogic god(dess). On the other hand, there´s being honest about wherever you stand at any given point and simply taking your practice from there. This is not to say that you should aim for a sloppy practice. On the contrary - by being honest about the state of your body and mind when you are about to practice, you can practice truthfully and constructively.
It is naive to expect the same standards in your yoga practice no matter what state you yourself are in when you are getting on the mat. If you are agitated or nervous, a vigorous, strong practice can help you vent and balance out your energy. If you are tired or sleepy and expect yourself to have a vigorous practice (especially home practice), sometimes it will work but you will mostly have to push yourself instead of focusing on what you are doing and the practice will be strained and exhausting in an unwholesome manner. So, if you are tired or coming down with a cold, it might be better to do a softer practice or even restorative practice than doing nothing at all or going too strong and spending all your energy on asana practice.
90 minute full Ashtanga Vinyasa practice is great but if the options are doing nothing or doing something shorter or softer, go for the milder alternative.

What it boils down to, I think, is the following: What we aim for in yoga is far beyond words. It is beyond bendy hamstrings and supple spine. We train our bodies to be good transporting vehicles or containers, if you will, for kinder and more loving human beings. We are training and disciplining our minds as much as we are working our muscles and bones. If the body is strong and healthy, it will not be an obstacle when you are working on your Spirit, which of course is what we really are doing (so if you think you are the ultimate aim is scultping those gorgeous yoga arms, isn´t it great to know that the arms are just a bonus you get from working on becoming a better person? :-D ).

So, if there is anything that can be named "good yoga", then it would have to be a truthful practice that honours your body and mind. It is doing what you can, as often as you can. So, you have only 15 minutes? Well, do 15 minutes. You are guaranteed to feel much better just having done a modest practice on those days when less just has to be more. This is the best way of developing a regular home practice. Small chunks several times a week, or every day. This builds habit and regularity. Doing yoga becomes like brushing your teeth. You wouldn´t dream of skipping brushing your teeth when you are tired and in the same way, you wouldn´t dream of skipping your yoga.
Aim for longer practice when you can. When you can´t, there are myriads of approaches, depending of how much you can do. For example, do some Sun salutations, pick three standing postures, three forward bends, three backbends, three twists and throw in an inversions at the end. End doing at least five minutes of Savasana (basic-relaxation-posture). Selections like this can take you anything from 15 minutes to about 45. Make sure you always do some core work (remeber your bandhas) and some upper body work. No matter how little you do, always do at least one asana that you find difficult. This never fails to give you a kick. And don´t go crazy. Remember, you should love your practice. Difficult times that make practice difficult to hold regular show you, in a way, that you are NOT your mind. Your mind will try to trick you into thinking that you should drop it. I recently had an entire day when I was tired, scandalously unfocused and sleepy the whole day. My mind was telling me "Oh, no practice is the best practice today!". This is when the "no-thinking" approach is useful. I chose not to delve into why I should or should not do my asana practice. At one point I just rolled out my mat and did a modest, rather soft practice of 30+ minutes. I can´t tell you how delicious it felt! I felt better and my lack of focus was no longer a problem. What´s more, I rememberd what matters in life. It might sound mundane but it´s not. It is simple but not mundane. When I say, "don´t think", I don´t mean that you should turn into a moron. On the contrary, this is about a much deeper intelligence. Intelligence is much more that what is happening between your ears. Intelligence is not being the slave of your thoughts (who hasn´t experienced thoughts that tell us things we intuitively know are wrong?) and instead being aware in every fiber of your being! THIS is the real intelligence. This is what we are doing with our yoga practice. This is not the obsessive compulsive kind of control but calmly knowing what your real priorities are. It honestly turns you into a better person.

Finally, as if it is necessary to repeat it, your practice is not about how well you do any position. It is about you lovingly and truthfully doing all you can. Every day. Or getting there!