Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Seat

Sthira sukham asanam
Prayatna saithilyananta samapattibhyam
Tato dvandvanabhighatah

Asana is steady and joyful
Asana is effort turning into balance turning into stillness turning into revelation
Then, one is no longer disturbed by opposites

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sutra 46, 47 and 48

All of us enter the world of yoga with all kinds of different motivation, ranging from a wish for better physical fitness, to relaxation, to peace, fascination with Indian traditions and sometimes a mixture of all of these. Also, the gates we enter through are often times more or less different, as some of us start up in different yoga traditions and then move on to others, or sometimes we stay where we started.

The three sutras cited above are the only three in the "Yoga Sutras" by master Patanjali that specifically mention asana, or yoga positions. This is very interesing as asana is, for most of us, the first thing we get to know as we start practicing yoga.

A funny thing I think I see in almost everyone who sticks with yoga practice for several years or forever is that no matter why or where they started up, even if it was just with more flexible and stronger body as the only goal, a new spark gets ignited. Some people start reading the scriptures, some get curious about Sanskrit and/ or chanting. People start going to India and spend time and money on yoga workshops.

Asana practice, also in the Ashtanga yoga tradition according to Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, consists of many aspects: In addition to the yoga positions, asana, we practice bandha (the energy locks), dristi (the gaze focus), ujjayi breathing, in addition to a specific sequence of postures. In other words, a steady yoga practice gives us quite a bit to do.

It is very usual to get very caught up in the physical asana practice at first. A good friend of mine often uses the term "to master" when he speaks about different asanas. He gets unhappy and frustrated when an asana he considers desirable seems to "resist" him. Of course, this is a tendency I recognize from my own years of practice. I still go crazy. When I have to roll out (as opposed to elegantly leaving the position) of pincha mayurasana because I lose my balance, sometimes I get very frustrated. The physical practice gets the best of me.

At such times, it is useful to remember that going through this is one part of the practice. But what does it mean to master a yoga position?
In sutras 46 to 48, Patanjali tells us that a yoga position is to be steady and joyful. Through the effort that hopefully results in steadiness and joyfulness in any yoga position, we reach balance, through which we reach stilliness and then maybe revelation. This is a road toward dissolving opposites.

Patanjali doesn't say anything about a practicioner needing to tie him- or herself into a knot. We work on mastering our body, but mastering is not the same as coersion. It might even be the opposite of it. You master an asana as you would master anything else - by doing your best, wherever you are, step by step, respecting your body in the process. Wholesome discipline, folks. And maybe one day, you find yourself in a deliberate knot. Maybe not. But in a knot or not, hopefully we are nearer to balance and peace in any position, no matter how difficult we find it physically. Through this, we start deconstructing the world of opposites. We start liking the things we didn't like before. Like a great warrior, when we see challenges,we stand, steady in our breath and focus. And we stay and we breathe. And hopefully, we realize that there's nothing to get elated about, nothing to fear. Steady and joyful. This is one of the greatest things Ashtanga Yoga has given me (so far). One of the most tangible things.

As in an asana I might find difficult, I have started to be able to stay in challenging situations in my life off the mat and I stand and most often I am calm. Things are as they are, I need to stay, so I stay, and I don't lose my head. Mostly. This IS one of the gifts this yoga has given me. When I do get insane, it is comforting to know that I am capable of taking other choices. It actually helps remembering this.

This is how Ashtanga practice, seemingly turbulent, really is a meditation technique: You follow the sequence, your breath is strong and focused, your gaze is focused. Your thoughts might be racing but the asana sequence, the breath and the gaze bind them and you are steady and you keep doing what you need to do. This is how we work on turning the movement into meditation. After a while, there can be joy even in initially unpleasant positions and situations. You might have experienced things like this: You might be in an asana you find difficult, but you stay and you breathe and you find that you are actually quite happy. In this way, it doesn't matter how deep in a position you are on the physical level; you master it by mastering your mind while in the position. Yoga is staying present no matter what, leg behind the head or not. It does not matter. What matters is that you are doing your best and that you are present. For us westerners, our bodies are often times the most accessable tool when we start up this kind of work. Our bodies are then the gates into something far larger.

The physical progress will come with regular practice. Seen from this perspective, firmer and stronger, more flexible bodies are a bonus, but never our final goal. If physical progress is the only goal, we are still at the gates. Pre-yoga, someone called it (I don't remember who). Mental balance, joy, steadiness, stillness, peace and maybe glimpses of revelation of the fact that there is little to be concerned about is the real soul nutrition, while strength and flexibility are the toy in your cereal. The real yum-factor comes from the cereal itself. The toy is your additional gift. Strong, healthy body helps you detach from your body. You can meditate easier, you can start practising more advanced pranayama- and kriya (purification) techiques when your body is properly wired up for this. For this, you need to do your practice and find peace in your practice. This is so big! Finding peace in your practice. Gee....

The great thing is that through some effort, through realizing that an aware relationship with the tradition of our practice matters, we kind of start realizing, often cloaked in small glimpses of clarity, that very few things matter. A contradiction? I don't know. Ask me in 50 years. What I hope that I have started understanding is this: There is nothing to go crazy about.

And craziness is not to be underrated. One version is where you can get stuck up and arrogant in very athletic and advanced asana practice. This is not too constructive, considering the fact which tradition we apparently belong to. One meaning of the word "asana" is "seat", a connection to the ground. So to "take off" in ego-terms seems to be the opposite of what asana practice leads to. What it leads to is grounding and a healthier pespective on our egos.
The other side is where it is pretty easy to bliss out in a cross legged seated position, with a bolster under your ass. But go ahead and practice awareness and peace and joy in positions like lolasana (check out the picture above). Or any position that challenges you in some way. Practice not longing to get away. Practice not convincing yourself to get out after 5 breaths when your teacher asks you hold it for 15, especially if you are capable of these 15 breaths. Whether we do things like this, is what might determine if a position is a yoga position or a new party trick you can demonstrate to your friends.

I honestly try to have a pretty strong practice. I find it strong in its regularity, in my effort not to lose my mind and in knowing that the body-stuff is the tool for something larger. And this is when I started seeing it as "pretty strong": When I started getting flashes of awareness no matter whether I "liked" where I was or not. The practice is what it is, like it or not. Trancending the preferences, I think, has started to show me that I actually love what I thought that I didn't. The initial impulse is just that - an impulse; sometimes correct, sometimes less so. My job is to practice. Which I do. "Sthira sukham asanam" is serious stuff. Peace and joy in seeming adversity is radical. This is where we start tearing up the wrapping and going for the real thing.

And just to be 100% clear on this: I LOVE the toy in my cereal too. I love physical agility and strength. I love feeling healthy and flexible and strong. I don't think developing our bodies is mundane. I actually find it very important. And I especially love (what I think is) the fact that all this, as huge as it often is for me, is just a beginning of something far bigger. I trust Patanjali, you see. ;-)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

A Leaf, a Flower, Fruit or Water

Ashtanga Yoga is a demanding lover. All yoga is. Take wisdom from ancient scriptures and let it take you through your Christmas (or any other holiday) with humble ease and smoothness.

In chapter nine, 26th verse of "The Bhagavad Gita", Krishna states to the mythical warrior Arjuna that if something is given out of love and reverence, it will be accepted, even if it is just a leaf, a flower, fruit or water. The essence is not in what is given as such, but within the intent that infuses the gift. The intent creates the essence. It is the essence.

This might be especially relevant, on many levels, now that Christmas is drawing near.

As I stated in my previous post (and mentioned in several of the earlier ones), simplifying our practice in less then ideal conditions is sometimes a usefool tool that helps us maintain regularity of practice. This doesn't necessarily mean that you don't do an entire practice when you know you can, but that the energy of the practice is adjusted so that you, through that energy and your intent, show respect for wherever you are at, energetically, physically, timewise or all of these.
What Krisha teaches us in the abovementioned verse is that the inner force, the intention and the energy of what is given is what's important, and not necessarily the form of the gift. Show respect for this in your practice. You might even want to dedicate it to someone or something that drives you and inspires you. It might be your teacher, your partner, a cause or anything. When you hit an especially challinging piece of your practice, go back to what or who inspires you and "give" your practice to this person or cause. It doesn't have to be much. It can just be a straighter back in navasana or more active legs in kurmasana or whatever. You do it in the best way you can, safely and with love and you give it to them. Remember: "a leaf, a flower, fruit or water.". Easy. It doesn't matter. Do it with love and reverence and it will be enough.
If you, at some point, don't quite feel like dedicating your asana or your entire practice to anyone or anything in perticular, give it to yourself. Rather than just going through the motions,let yourself be inspired by Krishna and the lovely "Gita", and make the practice a gift to yourself. It doesn't have to be more complicated than pouring yourself a glass of clear icey water when you're thirsty would be. This means that gifting yourself with your yoga practice is not the same thing as you going all Cirque-Du-Soleil-esque-crazy on your mat. If it is not quite where you are (if it is, go ahead and swing it!), let what you do on your mat be this proverbial leaf or fruit or water, a simple and beautiful thing,you do for yourself from where you are. Remember that it is the intent, the substance that counts and not the form. The form grows out from the substance.

And then there's Christmas.....

And the spirit of giving?

"However humble the offering....". "The Bhagavad Gita" teaches us that it is the way we give and not what we give that is the real gift. The physical gift is the symbol. This does not mean that you should go to your nearest and dearest and go "I present you with these bird droppings with love..". :-) They probably won't get it. I am not sure I would either. If you can easily afford lavish gifts and you want to give them to your loved ones, by all means, knock yourself out. But if you are "temporarily short on cash", why not give them a flower, a simple book (a cheap edition of the "Gita" with a good translation and commentary?) or something along those lines and give it with love. Love will make it lavish. It is like the aforementioned straight back in navasana (when your lazy mind says: "droop!" and you know better and you straighten it instead) - you do what you can with the most love and kindness you can give. And that is the gift. It will most probably be accepted with the same love and gratitude.

Go back to the scriptures for simple and powerful stuff like this short passage from "The Bhagavad Gita". Many of you, if not all, who invest your time in reading blogs and websites like this one, tend to have vast amounts of dormant knowledge that gets triggered by the simple means of being reminded you have it and that you can put it to use. That is the beginning of yoga outside of the mat. Go! :-)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

My Travel Mat

I recently went to a work trip that took me from hotel room to hotel room, to friends' less-than-spacious living rooms. A possible threat to my daily practice? But this proved to be a non-issue, because, as it turns out, I have a super power. Or rather a super powered side-kick. My yoga travel mat.

Practicing while traveling is a challenge for most of us. If you are not a full-time yoga teacher, or a tough-as-nails yogic superhero (I'm getting there, just you wait), you will have experienced situations when doing your practice is difficult because your trip schedule leaves little time, or your hotel room is tiny or it is tiny AND the carpet is dirty and so on and so forth.

Whenever on the road, I have always taken yoga mats with me, for the last ten years or longer. Some have served me well, some not so well. For example, I love and adore my black Ashtanga-mat, but it is so heavy that dragging it around on planes and trains and to hotels around the world turned out to be a tedious chore. Plus the black mat is expensive, so if something happened to it, it would have been an unfortunate loss. PLUS I have had it for a million years, it has served me well, it still does, and I love it, so it's like endangering a pet (I know this sounded a bit overly attached :-D ).

Anyway, at a studio where I work, I recently got a travel mat. This is not a commercial site, so I am not telling which brand it was. There are probably several brands that offer them. It's light as a feather, it folds so easily that I carry it in my hand luggage, it has a superb grip and it doesn't slip on carpets (hotel rooms are a threat no more!).

So, I came back from a trip this morning. Hotels, tiny apartments, all kinds of crammed places..... For a week. And I practiced all over the place. Oh the beauty of it! I had a couple of hours between meetings (I couldn't practice in the mornings because we started early and the evenings were networking time, so it would have been socially unintelligent of me to just disappear), so I went to my room, rolled out my small, gorgeous mat and I practiced. And holy mother of Whoever, what a difference it made! Trust me on this. You have a choice to do your Ashtanga (or whatever your practice is) or not. And small adjustments like easy-to-carry-mats or improvised altars redefine your day because they make it super easy to make your practice a priority and squeeze it into your day. You realign your mind and body and (why not?) spirit in the middle of what could have been a mundane work thing and it is beyond kick-ass!

I swear that when I returned to my colleagues after my yoga sessions, I was refreshed beyond words. The practice took me to a completely different place and all that happened before it, that same day, felt like yesterday.

What IS the point of me writing this? It is this: Make it easy for yourself. If you don't practice when you travel, because your mat is heavy and big, get a travel mat. If you need an altar or whatever to meditate, put a couple of candles and a picture of your guru (or Jesus, or Shiva, Buddha, Lady Gaga, whoever) in your suitcase and make an altar. And do your practice.

My travel mat, a small, easy thing, helps me to re-create what could be ordinary, a bit uninspired, too-much-to-do-trips into a completely different thing. Find out what would make your practice easy when you are away to places that challenge the regularity of your practice and make those adjustments. Doing some yoga at a weird place does magical things to you. Sometimes there just isn't any time to visit local yoga shalas and -studios. Or there are none where you are. If you need to share a hotel room with somebody and you can practice without sticking your toes into their eyes, don't be shy and do it (practice, NOT stick your big toe in their eye). They might get inspired.

The more I do stuff like this, I honestly get Sri K. Pattabhi Jois' "Practice and all is coming" more and more. Transcending your "cannot" is practical magic.