Sunday, 28 November 2010
Sthira sukham asanam
Prayatna saithilyananta samapattibhyam
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. ;-)