Sunday, May 4, 2008

Power Yoga: Part 7

Be Yourself

Some people come to my classes to learn to relax or be more flexible. They have been working at some job or training at some sport for twenty-five years. They are incredibly tight. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Their brains are tight. Perhaps some doctor has told them they need to relax or be more flexible. So here they are in class telling me, "My doctor says I need to relax." This always amazes me! My experience has shown me that it doesn't do any good to tell these people they are tight or that they need to be more flexible. They know they are tight! They know they need to relax! But they don't know how to be more flexible, either physically or mentally. They need to learn how. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the director of the University of Massachusetts Stress Clinic, tells a similar story in his book Full Catastrophe Living, "One man who came to the stress clinic ten years ago with back pain...was very stiff and his legs were as hard as rocks as a result of stepping on a land mine in Vietnam...his doctor told him he had to relax...it didn't do this man any good to be told to relax. He knew he needed to relax more. But he had to learn how to relax...Once he started [yoga], he was able to learn to relax, and his leg muscles eventually regained a healthy tone." Until these people begin to feel the process of letting go and opening up in their own minds and bodies, anything anyone says is useless. So they come to yoga class to learn.

I see the tightness causing them anxiety and the anxiety causing impatience and the impatience causing more tension. So I tell them to be patient, that they aren't going to regain their flexibility overnight. But often they don't really hear that. They are too busy mentally, looking around and comparing themselves to someone else in class. "Wow," they might think, while I am trying to explain the virtue of patience and practice. "Look at that guy! He is so flexible!" The following week these people haven't made any progress. They never heard me talk about patience, because they weren't "home" when I was talking to them. All they can see is that they still aren't as flexible or relaxed as this other person in class, and they get irritated. They then go off to the chiropractor or physical therapist or doctor to find out why they are chronically stressed, injured, or ill.

The worst thing you can possibly do is to look around and compare yourself to somebody else, whether it is in yoga or any other field of endeavor. It wastes energy, it saps your self-esteem, and it has nothing to do with your own path. As Kabat-Zinn says in Full Catastrophe Living, "It is impossible to become like somebody else. Your only hope is to become more fully yourself. That is the reason for practicing [yoga] in the first place."

Diana Vreeland, the longtime editor of Vogue magazine, was once asked if she ever worried about what the other fashion magazines were doing, and she remarked that she was too busy. She didn't have time to look left and right to see what everybody else was doing. She knew that nobody else saw what she saw. She just kept her eyes focused straight ahead on where she was going and what she wanted.

If you have a desire to be a master of yourself and anything else, you can put this book to very good use. Go through it one step and one page at a time, just as you are going through medical school or writing your thesis or running a marathon or building a business or painting a picture or photographing wildlife or dancing Swan Lake or composing a symphony. And slowly you will find yourself enjoyably learning how to build discipline and work on yourself every day. For those of you who have already realized this lesson in life, this will be a familiar process and a welcome tool to fine-tune all aspects of mindfulness, concentration, and practice.

The Real Stuff

The word yoga derives from the Sanskrit word yug, as I explained earlier, which means "to yoke, bind, join, or direct one's attention." It can also mean "union" or "fusion." Around the third or fourth century B.C., at the time of the composition of the Bhagavad Gita (probably the most famous of all yoga scriptures and an important text on Yoga philosophy), yoga generally referred to the Hindu tradition of spiritual discipline comprising different approaches to "enlightenment" or "self-realization."

In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the complete definition of yoga in the second sutra of Book One is given as Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah, or "the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind." Another translation might be "the selective elimination of mental activity in the field of consciousness." The word nirodhah means "cessation" and vrtti literally means "waves," or fluctuations of thought.

So what Patanjali is saying is that if you can learn to control the rising of the mind into ripples and waves, you will experience yoga! When the mind is free from vrttis, you will experience your true nature, which is joyous equipoise. You will then be free of the mind's perilous highs and lows and the commotion and pain of going from one extreme to the other. In the twelfth sutra of Book One, Patanjali goes on to say that there are two ways to get a grip on these vrttis: through practice (abhyasa) and nonattachment (vairagya). In the next two sutras, he defines practice as "effort or vigilance toward steadiness of mind," and says that the practice becomes effective when it is "well attended to for a long time (durga kala), without a break (nairantarya) and in all earnestness (satkara)."

In Book Two, Patanjali goes on to explain the means (sadhana) of the yoga practice. In Sutra 29 he details the eight limbs of the yoga path: (1) yama, which literally means "restraint" or "abstinence"; (2) niyama, or "observance" (There are five yamas and five niyamas, which I will list later in chapter 3); (3) asana, or "posture," which is what we will primarily be working with in this book; (4) pranayama, which, again, quite literally means "restraint (or control) of the life force," generally through awareness of the breathing; (5) pratyahara, or "withdrawal of the senses"; (6) dharana, or "concentration"; (7) dhyana, or "meditation"; and (8) samadhi, or "bliss, superconsciousness."

One of the things I found to be fairly unique about the astanga practice was the way in which each of the limbs is actually incorporated in some small way into the practice of the postures. For example, with the focus on breathing during the practice, you are actually able to experience the beginning levels of pranayama, or control of prana (life force) through the breath. You have to pay attention to what you are doing, so the senses begin to be drawn in or curbed, as Patanjali describes the process of pratyahara. The whole practice trains you in concentration, or dharana, which leads to meditation, or dhyana. Thus, this practice, certainly like none I had ever done before, actually gives you a tangible way to engage the eight limbs and develop the "practice," and "nonattachment," that Patanjali says is necessary to learn control of our mental activity and find peace of mind and equipoise.

As I have pursued my practice over the years, I have come to realize that this form, from the Yoga Korunta, or wherever it came from, has to be an original and very ancient form of asana practice well known to Patanjali and the rishis (wise men) who preceded him. This yoga practice is "practice." The vinyasa, or connecting movement, feels to me like threads, or sutras, hooking up the main verses, or postures. The practice does exactly what Patanjali says must be done to attain the yogic state of consciousness. There must be constant effort toward steadiness of mind, as you will see, or you don't get it! And one way of learning to control the mind's waves (vrttis) is through practice -- the constant, uninterrupted, vigilant practice of watching the mind and its activities (mindfulness). And that is exactly what this Power Yoga practice trains you to do.

The other way to control the vrttis, says Patanjali, is through vairagya, which means nonattachment or freedom from desire. Now, this covers a whole host of stuff, but one practical application of how this might get in the way of being in control of one's own mind is to think of vairagya as nonattachment to previous experience. In my classes people will often say to me, "I can't do that!" ! will say to them, "Forget that you think you can't do this! Breathe!" They will cling to some past notion that they are clumsy, uncoordinated, or slow, and as long as the vrtti from the past is there, the resistance is there, and the experience of yoga is not there. So I am saying to them, Forget that previous experience. Pay attention to your breath now. Be mindful. See what is happening here. Be willing to let that go. Be willing to take a risk here.

The mind generally gets attached through the senses, most frequently by seeing or hearing something. The vrttis are generally stirred up by the eyes and the ears as the mind goes out to satisfy its desires. We see or hear something we either want or don't want, like or don't like. We either crave it or run from it. Either way it is an attachment to a past experience. According to yoga philosophy, this limits our ability to appreciate the moment, realize the Self, and live life fully.

The astanga practice right away has a method to deal with these tendencies of the mind to avoid discipline and seek stimulation through the ears and eyes. The eyes are trained to focus in on a drishti, or "gazing point," and the ears are trained to listen to an audible breathing technique. Then, in addition, the nonstop organic flow of postures helps to keep the attention on the practice. The postures and the connecting movement between them are actual sutras, or "threads" woven into a magnificent tapestry. The practice feels to me like a Sanskrit manuscript following an "organic and logical development."

In an essay entitled "The Yoga of Learning Sanskrit," Vyaas Houston wrote that "Sanskrit is a perfect language. Its construction, from the placement of each letter of the alphabet to the building of words and their relationships, follows an organic and logical development. Anything that is missed is like losing supports for the floors of a building." It had long become clear to me, after many years of study of other schools of yoga, and many years of practice at astanga, that in the astanga sequence the placement of each posture followed an "organic and logical development." When I was teaching, I came to notice that if any student's attention lapsed so that they missed a critical piece of information, sooner or later I had to fill them in on the missing piece before they could be up to speed with everyone else.

Some people come to yoga for psychological or spiritual reasons -- to learn to relax or meditate. Some people come to yoga for physical reasons -- to exercise or fix an injury, to heal an illness, or to be more balanced, strong, and flexible. The few who come looking to learn to levitate or be psychic or see auras or whatever, I tend not to encourage. Instead ! ask them if they can touch their toes. They don't generally like that.

Whatever a person's reason for beginning the study of yoga, everyone must begin with the physical work. I am a great believer in reality. I think you have to be able to find your toes before you can find your aura or your astral body! So it makes sense to me that asana, for example, the third "limb," which works on healing and balancing the physical body through the postures, precedes dhyana, or meditation (the seventh limb), which is an extremely difficult discipline for the mind. Organic and logical development! Sometimes members of the yoga community, used to softer practices than the Power Yoga workout, will look at this practice and say, "Oh, it's so physical," implying that it therefore must be less "spiritual" than practices that cater more to esoteric pursuits.

This always makes me shake my head. The body and mind are inextricably linked -- whether we like it or not. We can't just hope to control our mind and ignore the body. If the body is out of control (or out of shape or alignment), the mind cannot possibly be in control. I have found through many years of teaching and practicing yoga that it is generally easier for most people to learn to control a particular muscle first before some remote, intangible portion of the brain or psyche.

Since many of my students are initially interested in the physical yoga therapy and the strength and flexibility aspects of the practice, as I imagine you are, a primary concern of this book is the early therapeutic stages of yoga that work on aligning, healing, and purifying the body. But essential to the body work is the attention of the mind. Without mindfulness, this isn't yoga.

So in the next chapter we start with bringing our toes together. This is not necessarily easy for many people. I have to bang up against their consciousness like a biofeedback device: "Hey, bring your feet together." Yoo-hoo, wake up. Feet together. Feet together. Is anybody home? Are you here? Being here is truly the first step to levitation.


Copyright © 1995 by Beryl Bender Birch


Excerpted from

Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout
by Beryl Bender Birch
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