Yoga Beyond Asana Practice
Do you know, you could be bed-bound and still practice Yoga?
These days Yoga has become synonymous with Yoga posture practice, but Yoga has so much more to offer. We don’t even need to do a single Yoga posture to practice some Yogas.
These days, Yoga could easily seem to be about ever-increasingly complex postures and the bendy, young and slender bodies we see in magazines and online. It puts some people off from coming to class: they will tell me they are too old or not flexible enough for Yoga, or they do come and then begin to put pressure on themselves, mentally and physically to achieve more and more. We all want to grow and it’s a good thing to want to progress in anything we give our time to for sure, including Yoga posture practice, but let’s be sure we keep perspective. Yoga posture practice is a just a very small part of what Yoga offers and teaches us. They are a device to to take us towards a state of being which is Yoga. Yoga is not in essence what we do or attain, it is what we become and it is the process, dear friends, of uncovering and revealing to ourselves who we already really are – in heart and soul. THIS is why as we practice Yoga, yes we may notice that we have less stiffness and can reach higher for things in the kitchen, bend lower to retrieve things from a cupboard but also notice that we become more content, centred, maybe even more understanding and balanced in our interactions with our loved ones and the world.
I was at a workshop once with one international teacher. He said, if you want to know if you are progressing in Yoga, don’t look at what you can do in terms of the physical postures. Instead ask yourself “Am I becoming a kinder and more loving person?” This, he said, is the sign of success in Yoga. That tells us something, doesn’t it, about what Yoga is really all about.
Of course, there is much to love and respect in Yoga posture practice. I truly value it of course: in the relief of pain, stiffness and other muscul-skeletal prroblems that Yoga helps us with: and also the impact of Yoga postures on our inner bodies – the internal organs and I will talk about this at the weekend workshop when addressing the theme of digestion. However, some of my greatest Yoga teachers and inspirations have never taught me a single Yoga posture, either face-to-face, online or in print. What they have taught me and guided me towards is recognising the power of Yoga to transform our hearts and minds, our psychology and to guide us towards transcending our psychology: to finding that place that we all know exists within each one of us that is a place of stillness, peace, joy and light. They have guided me towards that place by offering pointers towards or directly teaching tools and responses to the daily challenges of life that steady and focus the mind; that make us less reactive and more responsive. Sadly, I think more than ever we can see in our country how valuable and what impact that capacity can make in our family, community and national involvements.
The so-called “greatest Yogi” of the 20th century is Mahatma Gandhi. We know him for his adherance to the tenet of non-violence. In Sanskrit this is “ahimsa” and is the highest Yoga. Yoga has a tremendous capacity to help us to begin to make changes within beyond the level of the physical body, which I think make far greater impact in our lives. Not that our physical healing is not crucial and important. The Yoga Sutras teach us that physical suffering is on of the obstacles on the path of Yoga, this inner, psychological Yoga. And I think you’ d maybe agree that the mind gives us at least equally as much suffering as the body. And we only need to look around in our society, nation and the world at large to see that the root cause of much of the suffering caused by humans to other humans, animals and our natural environment is caused by the human mind – and that is a human mind out of balance. Yoga practices offer us much to support a mind which is balanced, harmonious, responsive, and clear and awake enough to understand the wisdom of following Yoga psychology teachings such as a path of non-violence for our own health and happiness and that of those around us.
For most of us, and for most of the time, our minds are a mix of restltess chatter, inner judging, doubting, fear, anxiety, worry, impatience and frustrations that surface in spite of our best endeavours. We can do our best with affirmations and positive thinking, but once there’s an event and some belief we are holding onto (unconsciously maybe) triggers the judge, doubter, worrier, et al to surface strongly within, we are lost once more in the maze of the mind’s uncontrolled flow of thoughts.
In class on saturday, we explored Yoga beyond Yoga posture. Usually, pranayama, relaxation and meditation get squeezed into the end of the class. Last week, we took a step away from a mainly physical posture practice focus, and gave a good amount of time to relaxation, pranayama and meditation. These were practices that everyone can do any time. They effectively quieten the flow of prana (energy, which we can say moves the nerve currents in the body and is likened to a wind moving through the body which “fans” the waves of the mind) and the breath. This quieter, more evenly flowing prana steadies the mind which in turn allows us to access what the Yogis describe as an unchanging, timeless, infinite place of light, space, stillness, wisdom which lies like a jewel. It is hidden within our being but is also there. Once the body and mind are still, we can once more rest in this space and we feel like we have come home.
When we rest in this space within, in meditation and in deep relaxation and during pranayama, we are in a very healing state of being: the nervous system settles further and it to support greater health in the body as well as the mind. Moreover in this stillness, we get insights and pointers, answers to our biggest challenges, to the questions about ourselves, our lives and our place in the world. We are put in touch with and reminded of what really matters.
Considering all this, maybe you wonder why we don’t give more time to these practices more often. It really IS worth giving as much time to these subtler, non physical practices as to Yoga posture practice. In fact after doing an intensive programme of asanas but mainly pranayamas and other subtle practices of Hatha Yoga, we asked the teacher how to continue after the programme had finished. We had been doing up to 8 hours practice a day and there is no way we can sustain this in our daily lives, right? He said always sit for meditation each day. If you have some extra time do a little pranayama, And if you have further time, do a little asana practice. The priority was with meditation and this man is a recognised master of Hatha Yoga with an international following.
This is where the powerful changes to our life can happen. We can honour Yoga asanas for all they do for us physically and also as a preparation for the pranayamas: the asanas open the breathing mechanics and open up the flow of our prana so it can move more harmoniously and prepare us on both counts for pranayama. And then pranayama prepares us for meditation.
As giving more time and recognition of pranayama and meditation in class on Saturday, seemed to touch practitioners powerfully, I would love to share this approach to practice with you all again this week in class. Our asana practice will be adapted as always to each one’s level and will pave the way for deeper, more effective pranayama practice (breathing practices) which will in turn lay the ground more effectively for moving inwards into that cave of stillness, light, and bliss within.
I hope you can join me and try out this essential authentic classical approach to Yoga this week.
This powerful psychologically transformational capacity of Yoga has been the message of all the Yogis through the ages. It knows that our suffering is needless and that we have all we are looking for on the outside, within us in order to allow us to live happy, fulfillled and loving lives.
I’ld like to close here with a famous teaching story….”There was a woman who had lost a needle. She was looking for it under a street lamp. A man came along and asked her what she was looking for and then began to help her find it. When he asked where exactly she had dropped the needle, she answered “In the house.” “Then why are you looking out here for it?” asked the man. “Because it’s dark inside so I came outside to this lamp.”
We can all laugh at such a story but the teaching is that this is what we are all doing. We are looking on the outside for our happiness and peace of mind when the answer is right there inside us and it is not very far away. It simply requires an about turn in the orientation of our minds and hearts and regular practice of the Yoga of a little – ” a little asana, a little pranayama and a little meditation” will support that turn around.
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