Monthly Archives: December 2012

Being in a Pose Isn’t Yoga

I didn’t mean to surprise so many of you with that last entry. In fact, I was surprised that so many of you were surprised that I struggled with arm balances for such a long time. I guess I did a pretty good job faking it out, or probably, more accurately, we are all so entirely absorbed with our own practices and what is happening on our own mats that we don’t bother looking around the room to see what else is happening, or isn’t happening. Go eka grata!

When I first started practicing, I used a videotape and then graduated to going to gyms or to Bikram. In all those settings, I never encountered arm balances, inversions or any deep backbend. It wasn’t until I started going to OM Yoga in New York City that I was aware these Cirque Du Soleil-esque postures existed and that “normal” people practiced them. Until then, my yoga practice was pretty basic: standing postures and sun salutes and some belly down backbends, which, by the way, is a great place to build strength and flexibility, so I’m not knocking those kinds of classes. They are crucial to any yoga practice and provide the exact body awareness we need to attempt the fancier, party trick poses we see in yoga clothing advertisements.

Unless you were a gymnast or a dancer, most people cannot just lift into an inversion or arm balance or bend into upward bow. These poses take practice and patience. It’s not supposed to be easy. In the beginning, I remember getting frustrated with how hard such a practice was. I vividly recall holding a lunge pose for what felt like at least twenty minutes and just as I was about to quit, the teacher said something about the whole class hating her for holding the pose so long. It was then that I realized this was hard for everyone, that yoga is supposed to be hard and challenging, and that the harder we work the less likely we are to think about dinner or the to-do list. We can escape the tedium of the monkey mind.

Of course, the more you practice the easier some poses get so this other group of frustrating poses is introduced. Again, I distinctly remember the thought pattern when I was first taught pincha mayurasana, forearm stand: “What the [bleep]. There is no way I can do that.” Yet, with practice and patience I figured it out. Sure, it helps that I’m on the more flexible side of things. For some, if both the shoulders and upper back are really tight, then a pose like pincha may take years or even decades. On the flip side, if you’re too flexible it may take just as long to build the strength you need to support such a pose. But it’s the practice that is important, not the pose. Being in a pose isn’t yoga. It’s some hybrid of gymnastics and ballet. Keeping an even mind while you attempt the pose is yoga.

If you’ve ever been to a class I’ve taught, I’m sure you have heard me say many times that these poses are useful because they reveal things about ourselves. We can see how we approached a challenging pose and how we reacted to it. Were we competitive, angry, perfectionist, defeatist, fearful, fearless? Usually, these characteristics are prevalent in our life off the mat, too. So we can use them to learn about ourselves. Don’t lament if you weren’t ever a gymnast or ballerina, or don’t let whatever your bete-noir pose is get you down: the poses are simply a vehicle for self discovery. It’s svadhyaya, one of the five niyamas, which is defined by many as the study of the self, or the true nature of the self, self-reflection.

Take the Action, Let Go of the Result

I hated arm balances. Hated. I know: you’re not supposed to be attached to any pose or have any judgement and all that stuff, but I did. I absolutely hated arm balances. I could do not do them, and I came up with every excuse for why. My shoulders are way too floppy. My balance is terrible on my feet, so there is no way I can balance on my hands. My arse is too heavy. I’m just not strong enough.

So, I had decided, quite declaratively, that since arm balances clearly were not for me, I would not bother even trying them any more. It was humiliating. Again, I know the “rules” of Yoga tell us we should not approach the practice in such a way. I wasn’t supposed to let my ego tell me I was humiliated or, more accurately, angry that I could not balance on my hands. This anger was exacerbated when some newbie would come into class and float into bakasana the first time trying — and then laugh in amazement that they were able to balance only on their hands. Disgusted. I think that’s the word I”ll use to describe how that made me feel. I’m not sure if it was with the new person or with my self. Either way the feeling was palpable.

At its peak, I would start to worry about whether a class would be filled with arm balances on my way to class. I thought my inability to lift my feet off the ground said something about my practice. “She can’t even do bakasana!,” they would say behind my back. I had no idea at that point in my practice that the people who are in their arm balance — or whatever peak pose — have no inclination to look around the room and size people up. Still, back then, the sense perceived failure would last throughout the class and into the evening.

Then something happened. Instead of faking out my effort, I actually began to work the actions in the pose without regard for whether or not my feet would lift. I had already come to terms with them not lifting, so I may as well try to get some benefit out of the pose rather than just stewing in my own anger, disappointment, disgust, frustration. It happened something like, ‘take the action, let go of the result.” I wish I could remember what clicked to allow me to have some sort of peace with the arm balance family, so that I could share that with you, but, I don’t. Sorry.

What I can offer is that the moment I let go of my feelings of success or failure about bakasana, I was able to work more intelligently and figure out the geometry of it. For me, my hands were too close together. All it took was separating them another half an inch, and I was up. So it had nothing to do with my shoulders, balance, strength or even my butt. It was just about figuring out how to stack my bones most effectively — and for many of us that can take time. And since bakasana is the blueprint for almost all arm balances, as soon as I was able to figure that pose out, it cascaded throughout my practice quite quickly. It’s all the same actions, just different placement of the limbs.

Whether it’s this family of poses or another, if we keep our minds steady and perform actions, the results will come in time. The Bhagavad Gita says that we should never let the fruits of our actions be our goal — sort of like that old adage, it’s the journey not the destination. This advice is easy to give but very hard to follow. I still have poses that elicit something like anger, but, if we can notice when that happens we can remind ourselves that “work alone is our privilege, never the fruits thereof.”

Now, the Practice of Yoga Begins

In the last entry, I wrote about the effects of a physical practice lingering throughout the day. Granted, if you run into obstacle after obstacle, that state of semi-bliss can dwindle quickly. Often, it doesn’t take much: a slow-poke driver when you’re in a hurry, the Starbucks barista who gave you the wrong drink, landing behind the customer who has sent a store clerk on a scavenger hunt for a product. We obviously cannot just jump onto our yoga mats and practice every time someone or something annoys or upsets us. We can make a choice, however, to deal with it gracefully or not.

The very first sutra from Patanjali, the bible, if you will, of yoga, is translated by Satchidananda as: Now, the exposition of Yoga is being made. A fancy, Shakespearean-like way of saying, “Now, the practice of Yoga begins.” He does not qualify it by saying, when you get on your mat or meditation pillow, Yoga begins. Or after you finish your glass of wine, it begins. Or tomorrow, it begins. There is an imperative call to action to begin Yoga right now, at this moment.

He then goes on in the second sutra to explain that Yoga is the “restraints of the modifications of the mind-stuff.” To simplify, it is the ability or attempt to stop all the craziness we think about all the time — most of which will never happen or has already happened and there’s no longer anything we can do about it. So while most of us connect practicing yoga to the physical practice, it is much simpler and, yet, a whole lot more challenging to keep your mind quiet at every moment. I can assure you that is not going to happen to me in this lifetime, but I can’t abandon the idea entirely because I know it’s absolutely impossible for me. I’ll try, when I remember.

Of course, I can hardly remember to practice this Yoga when I’m cursing myself at five in the morning because I forgot to move the Elf on the Shelf again and the kids are stirring. But, really, this is the practice: to keep an even mind when things are not quiet and peaceful. It’s far less challenging to find an even mind when we are in a quiet yoga studio with our yoga teacher who is reminding us throughout class to keep our minds steady. On top of that, the movement and hard work help to rid the mind and body of these disturbances, or vrittis. The intense focus on each and every pose stops us from looping back to whatever our own personal crazy thoughts are. The harder we work, the less likely the mind is to wander off.

So, the physical practice is vital, not only to help shake out the vrittis, but also because, and maybe more importantly, the asana practice can teach us about ourselves by revealing how we approach poses and how we react to them. We can then try to take this knowledge off the mat, so that, when we’re faced with one annoyance or hardship after another we can, as Patanjali says, right now, begin the practice of yoga.

Enter Yoga

As the season merry-making, peace and joy gets underway, it’s fitting that most of us start thinking about the people we love; yet, most of the people I know, and of course I’m including myself in that category, also feel a certain amount of stress, anxiety and guilt. The list of errands grows. We must shop, bake, and party-go. We want to give gifts that connote how well we know someone and how much we care for him/her. We pick and chose which get-togethers to attend. Most of us lament about not having more time. We need help to put all the work involved with this season into perspective.

Enter Yoga.

No, I do not think that yoga can save the lives of everyone. I do, however, think that Yoga and its 8-limbs can get us all off to a good start. Most of us are familiar only with the physical practice of yoga, which is the third limb and is called asana. It is the branch that most Westerners associate as yoga. The others include aspects like how to treat others and yourself, (analogous to the Ten Commandments), breath control, sense withdrawal, meditation, concentration and finally, for those rare few, enlightenment. For most of us, the physical practice is where we can start to get glimpses of the other, more elusive parts of Yoga. It’s also where we can most tangibly learn about ourselves.

Granted, an asana practice takes time, maybe even 2 hours a day if you’re traveling to and from a 90-minute class. But it gives so much more in return. When our brains are running on empty, and thoughts and organization get scattered, we cannot run efficiently. Often things that are not all that important begin to take center stage. What typically takes 30 minutes can take twice as long — and we could be quite angry as we do it. Personally, I get frantic and bitchy — not a good combination, ask Tom.

Now, reflect on how you feel after a solid yoga practice, one in which you were able to completely absorb yourself in the present moment and let go of whatever is happening in your life. For me, after a class like that I am more focused and quite calm. A bit of serenity lingers throughout the day. The fact that it can take my daughters 10 minutes to get buckled in their booster seats when it would take me two seconds if they’d let me buckle them, does not irritate me as much after such an asana practice. I realize with that extra ten minutes, I can check my texts or emails and be proud of their accomplishment, rather than huffing and puffing about losing a precious ten minutes I’ll never remember anyway.

It is similar to taking an exam for which you have prepared, rather than one for which you have not studied. You can breeze through a test without sweating or stressing and leave with confidence if you made an earnest effort at studying. If you don’t have time to attend a public yoga class, take 20 minutes to practice at home — shut off your cell phone, television and any other potential distraction so that you are truly able to find eka grata, one-pointed focus. If you’re into meditating, maybe ten minutes of meditation will give you the same effect. Just like the test analogy, you don’t get the same long term results if you cheat. You’ve got to be focused.

Aside from allowing me the ability to complete tasks more efficiently and effectively, keeping up my yoga practice in stressful times, especially the holidays, forces me to reflect on the aspects of my life for which I am thankful. It forces me to remember the reason for the hustle-bustle. I want to make the season special for my children and my loved-ones.