About the Body – Thoughts on designing sequences for personal practice

I’ve waited years to talk about this!  It’s absolute freedom to me to be honest about designing your personal yoga practice.  You see, when you teach yoga you have to learn to construct a sequence which will be manageable for the largest number of people in the demographic that you are working with.  It’s a fabulous way to learn, taking group classes.  The support is amazing and often, especially in the early stage of practice – you can go further in association with others.  There comes a time in practice though…a time when it’s really time for you to discover your own personal connection with yoga and the truth that is being uncovered in you by the practice.  This can really only be done on your own.  No one else can feel what you feel.  No one else can really understand that revelation that you have.  It all travels through our personal filters.  And what, if not the actualization of our own yoking to the sacred, to the infinite, to the wise  – are our practices about?  It’s something to celebrate when we are called to develop our personal practice.

Generally I suggest that you start out considering two approaches to designing.  The first is to get on your mat and play – and in this I encourage you work with and without music.  Music will drive you in a particular direction, but it can also obscure what is going on inside at a deeper level.  It’s a complicated topic which we’ll address in future posts.  The key at this point is to be aware that it will have an impact in your practice.  The second is to decide on a goal and then work towards it.  For this second, more structured sadhana-like way to practice yoga asana – I suggest you start by picking a few basic key postures and doing them every day.   Overall, I design my sadhana moon month by moon month, and each month I will design a full sequence for myself. I decide the minimum postures I will do on a busy day.  Each day when I get on my mat it falls somewhere in the spectrum.  I always have a posture which is key for the moon month.  I try to tie it into my spiritual theme.  I always did that for the students and yes, I do it now just for myself.  I don’t hesitate to indulge the desires I have about my body, but I always try to give them a context.  For example, I gained weight during COVID (can you believe that? Lol) and I want to change that.  So my spiritual themes are around sadhana and the discipline contained therein.  That spiritual practice supports what I need to do for my body- which right now is to practice almost everyday.  We are integrated beings and there will always be a physical and spiritual coherence in our practice if we are open to it. 

Also, in this more structured component of developing practice it’s good to decide how you want to learn to understand your body.  Some people thrive with that anatomical memorization of parts.  Eh, not me.  For me, learning about the energy body was the doorway to learning about the muscles and bones and tendons and organs.  Once you decide on your approach, there are many resources online books and workshops.  If you are serious about yoga, I highly recommend, Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar.  He has sample sequences at the end of the book which are great learning devices. 

IF YOU FORCE NOTHING YOU WILL BE 100% SAFE.  FORCE NOTHING!

Remember to bring your wisdom with you on your mat.  In my years as a teacher I’ve seen people fall out of arm balances because they were drinking before class, people pushing postures until they snap, all kinds of things.  Most recently, my last employer – probably in his early seventies, felt fat from the COVID too.  He jumped immediately into doing 200 sit ups with a 25 pound weight on his head.  I said, “I would never let one of my students do that”.  He kept doing it.  Let’s put that in the “don’t try this at home” file.  The beauty of yoga is that you can gain without pain, and that the results of everything you do are cumulative  – a sustainable practice builds sustainable gains.  Moderation, balance and consistency are better than dramatic pushes followed by collapses into nothingness because you’ve overdone it. 

It is my deepest wish that this information will be useful to you, that you will grow in your life through your practice.  Keep practicing all is coming.

Would you like a weekly newsletter about yoga?

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The Elements of Sadhana: Santosha- Contentment

In the newsletters we’ve been talking about creating a sadhana – a conscious spiritual practice of yoga, a discipline of yoga as conscious spiritual practice. This past week I introduced the mahavratam or great vows outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. These vows aren’t something that Patanjali devised – he compiled them from studying with the esteemed yoga masters of the day (which was some time a few  thousand years ago no precise date is known).  There are ten of them. They are often considered to be moral imperatives. In practice I’ve found it more useful and more authentic  – I get better results – if I let that idea of morality go and open up to practicing them whenever and however I can, trusting that they are actually learning devices for me.  Through practicing them I open to understanding who I am and who everyone else is.  As I open to understanding I make better  choices. The ten mahavratam are: nonviolence, non stealing,  adherence to truth, continence, non- hoarding, cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self- reflection and devotion. In the newsletter I briefly talked about the practice of saucha or cleanliness. Today I’d like to speak a little bit about contentment, or santosha. 

One thing to consider when practicing these – they’re also called yamas and niyamas, restraints and observances – is that we are always creating. We are creative beings – extensions of the divine, which is the creative energy of the universe, the supreme creative energy of the universe. This is an underlying paradigm of the yoga practice.  The yoga practice will reveal that we a specks of divine creative consciousness – and we can live from that truth. This is co-creating, which is yoga – to be yoked to the divine. The restraints and observances clear the palette of our consciousness, enabling creativity which is unbridled by our past. 

 With yoga the idea is that creating in alignment  with the infinite divine opens the doorway to limitless possibilities- and that wisdom, that intelligence – will create richer more satisfying possibilities than our personalities with their cravings and conditioned attunement to lack. If we choose it, these practices deepen our understanding of the elements of a good life.  This is partly why I encourage you to set aside the idea that they are imposed morality.  Practiced lovingly, they open the way to a delicious abundant live.  Less is more. 

With the practice of santosha or contentment this connection between our behaviors our beliefs our thoughts in the world that we experience is made very clear. 

Perhaps in your life you have met those or perhaps you’ve been in this space yourself ( I know I have been) where you feel a need to complain about everything. I’ve seen a real uptick in this during the COVID situation. 

 I think we can all agree there is much to be addressed in the world., but right now we have to accept what’s happened and what is happening and learn to work with it. Shaking our fists at a perceived enemy is unlikely to change the world…changing ourselves is likely to change the world, not only because we engage those conversations differently. 

But let’s think back to the before time – before COVID – and remember those days in offices or classrooms or social gatherings where we or our friends or neighbors or our family would lapse into days where we complained and complained and complained. Surely we’ve all known in ourselves or others that momentum that complaining develops – once you start complaining there just seems to be more to complain about. The yogis understood this very deeply through their meditations , analysis and self reflection. The practice of contentment is to practice contentment under all circumstances that’s a key of these mahavratam – under all circumstances.   So in any moment (the grandeur of universality demands we operate one moment at a time) when faced with complaining, we choose contentment.  It’s like putting down a heavy object.  “I just don’t want to carry the weight of my complaints, so I’m a gonna put this down, right here.”  It’ll be okay.  Once we’ve entered a quieter state of mind, wise action can emerge more clearly. 

What does that mean – in the yoga practice – to work a difficult situation? Perhaps it is to rest in the understanding that you’ve participated in the creation of it and take responsibility for the fact that you’re there. You skip the blame (of yourself and others) you skip the victim story and nurture and invite the ability to see the situation differently.  Liberation arises when we realize there is no one to blame.  The practice of contentment opens our minds so that we are able to see that. To be honest, in content I perceive that there is nothing to complain about.  It’s all perfect.  But to deeply know that feeling we have to practice.  

One of the ways that we can train ourselves in the vast practice of contentment is to practice on our yoga mats. One of the most obvious powerful and potent ways to do this is to be content with a posture even as you are working to transform it. Where I am is fine but I’d like to deepen it. I’d like to expand it; I’d like to move to the next expression of it. So the first part of that is to enjoy every posture just where you are with it. This is one of the reasons why the postures that we can’t do are so important. As I say this I realize that this is one of the biggest difficulties of a home practice is that we never bump into those postures that we don’t like. At the same time if the classes available around us are not suitable – to force ourselves to go into a class that is just full of difficulties makes no sense either.  So what can be a good idea in your practice is to add a small step towards a posture that you would like to attain someday. For me right now this is wheel urdva dhanurasana. 

 I had an accident last fall where my wrist was smashed. I’ve consciously decided to recover slowly. In my full practice days I would do three full or wheel postures every day.  Wow right?  To me that seems like wow.  I was never a born gymnast. That posture has intense ramifications on the wrist and feels remote to me but at a certain point I had an intuition a revelation that in fact I would be able to do it again in this lifetime So what I’m going to practice this moon month is to sit at the wall and take a camel posture and place my hands on the wall. A highly modified introduction to the movement that would lead to wheel. And I am content.. This is the beauty of modifications in yoga. What they do is – if you practice them fully,happily embracing what the modification has to offer you – it’s actually like working the full posture you develop the shape energetically on a deep level and it opens from the inside out. One day your’re ready and the full posture emerges – like a chuck busting out of an egg. 

So how do we learn about modifications if we’d like to incorporate them in our sadhana?  I highly recommend them even if you don’t have an injury. Spend some time in modified postures.  By working with the modifications you’ll learn some of the paradigms of postural yoga. We’re very fortunate to live in an opulent world where there’s all kinds of information about yoga on the Internet so I’m sure you can find some information about modifications there.  As far as books books go and even Internet the best school of yoga from which to learn about modifications is the Iyengar school so I encourage you to look into that when choosing postures to work in your sadana. 

Once you’ve practiced santosha on your mat for some time don’t be surprised if you  catch yourself practicing it in your life.  You don’t have to make a big trip out of doing all of these mahavratam.  Just know that they can extend to all circumstances, and they’re not limited.  Your contentment is not limited to certain circumstances.  You can start practicing them in certain circumstances until you feel confident to apply them in more challenging circumstances.  

OK that’s our blog post for today. As always it’s my sincere wish that this information be useful to you and that your practice will lead you to a blessed and wonderful life. 

Experiencing Yoga:  Overcoming Obstacles within – without

This month in class – as we practice asana, we are holding space for the understanding of yoga as presented in the first pada or book of the timeless text Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In this pada Patanjali lays out the arc of yoga – he spells out the origin and result of the practice as well as  some fundamentals of practice itself.  He also spells out the inner and outer obstacles.  This is important.  Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people in the world find well-being in yoga.  We all want that  well-being, but, well, maybe we just don’t feel like we can do yoga. My teacher once taught me that the hardest part of yoga was just getting to class. Do you have obstacles? What are they?  As a yogi, I confront those obstacles daily. As a yoga teacher, my life is filled with persons telling me why they can’t practice — at job interviews, at the bank, at the dinner table and in the grocery store.    Hey, maybe you just don’t want to! Nothing wrong with that!  But if you do want to, acknowledging the obstacles and being willing to engage them can be a powerful move forward towards actually becoming stable in your practice. It’s really important to note that Patanjali spells out both inner obstacles (our thoughtforms) and outer obstacles (i.e.not feeling well). Adopting a two pronged approach to address these two apparently separate dimensions of our being can be a powerful catapult into a strong practice.

For many of us, the outer obstacles seem to be the easiest to focus on in the beginning.  It seems that  if there was just a little less traffic we could get there.  But, from the perspective of yoga, the outer obstacles always have an inner corollary.  The outer obstacles Patanjali identifies are: illness, laziness, negligence, the attraction of pleasures, confusion about the practice, attachment to the way things are and a tendency to fall back on old habits.  The inner barriers to the experience of yoga are the various thoughtforms that we have been conditioned to believe are true and unchangeable (“I’m not athletic – never have been since I was a kid”).    The solution to the equation is yoga.  In the samadhi pada Patanjali describes the experience of yoga arising as we shift away from identification with our conditioned thoughtforms and engage with and identify with the ground of consciousness which is fresh and clear and unfettered. 

Arm balances – historically – have always been a big struggle for me.  It took seven years for me to do a handstand.  When I finally stood on my hands, it was a surprise.  My physical effort had been minimal; linking to some measure of illumined consciousness had been maximal.  It’s a story I lived many times in my years of practice.  Today, faith in myself and a willingness to let go and link up with a more illumined perspective is still essential to my practice.  If that linkage wobbles, so does my posture.  But what I saw in that moment of my first handstand was that I had held myself down with the belief that I could not support myself with my own two hands.  To be honest, that epitomizes much of my life journey and my journey through yoga.  It’s been a journey from dependence to independence. 

The first step is a little bit of willingness to see what our inner thought forms are.  We don’t have to worry about changing them.  A willingness to consider that they are there can go a long way towards dissolving them.  Patanjali identifies them as:

  • What we’ve learned intellectually from valid sources
  • What we’ve learned intellectually from invalid sources
  • Hearsay – what we’ve heard about, but have never experienced.
  • The arising of states of non-wakefulness (sleepiness)
  • Recall – drawing forth of past experiences (memory)

Because the obstacles can be so deeply embedded in our programming it does take a bit of faith to get on the mat at all.  But if we desire the sovereignty to deeply transform ourselves and our world that desire can propel us along in our practice until faith in the practice emerges.  It’s all in what you focus on.

%d bloggers like this: