Yoga is designed to be a lifetime practice. Well-done practices evolve with us as we move through the changes of our lives – inviting ongoing processes of healing to unfold as our consciousness opens into deeper levels of awareness. We’ve been talking about awareness of the spiritual heart. One facet of the practice is that discipline and structure are required in order to have mastery over the mind and body so they don’t interfere with or obscure our experience of our essential being – our spiritual heart.
In observation as a teacher, and as a long time yoga student, a primary focus in discipline is managing sloth and torpor – and their opposites – ambition and grasping. To obtain the best results in our practice – we are well served to find a structured path between these two extremes. We might call this the “Goldilocks” amount of effort. Just enough. When we are a bit lazy about our practice – it won’t be enjoyable enough to motivate us to make a commitment – we won’t really get the full picture what the yoga can do for us. When we drive too hard there can be a backlash that causes us to drop out for some time. Consistent practice (which in and of itself requires discipline) joined with healthy effort creates not only a lifetime practice, but also sufficient internal results to ignite the desire to keep practicing.
One simple and very universal nonaggressive technique that we can develop to up our game in yoga is focus. Generally the practice of focus in asana will unfold from the external to the internal. At first, we cultivate focus by not thinking about what is going on outside the room, then not thinking about what is going on beyond our mat, and then having full attention in the body and then full attention in the breath and then being able to abide consistently in the small quiet space in our hearts or minds as we move through a series of postures. At some point we are able to do this for a sustained amount of time. One way to check your focus is whether you are sweating or not! Yep. Breath makes you sweat, but so does focus. If your practice isn’t “warming up” for you, try bringing a little more focus. Some ways to do this might be practicing moving from one asana to another focusing on the breath. The same move over and over i.e. Downward facing dog to Warrior One. One breath one movement. If your mind drifts outside of your body, try really focusing on the feeling of your hands and feet on the floor. At first, it’s good to focus on something really neutral – and within your own body mind. It can be helpful not to tell a story to yourself about what arises. Just observe. And stick to it for a while. One week breath and movement, one week feeling hands and feet.
I publish a newsletter in conjunction with these blog posts which rolls out themes related to the inner practices of yoga – the landscape of the mind in practice – often tied in with classic philosophical notes. Like to take a look? It only comes out every week or so, and there are no ads. I promise!
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The focus this moon month in the newsletter is freedom or in Sanskrit, Mukti. Mukti translates as “liberation”, freedom, and it’s important to understand that freedom in the sense of yoga is different than freedom in of our day-to-day life – although they are related. We may think that having tons of money would be freedom or rebelling against social conventions would be freedom. Freedom is not inherent in those experiences. Ask anyone who has very large amounts of money or who has lived in the counterculture for a long time and in their story you will hear of the oppressions that still remain. In yoga freedom is something that we develop inside ourselves as we cease identifying with the fluctuations (vritti’s) of our mind. That’s the second sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The fluctuations of our mind frequently take the form of how we think of ourselves, how we think of others and how we think of the world we live in. These mental constructs can become rigid and block our ability to be open and spacious and, well, liberated. The freedom of the yogi comes in the form of an inner sovereignty which allows us to become the masters of our own minds and to use that freedom to choose the path of love over and over again.
Yoga is a discipline that leads to freedom The practices of yoga involve experiencing certain kinds of restraint and under those conditions finding the freedom there. When the restraint is lifted you have a different understanding of who you are. Restraint comes in the form of tying yourself in a knot in an awkward posture and remaining peaceful. Restraint can mean being willing to suspend our immediate desires in order to allow a higher state of wisdom consciousness to guide our actions.
When we tie ourselves in a knot in a posture we stir up the deep resistances we have to living. The knots are knots within our consciousness and so the goal is that to breathe, to be present to what’s happening and not fight with it. Consider this first level of freedom one that you could find contentment even when circumstances around you are not to your liking. That’s a tremendous amount of freedom. Sometimes for whatever reason it’s not the best idea to change a circumstance. Even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s better to be strong. This capacity is honed in the practice of asana. Accept the limitation, breathe be still and allow your inner guidance to direct you step by step to moving beyond the limitation into a deeper expression of the posture.
This kind of yoga training reveals discernment – the capacity to understand if our impulses are coming from our authentic heart desires or our desire to control. It’s a powerful means of developing aligned autonomous inspired choice making. Sovereignty. It is a gift of the yoga practice born of moment by moment alignment with self and that is the freedom. Rather than having others dictate who we are or who we become or what actions we take in our lives we are free to take action in alignment with our highest best interest. Yoga will take us to a healthy and beautiful body of all different kinds of shapes and sizes but this is the heart of the yoga – this sovereignty and the freedom that emerges through practice.
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.