Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lessons Learned on the Mat (January 25, 2009)

At the seminary where I was “formed” every student encouraged to have their own spiritual practice, but the practices are as varied as the students. Many UUs journal or meditate. Some make art, some do ritual, or study religious and secular texts. I have tried a lot of these different practices over the years, but what really stuck was hatha yoga. This is not the most common path- I know personally only one other UU colleague who has taken this as her primary practice. Generally UU ministers are very intellectual, and choose a practice accordingly. I had found, while on my own spiritual journey, that I was a little too trapped in my own mind, disconnected from body, heart and spirit. Once I realized this, I began to follow a path toward integration of my Self which lead me to my first yoga class, and has kept me steady in this practice.

When the word Yoga is used in the Hindu tradition, it means a path that yokes oneself to the divine. Hatha yoga is a practice of the physical body, and as World Religion Scholar Huston Smith says: “Originally it was practiced as preliminary to spiritual yoga, but it has largely lost this connection” There are 4 other kinds of yoga within the Hindu tradition we don’t hear as much about in the U.S. These are chosen based on one’s character and inclinations: (1)
Jnana yoga, path of knowledge- of study and reflection
Bhakti yoga, the path of the heart
Karma yoga- the path to god through work
Raja yoga- the royal road, a way to god through psychopisical experiments.

It is true that many of the folks who practice yoga asanas (or poses) at their local gym may see the practice as more about keeping fit than about yoking themselves to a spiritual path, but the great yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, who is largely responsible for introducing yoga to the West said: “Do not underestimate the value of asana. Even in simple asanas, one is experiencing the three levels of the quest: the external quest, which brings firmness of body; the internal quest, which brings steadiness of intelligence; and the innermost quest, which brings benevolence of spirit. While a beginner is not generally aware of these aspects while performing the asana, they are there.” (2)

Iyengar is part of a spiritual tradition based on the Yoga-Sutra of 3rd century sage Patanjali, which identifies an eight limbed path for self realization. These 8 limbs are:

Ethical Disciplines (yama)
Internal ethical observances (niyama)
poses (asana)
breath control (pranayama)
Sensory control and withdrawl (pratyahara)
Concentration (dharana)
meditation (dhyana)
Blissful absorption (Samadhi)

These 8 limbs are meant to be done in that proscribed sequence, with the idea that one needs live an ethical life and have a good relationship to the body and the breath or they will have too much baggage and distraction for the inner journey to be fruitful.

To those who understand asana as part of a spiritual path, there are different ways of achieving the withdrawal of senses and concentration. In the Ashtanga tradition, for example, the sequence of poses is identical each day. So “The practices itself (once the student is experienced enough to stop thinking about which asana comes next) becomes a moving meditation.” (3)
Iyengar teaches a different way of looking at asana practice in which the mind stays active and interested in the mechanics of each pose, and so each pose is done more slowly, with rest and reflection in between each pose. By thinking about how each part of the body is engaged in the pose, the consciousness is equally distributed through the self allowing dharana, the concentration needed for meditation.

But there is another aspect to Iyengar’s sense of the role of asana in our growth. Says Iyengar: “To a yogi, the body is a laboratory for life, a field of experimentation and perpetual research.” [Iyengar p. 22] “As we explore the Soul, it is important to remember that this exploration will take place within Nature (the body) for that is where we are and what we are.” [Iyengar p. 6] This idea, I feel is very well aligned with the first UU source- that we use our own experience to ground our spiritual growth. It reminds me of the writings of Emerson who said in his essay “Nature” that all thought and language comes from the natural world. “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state o the mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture… Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?” [Iyengar p. 16]

And truly some of the natural facts I have experienced in my Asana practice have particularly noticeable parallels off the mat. The first one I noticed was around what my teacher called “Playing the edge.” When you are in a particularly intense stretch my teacher always warned us that if you always push all the way to your edge, you may get injured. But of course if you never approach your edge, you will not move forward. The technique is to approach the edge and back off. This has an amazing parallel to church and other institutional life. If a congregation pushes too hard for change, there may be a backlash. If a congregation never changes, no growth happens. The wise thing to do is for the congregation to stretch itself near the edge, but only to 80 % of capacity, and then to back off. A slow and steady approach of pushing the edge and the resting allows the edge to move over time.

We are also advised in class to “notice how your pose is today” Don’t assume that your body is the same as it was yesterday. Just because you were in a split yesterday does not mean that is right for you today. Listen and observe where you are in this moment, and act from there. In the words of Iyengar: “You are also going to strain the muscles unnecessarily because you are thinking about the asana and how far you want to stretch and not experiencing the asana and stretching according to your capacity.” p. 31 Our ideas and plans for what we want to do in the world must be grounded in the reality of our physical being, which changes moment by moment, day by day.

Another important lesson to me came from my teacher Michelle. She often asked us to relax all the muscles, all the effort we did not need to stay in a pose Says Iyengar “Relaxation means release of unnecessary muscular tension in your body. [p. 37] “There is always relaxation in the right position even though you are fully stretching. The ego is an unrelenting task master. IT does not know that one must balance activity and passivity in the asana, exertion and relaxation.” p. 36 . This blew my mind. Being a young type-A personality I thought you should engage every muscle every moment in every pose. And once I realized this was hard and counter intuitive for me, I realized that it was a practice I needed to adopt.

That use of props is another important lesson. In the Ashtanga tradition there are no props- the idea is that if you are getting into the full pose every day the body will eventually grow into that pose. In the Iyengar tradition many props are used. The idea is that props allow us to have optimal alignment and support before we can reach the floor on our own. This can be hard on the ego, especially when one is new to yoga, especially when the person next to you is able to do the pose without props.. We think the goal of the pose is to touch the floor when really the goal of the pose is to have full extension of the spine or smooth even breath. I don’t think there is one true answer to the prop question, but it often reflects our attitude from issues off the mat. Can I accept help and support, or does it bruise my ego? Or do I use a lot of props and crutches that I might not really need?

Yoga is a practice, that is it must be done over and over. As with any practice, it is very exciting and even strange at first, and then it becomes familiar, comfortable, we begin to see progress towards goals. I remember standing in my kitchen one day and realizing that my shoulders had a range of motion I had never expected. I never thought I would make it into headstand, but now it is something I do almost every day. Yoga asana taught me the power of repetition, the power of patience. It taught me that change is not always about the big crossroads in life, but about the power of daily action over time, the tens of thousands of days that make up our adult life. Yoga Teacher Kent Bond called it “slow surgery” The power of that kind of repetition is why we are always careful of our joints and careful not to over stretch. We believe that change is possible through consistent effort over time, and want to be conscious of what we are changing in our bodies and in ourselves.

Then once we have achieved our goals, or realized that the goal is not attainable in our lifetime, we need to find a way to make the same movement fresh each time we enter. We must bring our awareness into each asana, even when we have done it a thousand times. says Iyengar “Awareness allows us to overcome tiredness and exhaustion in our poses and in our lives.” p. 32 Then I added another yoga class with a different teacher. She calls it an advanced class, but we aren’t doing any particularly advanced poses. She is working on focusing the attention on more and more subtle movements and muscles in familiar poses. This is the aspect Iyengar was talking about- bringing all the attention into the whole body as a preparation for meditation, turning the focus inward. This is something we all can do even as we age, even with an injury.

One of the hardest lessons I have had to learn on the yoga mat is about the ego. I confided, once, to a friend that I felt quite competitive in yoga class. If there is a pretzel to get into, I want to be in it. If there is a strength pose I want to hold it as long as anyone else. I want to do them all. He was shocked "I didn't think yoga was supposed to be like that" he said. "It's not the yoga." I said "It's the ego."

If you have hung out with me, you will know that I am not generally a competitive person. I rarely push a point to win an argument. I usually bowl a 40 and I'm okay with that (mostly). I've been running an 11 minute mile for 10 years now and still I'm out there 3 times a week poking along in sun, wind or streaming rain. Generally I'd rather have peace and good feelings than a victory. Then I started taking a vigorous form of yoga, and suddenly I wanted to be the best.

When I moved to Ithaca and started at a new yoga studio, I somehow felt I had to prove myself. Most of the poses were familiar, but there were new variations, new juxtapositions. We were doing a lot more arm balances and wheels then I was used to, and when my wrist started to hurt I didn't listen. At first I pushed through the pain, but finally I admitted to my teacher that my wrist hurt and asked his advice. He encouraged me to hold back, to use props, to skip certain poses, but my ego just could not let me skip some super-cool pose that I'd been working on whenever the rest of the class was doing it. As Iyengar writes: “When you are self-conscious, you are going to exhaust yourself. You are also going to strain the muscles unnecessarily because you are thinking about the asana and how far you want to stretch and not experiencing the asana and stretching according to your capacity.” [Iyengar p. 3]

Months went by like this until finally something in my ego just broke. I had to give in to the idea that my wrist might never be quite right. I saw a physical therapist, I used my props, even while everyone else was getting better and better at an arm balance I had always wanted to learn.

And one day I realized the pain was gone. I slowly put some weight on my wrist, and brought poses back into my practice one at a time. I still use a wedge for many poses, and I know now to stop when my wrist gets tired, and that some poses just aren't worth the cost. And somehow during all that my ego softened. And though I can now do most of my favorite poses again, my ego is much softer. I wonder if this is part of the wisdom age brings; things fall apart and teach us something about what remains.

I think the most important lesson of a conscious asana practice is that it helps breakdown the duality between mind and body so common in western culture. “Spirituality is not some external goal that one must seek, but a part of the divine ore of each of us, which we must reveal. For the yogi, spirit is not separate from body.” (4)

“The whole practice of yoga is concerned with exploring the relationship between Prakrti and Purusa, between Nature and Soul.. It is about… learning to live between the earth and the sky. That is the human predicament, our joy and our woe, our salvation and our downfall. Nature and soul are mingled together.” (5)

My purpose today is not to encourage everyone to take up an asana practice, but to notice the wisdom of the body, to let your lived experience in muscle and bone “move us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Let it be source of our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”

1) Huston Smith The World’s Religions Harper San Francisco 1991. P. 27-41.
2) B.K.S. Iyenger Light on Life p. 18
3) John Scott Ashtanga Yoga p. 10
4) B.K.S. Iyenger Light on Life p. 18
5) Ibid p. 9

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