I spent the weekend teaching in St. Louis, MO at Southtown Yoga. This was my second trip to St. Louis and we had a really great time. The theme of the weekend was "Break Through, Don't Break Down: Advancing Your Practice Intelligently." I got the title from a teaching that my spiritual teacher, Lee Lozowick, used to give about progress in practice and how the aim was to practice in such a way that we had breakthroughs instead of breakdowns. In many cases he would explain to us that breakdowns came when we over-reached, when we tried to practice at someone else's level instead of our own or according to a preconceived notion of what a teaching meant instead of the way we needed to apply the teaching to our unique situation. He wasn't speaking about asana--he was talking about a larger life of sadhana-- and yet in so many ways, the principles are exactly the same. And while we could open up a big can of worms with what it means to advance one's asana practice, I did focus a lot on how to make intelligent progress in the physical practice.
One principle of intelligently advancing our practice -on or off the mat--is to accept where we are without judgement. If we are tight, we are not going to make progress pretending our muscles are loose. If we want to do scorpion pose, we have to learn to balance in pincha mayurasana and so on. Lee used to say that the sadhana was like a series of locked rooms and that the key to the next room is hidden somewhere in the room in which we currently find ourselves. The key to patience is in the traffic jam, the key to self-love is in our current state of self-hatred, the key to forgiveness is hidden somewhere in the seeds of our anger and so on. I see the same principle so often in asana. The key to the next pose on the syllabus is the skillful execution of the previous pose. Skip a step in the Level 1 pose and we are going to find a Level 2 pose we can't do until we go back to clean the earlier work up somehow. Get injured on the Level 3 syllabus and many times, some action we needed to avoid the injury and/or heal the tweak is hiding in plain sight on the Level 1 or 2 syllabus. So like that. (And believe me I am learning this principle in my own practice so I am not being "judgey" about it. I am spending a fair amount of time going back and cleaning up some shortcuts I took over the years in my personal practice right now. Lucky for me I like the work of it and find it intriguing and rewarding. Anyhoo--)
At any rate, the main idea is that we benefit most from the practice that is truly our own. Try to do someone' else's practice and it will lead to a lack of progress or injury or even just another experience of asking yourself to conform to an arbitrary outer standard. And because we navigate a lot of paradox in yoga- it is an individual practice done in a group, it is a physical practice that is not only physical, it is a spiritual practice that is also physical, it is about the postures but not only about the postures, it is not about the poses yet we use the poses, we are perfectly fine as we are and yet we need some improvement and so on-- the call to discernment and intelligence on our part as students is very high. The longer I go about learning and teaching yoga the more astounded I am at how much is actually involved in simply knowing what to do when we step on a mat. I am continually amazed at how nuanced practice actually is and how difficult it is to convey the subject effectively in the average learning environment.
I do not intend for this commentary to be a criticism or even a rant. It just seems to me that we have this huge subject matter that we engage in 60-minute, 90-minute or even 3-hour chunks of time. We have our own unique quirks of physicality, emotionality and intellectuality, coupled with an endless variety of expectations and desires and motivations and we are generally in a room with one teacher and a group of 6-600 fellow students as we learn. It is a wonder we understand anything at all and shocking that any of us can make our way through the paradoxes, surface-level contradictions, and subtleties that are required to apply the teachings to ourselves. Considering all we are up against, wow, we are probably doing pretty well!
I think that is the amazing thing about practice- if we keep doing it, the practice starts to reveal to us its layers. So much of the clarity and wisdom is in the doing. I think if the teacher can point us in a good direction we can save a lot of time and spare ourselves some extra work but it also seems that so much comes down to each of us engaging the practice for ourselves in our way, over a long period of time.
We also worked with a lot of repetition throughout the weekend which is part of a new approach I am taking in my weekend workshops. And this was great because it was an intensive so the majority of the people were there for all four sessions, which really maximized what we could accomplish.
I could go on about the group (fantastic- open, loving, funny and receptive) and my hosts (charing, sincere, dedicated, fun and supportive) and about so many other things that we great about the weekend but I need to finish packing and then we have One Om tonight.
Oh, and it's my birthday today so Happy Birthday to me.
Here are some pics from the weekend.
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