I was introduced to asana practice in Iyengar yoga in 1991. When I started there were only a few styles of yoga from which to chose. I recall Iyengar yoga, Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and Bikram yoga. I also remember Kripalu yoga, Sivandanda yoga and the more generic “hatha yoga” which tended to be a softer, more anything-goes approach to stretching. Not only were there fewer styles from which to pick, often there was only one yoga teacher in town. (If you were in a major metropolitan area you might have one teacher in each style. Or two. And of course, I am generalizing.)
So, with only one or two teachers in town if a person wanted to learn yoga, they learned the kind of yoga that the teacher in their own taught. For instance, I didn’t exactly “decide” to practice Iyengar yoga. I was living and working in an intentional community in Hippieville, California and there was an Iyengar teacher who also lived and worked there. She invited me to come to her class. I went. I liked it well enough. I went back. Simple. No big decision made.
She taught four classes each week. Two of the classes were appropriate for beginners and two of the classes were geared for her more experienced students. When I asked her about what I should do if I wanted to practice more than twice a week, she handed me two books and told me to practice on my own at home. So I did. I read Stretch and Relax by Maxine Tobias, Yoga for Runners by Jean Couch. I worked my way through their suggested practice routines. Thank God these books had big pictures.
Anyway, I moved around a lot in my twenties and so occasionally I visited a “hatha class” in a community center somewhere and would realize that I knew a lot about the practice from my six months of somewhat casual study in Iyengar yoga. I think this was due to this very skilled teacher and to the fact that she had initiated me into study and personal practice very early in my education. I will always be grateful for the introduction that I had.
I hung out mostly in Iyengar yoga for my first few years. I made a few forays to Bikram yoga if I was in a town with a Bikram teacher. I dabbled in Ashtanga vinyasa when I had the chance. I read everything I could find about yoga, which was not very much then. I found Anusara yoga because I was doing a search for an Iyengar yoga teacher in Phoenix, Arizona and Desiree Rumbaugh’s studio came up. This was 1999, few years after John Friend founded Anusara yoga so all of the teachers were formerly certified Iyengar yoga teachers. I guess the search engine picked up Iyengar yoga in their bios. I wasn’t looking for something new at all. I was happily going down the Iyengar yoga road with my blocks, straps and bloomers. But her name came up and I needed a teacher. So I went. Simple. No big decision to make.
After class I went up to Desiree and said, “That was great. It’s like happy Iyengar yoga. I will be back.” Simple. No big decision to make. But I suppose that is a story for another day.
Anyway, I am traveling down memory lane tonight to illustrate a point about how different the culture of yoga was when I was coming up than it is now. I do not want to grind an axe or complain about what we have now. We have what we have and it is a Glorious Mess in my opinion. Sometimes, more glorious and sometimes, more messy. Regardless, I am not of the mind that we are going to go back to some golden age of yoga like the one I was describing. I am not even sure that was golden- it was just what it was then. At any rate, I think that time has passed and the thing we call yoga is marching onward. I do hope, however, to extract some teaching points from my musings about “the way things were.”
Anyhoo— Today, there are more styles of yoga than we can count, each one promising more benefits than the last. I am attempting to restrain my general snarky and sarcastic tendencies here and not go too far down the road of commentary on the various trends. And since we have even made a case that my adamant “no style” style might actually be style these days, I have to tread lightly. I suppose I have a style to the way I practice and a style to the way I teach but not one I think I can reproduce in other people or that I am interested in trademarking and licensing to others. But that is another story for another day.
My main point is that if we claim a style, don’t claim a style, use someone else’s style to describe what we do, or even blend a few of them into our unique special sauce— none of us are entirely immune to the trend of styles emerging in the marketplace, even if we try to be. It’s the way of things right now in this Glorious Messy Age of Yoga.
And I do think there is a difference between style and method but that is also for another day.
At any rate, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a new student faced with hot, not-hot, flow, hot flow, alignment, alignment with flow, flow with alignment, yoga with chocolate, yoga for happiness, yoga for world peace, yoga for inner peace, yoga with music, yoga without music, yoga on a stand-up paddle board, yoga for detox and yoga for retox and so on. (Although I would suggest that one waits for the yoga with wine until after they get off the paddleboard. Just a practical suggestion, mind you.)
Actually, I can imagine what it might be like for the new student. I bet it is similar to how I feel when I go to Whole Foods in Austin, TX to buy olive oil. Austin, Texas is home to the flagship Whole Foods store which houses something like 80,000 square feet of products to make your life better. Think of it like Spoiled White Girl Heaven. Although men seem to like it just fine also. My sister and I sometimes refer to it as Babylon Foods, the situation there is so extreme. But I digress.
Back to olive oil—
Whereas my small town grocery store in San Marcos, TX has an olive oil shelf, Whole Foods has an entire aisle dedicated to premium olive oil. I have a small anxiety attack when faced with the decision of which oil to buy. Is the olive oil from Spain or Italy better? Maybe this local brand is better. I mean certainly it is better for the environment to purchase locally, but what do Texans know about olive oil? I know they make good barbeque, but olives? Are olives native to Texas? I guess it is hot here. Isn’t it hot in italy? But is it this hot there? Do people in Texas even eat olives?
And then there is purity to consider. How virgin is virgin enough? If virgin is good, is extra virgin better? Or really, is it better to be less virginal as an olive oil? You know, maybe a bit more experienced, shall we say? After all, when it comes to people, I am not such a fan of people who are too pure. If someone seems too pure I start wondering if they go home and kick their cat after they massage their organic kale. Maybe it is the same with the oil. Maybe I would like a slightly less virginal olive oil after all.
And does it make me cheap that I do not want to spend more on my olive oil than I did on my last doctor’s visit? Of course, maybe if I sprang for the really pure oil, I wouldn’t have needed those antibiotics…
And so on.
Usually, overwhelmed by choices, I decide to postpone the decision and get some butter. I like butter. Yes, let’s just go with butter. I may even buy some bread. I like bread. Except, there the choices begin again… well, this butter is organic, but that one is local. That one is European which is supposedly better in my Bulletproof coffee but it came all the way from Ireland and aren’t the cows mad over there? I would be mad if I were a cow, being mistreated and all.
And really should coffee be Bulletpoof? What does that mean anyway? I bet that is a scam. What is wrong with half and half in the coffee anyway? It has plenty of fat and tastes great. Oh right, the cows… Okay, so maybe I should skip the butter and go for the coconut oil and so on and so on and so on because once you get back to the coconut oil aisle it all starts again.
So long story short, choices do not always make life easier.
One of the boons of reduced choices early in my practice was that I had to shift my preferences and expecations and ideas to get with the teacher’s program. The lessons came on her terms.
She had class in a cold barn in Northern California. Personally, I hate being cold. I hate stretching when I am cold even more than I hate being cold. And I hate being cold a lot.
Her class was at 6:30 am. 6:30 in the morning was highly inconvenient for me as someone who likes to sleep. I, in fact, hate waking up early. Turns out, I am just not that kind of yogi. I thought 10:30 would have been a better time for class.
She only had two classes I could go to. I would have like to have gone every day. I wasn’t thrilled about practicing on my own with a book. That was hard. And if she wouldn’t add a class, I would have preferred that she let me come to one of her other classes. But she didn’t. She handed me books and told me to practice on my own.
She was strict about conduct, protocol and form. Personally, I hate rules. I think it is fair to say that “no” is my least favorite word in the entire English language. I would have preferred some leniency about being on time, getting off my mat to watch a demonstration and staying for savasana.
She seemed really picky to me. I would have preferred a looser approach where trying hard was validated and effort was as good as outcome. Come on lady, don’t you know- it supposed to be picnic, not nit-pick.
Her class wasn’t really fun. She wasn’t particularly warm, encouraging, nurturing or nice. I was bored a lot. I would have preferred some jokes and even some music to make the time go by more quickly and take my mind off all those details. Oh, the stress of remembering all those instructions.
But for some reason unbenknowst to me at the time, my teacher never asked me for suggestions on how to improve her class. Not once did she ask me what I thought would work better. Go figure.
But here is the thing— every time I walked down the hill to the dining room for breakfast after class, I felt so damn good. I didn’t feel good during class, mind you. I didn’t actually like the process of class very much at all. And a lot of the stretching was painful. Not injurious, mind you but super-intense. It wasn’t that I was miserable, I just wasn’t thrilled about it all. I didn’t find it enjoyable to go to her class. But afterwards, I always felt so deeply right with myself. I felt so well-organized. I felt both energized and calm. I had never, in my 22 years alive, felt so fundamentally inside myself and good all at once.
And so I paid her price.
The way I see it, the price for learning yoga isn’t just the class fee. Class fees just get us in the room. Class fees keep the heat on in the building, pay the teacher to get more training and if your teacher is one of the lucky ones and can find enough people to pay her class fees, the tuition helps her put food on the table. But be clear, the price for learning yoga is not the class fee. The price comes once you are in the room and once you decide you want something Real from the practice for yourself. For me the price has often been boredom, inconvenience, frustration, perserverance, self-study, humility, demoralization, accountablity and so on. I had to pay the price at the door only to learn that there would be more payment due once I took my seat inside.
No one told me to expect this aspect from yoga. Nope, a skinny lady with long braids and hairy armpits invited me to her class and I went. I discovered the fine print all on my own. The hard way. This is The Path of Direct Experience, after all.
The cool thing is that because I managed to pay her price, that teacher was able to show me something I didn’t know from my own vantage point of preference and limited experience at the time. I didn’t know about that good feeling that could come as a result of slowing down, paying attention, refining my movement, clarifying my action and focusing my attention. I was big into exercise at the time and so my preference was to move, dance, express myself and so on. Chances are, I would have “chosen” those options had they been on the shelf of yoga choices.
I didn’t know then that because she only taught two classes that were appropriate for me to attend I would develop a personal practice that would usher me through the best and worst times of my life. I didn’t know that the first two books she handed to me would still be in my library today and begin a life-long passion for not just “doing yoga” but learning about it.
Seems clear to me that if I had I gotten yoga “my way” I would have missed out on some of the parts of the practice that I hold most precious and that are most rewarding.
All right, more could be said on the matter of choice because I do think that yoga helps us live in a field of choice . However, I don’t think that field of possiblity is about our personal preferences. I think practice is pointing us to a deeper layer of being. Certainly, we start where we are with all of our unique ideas, preferences and expectations, none of which are inherently bad or necessarily wrong, but I think that many times the boons of clarity and equanimity that come through yoga happen on the other side of boredom, on the other side of “I wish it was different” and on the other side of “I always do it this way.”
All right, this is more than enough for now. If you are still reading, God Bless You. (Well, God Bless the ones I lost back at Yoga Styles and Whole Foods also.)
"Do not think of yourself as a small, compressed, suffering thing - think of yourself as graceful and expanding, no matter how unlikely it may seem at the time." ~BKS Iyengar, excerpt from Light on Life
I have been thinking a lot about the koshas lately, about the layers of who we are that are sometimes called bodies. Certainly, as an asana practitioner, we deal a lot with the outer layer known as the the annamaya kosha or the “food body”, the physical sheath. (We eat food, it becomes our body, and so we have a “food body.” Like that.) Every year, in fact, more people turn to asana practice for exercise, to get “their sweat on,” for the fun of movement, the thrill of making shapes or some variation on the theme of physical health and fitness. More and more of us are “stretching in Sanskrit” for very physical reasons.
And it seems to me, that we teachers are obsessed with anatomy these days. We can not seem to get enough knowledge about what muscles work to create the shapes of the asanas and which muscles limit our abilities to perform the postures. I think this trend is awesome. Knowing how the physical body works is empowering knowledge to bring into practice and teaching. I know I find the body endlessly fascinating.
That being said, I believe there is more to asana than understanding and improving the outer sheath. I believe we have an opportunity to expand the knowledge of who we truly are through this practice which makes asana a very unique form of physical activity. And while we have a bodies, I believe we are more than the body only.
Take one step in from the food body and you enter the world of “energy,” of the pranic sheath, the sheath of our vital force, the pranamaya kosha. While we make the shapes of the asana with the flexion, extension, contraction and relaxation of the muscles of our physical body, there is an energetic component to the asana also. As asana practitioners, we are both artists and scientists. We are poet and engineer. We are athlete and mystic. We are, after all, both physical and energetic beings.
For instance, simply “contracting our leg muscles” is an instruction on the outer layer. We can “tone the quadriceps,” “lift the knee caps” or “squeeze the knees.” A cue such as “firm the muscles from the skin to the bone” is more energetic in nature and takes our attention more thoroughly throughout the leg. If we conceive of the contraction as a “pulling up” from the earth or as “hugging the muscles to the bone” we might experience very different energetic effects even if the knee cap is lifted and the leg muscles are firm in both cases. (Of course, we have to know what the energetic cues actually mean or else it sounds ridiculous but that is another story for another day and it comes into play a bit with the mental sheath.)
In another example, we could work to make the pelvis neutral from the back body— “draw your buttocks down, move your tailbone in, bring your pubic bone to your navel and move your navel back toward your spine.” Or you could initiate it from the front— “Draw your pubic bone to your navel, your navel to your spine, your buttocks flesh down and bring your tailbone in.” And as you trace energetic quality of the same exact cues when initated from the front or from the back you might find that the same cues yield a different energetic quality.
(And at the risk of sounding jaded and burnt out, I am going to beg that you please do not email me about “to tuck or not to tuck” or whether you agree with any or all of these cues… I am simply illustrating a point, not entering a debate about the cues themselves. Honestly, I have alignment-debate-fatigue. I have yoga-debate-fatigue, in general, truth be told. But I digress.)
So- regardless of the specificity and accuracy of the cues, all of which have endless variations outside the scope of this article, my point is that the way we apply the same biomechanics can affect our energetic experience. And the way we conceive of and describe the energetic actions has different effects. It is so cool. We are not physical beings only.
So obvious and yet, sort of not.
I think this movement from straight biomechanical execution and conception to the energetic realm is alo significant because if, as a practitioner, I only practice from muscles acting on bones, I strengthen my identification of myself as a body only. I personally think that so many modern ills have at their root, the over-identification with the body. Seems to me that so much of our fear of aging, our obsession with looks, appearances and outer achievement is all connected back to a limited sense of identity which has the body at the center of who we are.
And so we are clear, I am pro-body. I am into the sensual world. I love my body and all it can do. I am not a “renounce the body” asana practitioner. However, I am also interested in who I am in addition to my body. I am not entering a body v. spirit debate here. I am talking about how to know myself as a physical being and an energetic being. And because so many instructions in asana are energetic, not simply biomechanical, the asana practice is uniquely aimed to help us learn this important lesson if we let it.
For instance, there can be flows of energy that work within movement that are not mappable in terms of straight contraction or relaxation and yet have profound affects on our posture. Keep in mind that posture can be defined as both the outer position of the body as well as someone’s inner attitude. The definition of the word itself points us to the inner sheaths. Position of the body and attitude are linked even in the word.
How cool is that?
So, it seems like some folks are “all about the energy” and could probably use some grounding in what is actually happening in the muscles and bones. And yet, many technicians out there may be missing a transformational opportunity by reducing the asana to physical actions and outcomes alone.
I mentioned that the energetic realm is linked to the concept of how we initate actions, and also how we experience the outcomes of the actions. So we step into the realm of the mind and emotions and the mental sheath, the manomaya kosha. Some part of us has to undertand, interpret, experience, give the directions to the body and reflect on the outcomes that takes us deeper through the physical actions, through the first layer of energy and deeper into the mind.
And as we learn and experience and contemplate some part of us is also called to discern how much of any action to use and which ones to discard and which outcomes of practice are desireable, which ones are undersireable and the sheath of discernment, the vijnanamaya kosha is a player as well. If you look on the chart you see these three sheaths labeled as the Subtle Body.
The cool thing is that we are like nesting Russian dolls and so if you do the physical practice you affect the subtle and whether you want to or not, insights arise in asana practice, emotions surface and oftentimes life-decisions requiring discernment come calling. The beauty of asana is that it works on the layers of the Being whether we want it to and whether we know it.
So there is that.
But I am interested in being a concious participant in the process of what is happening in asana. I am interested in speaking to the process in teaching. I am interested in this most excellent physical practice being a transformational process. I am interested in the concept of “I am more than my body” being an abiding knowledge that sources my faith, clarifies my vision, informs my view, empowers my service and softens the lines of division within myself and in my relationships. I want more than deep back bends. I want poses like self-love, compassion, wisdom, faith and clarity. And as hard as back bends can be, inner postures referenced in the knowledge of “I am not my body only” require a unique and enduring mental focus.
And so we are clear, I am talking about asana (I am an asana teacher, after all) but I think this transformational process is aided by study, contemplation, meditation and psychotherapy, etc. I do not see asana as a stand-alone practice, I am just talking about some of the awesome aspects of its potential and the ways it can contribute to a larger unfolding and larger life of inquiry. As much as I love asana, when my marriage was in trouble we went to therapy and if I broke my leg I would go to the hospital, not chant mantra. But I digress again.
Back to enduring mental focus.
I wish I had a dollar for every person who tells me they want to do asana and “not think.” I always feel a little sad when I hear this because so much of what I feel is benefical about asana comes through the inner sheaths of intellect, mind and prana. It isn’t that I do not understand the sentiment behind “I just don’t want to think” because I do. I really do. I just don’t relate to the idea in terms of how I practice asana and in terms of what I think the practice of asana offers.
So we are clear and before anyone gets defensive, I know what it is like to live in a world of thinking that is not friendly, that is running amok and that at any given moment does not have my best interests in mind. I know what it is like to think a lot and to want a break from mental constructs, limits and ideas. I get it. I really do.
It’s just that I don’t use asana to get away from my mind. Asana does give me a break from my mind but not because I am not using my mind. I use my mind to go deeper into asana and use the asana to change the quality of what I am thinking about, focusing on and being absorbed in. I use the asana to change my relationship to my mind so that I do not have to believe everything I think all of the time. I don’t think of asana as a way to “get out of my mind” I actually think of it as a way to “get deeper in.” Generally, my experience with this process is that The Nightmare of My Mind lives more on the surface layer anyway. Several layers in, the obsession ceases, the simplicity increases and things quiet down considerably.
And I think its because as we go deeper into ourselves we are moving closer to the bliss body, the anandamaya kosha. Anyone who knows me, knows I do not talk much about bliss so I am not talking here about all the swooning blah-blah about bliss that is so prevalent in yoga-speak these days. I am talking about the bliss of being able to chose from Being, not pattened conditioning. I am talking about the bliss of a deep breath rather than an angered reaction. I am talking about the bliss of choice over addiction. I am talking about how asana can create a fertile ground inside us where we change our conditioned responses to difficulty, challenge, stress, and perception and where we can sow seeds of enlightenment for now we are in the realm of the causal.
Anyway, all of this boils down to the age-old adage that prana follows attention. So if we pay attention to the physicality only we will know that. And physical is all we want, then wonderful! However, the logic follows that if we pay attention to the subtle we will come to know ourselves in more subtle ways. We can know ourselves as more than our outer body. And we can pay attention to the places of depth where the rattlings-on of the mind give way to moments of deep-okayness, which is how I think about bliss mostly, and perhaps, just maybe we might reside there more often.
And the next rung in for fearless traveler is the atman, the soul itself.
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"There is a light that shines beyond all things on Earth, beyond us all, beyond the heaven, beyond the highest, the very highest heavens. This is the light that shines in our heart."