Wednesday, April 13, 2011
The origin of the word yoga can be translated from Sanskrit as meaning many different verbs and nouns. A few of these include but are not limited to: joining, uniting, union, conjunction, to control, to yoke, to unite, intimacy, means, contemplation or absorption...
This is a simple and broad definition and it is important to keep it in mind and to come back to this origin throughout practice, especially as we begin to peel away layers of understanding and want to go deeper. However, for our purpose here, I would like to outline some important principles that apply to the practice we know today. This, in order to help me concretize what can seem like a very broad amalgam of ideas, styles, exercises and schools of thought. So, here are some of the fool's principles to keep in mind for beginning yoga practitioners such as myself. These may also be useful to apply to any other “practice” for those of you who do not specifically practice yoga very much, or at all.
A yoga practice can take many forms.
In fact, it takes a slightly different form in each and every one of us who practice as our bodies all express themselves slightly differently. Some practice alone, others in communities. Some of us love to sweat and work hard while others prefer to sit, move slowly or chant. The important thing to remember is that all modalities are valid as long as they work… Anyone who claims that their way is better has missed the point entirely. Every body is different and there is a yoga practice for everyone who has interest. I love to try on different styles of yoga and to have fun with figuring out what works for me on a given day or week.
Yoga cultivates awareness.
This principle works on so many levels, the most basic of which is the physical body and breath. Taking time out of our life to spend time with our body will do wonders for your awareness of where exactly your pelvic floor, hamstring muscle or humeris bone are located, how they work and what they feel like as we move the body. The mysteries of other discoveries that can come from the cultivation of awareness are vast and best left for another time, when there is not so much to say about practice…
Yoga is efficient, fills a need and evolves with its practitioners.
As I learn more and more about the history of yoga I am surprised to find out that ancient yoga practice resembled very little of what we practice today. Yogis of the past practiced many different modalities such as meditation, study, concentration practice, chanting or devotional practices and service. In the Yoga Sutras, a foundational yogic text written by Patanjali about 2000 years ago, there are eight limbs to this practice, only one of which is yoga asana (the physical postures). This begs the question: Why do we devote so much of our time to asana in our current practice?
It feels very much that the reason we are drawn to asana practice in this day and age is that there is a significant need for us to become more grounded in our bodies. Our lifestyles have externalized many of the processes by which we move and interact with the world, often taking us further and further away from the materials that our bodies are made up of. When we come to yoga, we are often sick, weak, stiff and distressed. The body is thus a very intelligent entry point into this practice. Asana is an efficient way to come to awareness and presence, one that is accessible to everyone who breathes. Again, this is the most simple and basic way in which the practice works efficiently and the more I practice, the more I discover how this continues to apply in more subtle ways down the road.
Yoga is a practice of action.
This means that it works only when I do it. Finding a practice which I enjoy, can sustain and that addresses any issues I may be working through is key. Because to practice is to act and the practice can only live in this action. To return time and time again to my body and breath is what keeps the practice alive.
Yoga brings balance and reverses tendencies.
Again, we begin in the body and eventually realize that the effect trickles into all aspects of life. We come and stretch parts of us which tend to be tight, we strengthens those which tend to be weak and we rest and restore those which are broken or need a break. A mindful practice will work to help me identify my tendencies and gently work towards helping me freak out less in a difficult pose, which in turn will help me freak out less when I’m in a difficult situation. More and more, research is showing that this mindful reversing of tendencies is really powerful medicine for the brain. As we identify patterns and deliberately change them, the shape of our neurology actually has the ability to shift and change and this can continue to happen for the duration of adult life.
Finally, if it’s not opening your heart...
…keep practicing, it will eventually. Really there’s not much to say about this one… it’s a simple and beautiful practice to open the heart. Life will always provide different, new and interesting ways to help us learn and re-learn the practice of loving kindness both to ourselves and to others.
So, let us return to the question.
If I’m not working from a place of balance, identifying my tendencies, increasing awareness and opening my heart, I have to wonder what I’m really doing and weather it is in any way efficient or even if I can say that it is a practice. Weather your practice is asana, relationship, vocational work, cooking, writing, running marathons, playing an instrument, walking the dog or climbing a mountain, the question, when framed in this way, can always be asked. Is it yoga?