Today is August 15, Indian Independence Day. The institute is closed, providing a nice break from our intense studies. This marks the halfway point of my visit.
The classes have been wonderful, illuminating the subject of yoga and asking me to go beyond my perceived limits. I am having two different types of experience, sometimes within a few minutes! On one side is the joy of discovery, the excitement of learning new techniques and the fun of doing things I have never tried. I have been inspired to practice deeply, working with the guidance of the amazing teachers here. New understanding and a deeper commitment to learning seem to be developing naturally. But as I look more directly at myself and my practice, many limitations and challenges also reveal themselves with renewed clarity. It seems that we can’t have new awareness of how to grow without also having new awareness of our difficulties. So right along with the positive feelings of inspiration and motivation, the work has also shone a mirror on my chronic pains, assymetries, and limitations in my strength, stamina and mobility. Seeing these things more clearly has led me at times to feel uncomfortable, stuck, crooked and humbled. Clarity is clarity. If you are going to look, you have to be willing to see what is there.
So I have been reflecting on how to stay cheerful and positive in the face of the limitations that are so much more obvious to me here. Abhi could have been reading my mind in the class the other day. We were working deeply and she was asking us to search for more. The mind revolts and starts looking for reasons not to continue.
“Can’t she see that I am already at my limit?”
“Why did I not start yoga at an earlier age?“
“This is too hard for me.”
“My body is not made for this pose.”
“Why am I still so stiff and still so crooked?”
“Why am I doing this anyway?”
The egoic mind can come up with a thousand reasons not to continue, or to remain within a limited range of what we already consider doable for ourselves. While these thoughts will undoubted arise, hopefully, we don’t allow ourselves to dwell in the mire of negativity. The yogic mind can come in to say, in the words of B.K.S. Iyengar “What can I do today? Let me find out.”
This emphasis on inquiry in the present moment is an almost instant cure for the thoughts that drag us down, fill us with doubt or cause us to lose heart. This is a major theme of Prashant’s classes. As long as we are primarily engaged in “doing” we will become obsessed with our limitations as we strive to get it right, resulting in a perfectionism that does not lead us to a true experience of yoga. If instead we participate with ourselves, examining what we are doing, why we are doing it and how we are doing it, a whole different mindset emerges. We may still work harder than we thought we could. We may still experience limitations. But the mindset is completely engaged with observation and learning and we become immersed in the moment.
For example, while doing Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog Pose) one might choose to focus on a single action, such as pressing the thighs back. Using that single action as a dharana (concentration) point, one could observe the various effects that stem from that single action. How does pressing the thighs back effect the heels, or the length of the trunk, or the weight on the arms? This exploration is limitless. One might then shift the examination slightly to ask what helps me press the thighs back? What keeps me from pressing the thighs back? Working in this way reveals layers and layers of learning and information that cannot be discovered any other way. Another important aspect of working this way is using the breath as the focus. So in any pose, one could explore what happens to the pose with deeper than usual exhalations. What happens to the arms, legs, trunk, spine, sense organs when I exhale further and further? This type of work almost completely eliminates considerations such as ”Am I getting it?” or “Is it improving?” or “Am I doing well?” These are questions asked by the ego, and the ego will never be satisfied with the answers.
When we engage with the process instead of craving outcomes, the entire experience of what we call “doing yoga” changes to “learning yoga.” Prashant explained that when participation, observation and learning are the priority, concerns about “getting it right” drop away. Paradoxically, it is being in this more yogic state that allows us to go beyond what we thought we could do.
Prashant is fantastic with analogies. He said that if someone else cleans our house, it is not the same as if we do it ourselves. We know where we like things to be put and how we like things to be done. If someone else rearranges our furniture, we feel disoriented. If we rearrange our own furniture, we feel renewed. Similarly, when we work deeply in asana, we are rearranging, repositioning, cleaning and washing our cells. Holding our poses while doing our investigations can bring about this cleansing and reorganizing effect, bringing a deep sense of refreshment and renewal.
When looked at from this broader perspective, problems, limits and difficulties matter less. What matters is that we practice, as Patanjali says in Sutra I:14, with continuity, alertness and devotion over a long period of time.
With love and light,