What do you think of when you hear the words “yoga practice”? Sutras 1.13 and 1.14 explain the yogic philosophical definition of practice.
1.13 Practice is any effort toward quieting the mind.
1.14 Practice goes on for a long time, without break and with full devotion.
It’s a good thing about sutra 1.14, because my 200-hour teacher training program has officially reached its conclusion. But that doesn’t mean practice stops! No, practice goes on for a looooong time. (Incidentally, the yoga sages didn’t define what exactly a “long” time is, so I think that is up for interpretation.)
It’s challenging to write about the end of TT because it is frankly kind of overwhelming. I struggled a bit with the initial decision to do the training, but I am so glad that I eventually took the leap. To do this program with my teacher Jenny (in the center, doing a twist) who I have looked up to, learned from and respected for so many years was such a privilege. The things I came away learning turned out to be so different than the things I thought I would learn. It was intense, but it was so, so worth the effort.
To my fellow yogis, it has been such a privilege to learn and take this journey with you. Namaste.
“Coming down the mountain” is what teachers sometimes say when the class is heading towards its conclusion. Well, we are coming down the mountain of teacher training. We finished our penultimate weekend, and it was a long one. The previous weekend’s training was cancelled due to repercussions from Hurricane Sandy, so we had training for eight hours each day instead of the usual six. Woah.
Tomorrow will start the final weekend of our training, and I can’t decide whether I think it went quickly or slowly. Going into the training, I thought my practice might change significantly: poses that I struggled with would somehow magically become accessible to me. (Last night I dreamed that I could lift my leg up behind my head from an upright standing position, which, I’ll be honest, is not happening anytime soon.) Certainly there has been some of that. I came in focused on asana, the physical shapes you make with your body that most people think of as synonymous with yoga. I know now that asana is the third of the eight limbs of yoga. Did you even know yoga had limbs?! The limbs are sort of, priorities, in terms of the aspects of a complete practice. If you’re curious, I’ll tell you what they are.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
- Abstentions (Yama) – there are five yamas, and they are the things we should abstain from, or not do (non-violence, truth, non-stealing, faithfulness, and non-grasping or coveting)
- Observances (Niyama) – there are also five niyamas, and they are things we should observe, or do (cleanliness, contentment, tapas, self-study and surrender)
- Postures (Asana) – I think you get this one!
- Breath control (Pranayama) – regulation of the breath helps to balance the mind and body
- Sense withdrawal (Pratiyahara) - withdrawal of the senses of perception from their objects
- Concentration (Dharana) – focusing the mind on one thing
- Meditation (Diyana) – clearing the mind of thoughts
- Equanimity (Samadhi) – a state of blissful awareness
Though each limb is as important as every other limb, it is worth noting that asana is third and not first or even second. For many people in the Western world, asana and yoga have become synonymous, even though according to yogic philosophy they are not. Nevertheless, asana can be accessible and very beneficial to virtually anyone who engages with it. The postures can be modified and varied in level of intensity and difficulty to meet the needs of anyone’s body, whether the practitioner is flexible or stiff, injured or healthy, young or old. Simply taking a full and complete breath can lift and brighten someone’s outlook, which is frankly amazing when you think about it. It can take just a small change to make a big difference in how someone feels, and asana is a tool that draws many people in.
Certainly it is a big part of what drew me to yoga about ten years ago, when I was still in high school. Over the course of the training, though, I found what changed about my practice was not so much the shapes I could make with my body, though I’d like to that think I’m stronger and a bit more flexible now than when I started. I also thoroughly understand the correct positioning of the poses in a way that I didn’t before, which makes them more accessible. What has changed for me the most is my perception.
Through our study of the sutras, my outlook on my ability to do or not do certain poses, or do them “perfectly,” has really shifted. In case this is all sounding kind of hippie-ish to you, let me take a step back and explain what a sutra really is. A sutra is a short aphorism or statement. I think about the word suture, to sew together, as a way to relate to the sutras, which sew together themes or concepts. The sutras are separated into four padas, or books, and each has a different theme. In this training and in many of the classes I have taken, we focus on the sutras that relate to the physical practice and how that relates to quieting the mind. Each sutra is short and acts as an accessible tool for examining life both on and off the yoga mat. One of my favorite sutras is 2.1, which talks about tapas as an integral part of the practice. When I think about tapas, the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation, it is a useful concept to me both in holding a challenging pose and in so many experiences in my day-to-day life. Moments of intensity eventually pass, and learning to see those moments as potentially beneficial instead of harmful has really helped to change my outlook on life in a positive way.
I’ll leave it here for now – stay tuned for the conclusion of teacher training, and then stay with me for Thanksgiving!
The klesas, or obstacles, are most obvious in challenging and risky poses. I find them tied closely to insecurity or a lack of self-confidence. I think I can’t do a handstand (there’s my avidya, misapprehension – I’ve done handstands, I know I am physically capable of doing them) but I also feel that I have been practicing a long time and that I ought to be able do it effortlessly by now (that’s asmita, ego). I would rather practice headstand, since that’s a pose I feel confident in (ragas, attachment) than a handstand where I struggle (devesha, aversion). Ultimately, I know what’s holding me back is abinivesha, fear, and frankly, expectation. I hold tightly to my expectations and generally get what I expect. If I expect, even for one small moment, somewhere deep within my subconscious, that I won’t be able to get up – the deal is sealed. It’s not happening. The physical body is not where the obstacle resides; it’s in the mind.
What’s most frustrating about the klesas is that simply identifying them isn’t enough to conquer them. In fact, yoga philosophy teaches us that these obstacles are always present; it is my reactions and state of being that are variable. The obstacles aren’t going to magically disappear one day. Here is where the gunas, qualities of nature, come into play. If I’ve had a long day before getting to class, I might feel tired and sluggish (tamasic), which already plants that small seed of “I can’t” in the back of my mind. Maybe I’m feeling very energetic and having a strong practice (rajastic) – these are the days when I feel most likely to tackle challenging poses. But too much of that fiery energy can lead from a few tries quickly into frustration and disappointment. What I’m searching for is sattva, luminosity and equilibrium. What I haven’t figured out yet is whether sattva leads to doing the pose effortlessly, or not worrying about whether I can or can’t do the pose. Or whether not worrying about it leads to doing it. It all comes back to sutra 1.12: to quiet the mind, we must practice and detach.
It’s the end of weekend six, and there are 11 weekends in my 200-hour teacher certification process… this means I am just over halfway through the program! Though I did come in with a pretty good yoga foundation, (taking class for 10 years will do that, by osmosis if nothing else!) it has been a very dense and intense (and joyful!) learning experience. A few highlights:
- Anatomy! I am by no means an anatomy expert, but what we have learned about the spine, our joints and the pelvis have been downright fascinating. I am pretty amazed at how easy it is to feel disconnected from one’s own body, even while practicing a lot of yoga. I mean, did you know that there are four curves to the spine? Because I thought there were only three, and I would venture to guess that most people would sort of say, uh, my spine is curved?
- Extended side angle! This is one pose I have never been very friendly with. I always used a block under my bottom hand, and preferably on the inside of the front foot, thank you very much. It just felt inaccessible and impossible. With a few simple adjustments, I found that I am able to put my palm flat on the outside of my front foot in the classical position. It just goes to show that sometimes a simple change of perspective is all it takes to make a big change.
- Philosophy! For me, studying the yoga sutras has been a big part of this training. I have become more interested in the philosophical aspects of yoga as I’ve gone on in my practice, and I appreciate the sutras as a framework for looking at one’s life and actions. Some of the ideas about detachment and the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation really resonate with me and have really helped me through rough patches in everyday life. I love talking about the sutras in class and hearing perspectives from the other students.
The path of least resistance
I’ve been thinking in the last week or two about the yogic law of compensation, or the path of least resistance. In the physical body, this basically means that when you’re tight or weak in one place, your body automatically compensates by going into another (usually less safe) place. For example, think about doing a standing forward bend. Most humans are tight in the hamstrings and many may have trouble touching the toes. If you have tight hamstrings (those are in the backs of your legs), you are likely to round the back and scrunch your shoulders down by your ears, creating tension in the neck and putting your spinal discs at risk.
But we do this in life, too, right? When something comes up that makes us uncomfortable, fearful, anxious or unstable, do we confront it head on? Maybe sometimes. But more often than not, I think we tend to push that stress into other areas, avoiding the real issue at hand. (Help a sister out. I’m not the only one, am I?!) If we’re lucky and we have the tools and wherewithal we can identify these obstacles before they cause too much damage. (Having a great mirror, that is, person to reflect your thoughts and feelings off of, in a partner, friend, roommate, sibling, parent, etc, doesn’t hurt either!) Yogic philosophy tells us that the root of most of our obstacles comes from ignorance, misapprehension or confusion about our own selves.
If we could only see ourselves clearly, we’d know that we were picking fights about trivial things because we were really avoiding what was really bothering us.
Sutra 2 gives it to us: Why do we practice yoga? Because yoga helps us still the fluctuations of the mind. Sutra 3: When the mind is calm, we can see ourselves more clearly.
It is Sunday evening. I am exhausted.
Each weekend of our training has a theme, and this weekend’s theme was inversions. For the uninitiated, that means poses that are upside-down: handstand, headstand, forearm stand, shoulder stand. Not only did we practice these effortful and energetic poses, but we practiced for three hours both Saturday and Sunday. That’s six hours of yoga in two days! Like I said… exhausted.
As part of our training, we are learning about yoga philosophy and how certain ways of thinking about the physical asana practice can relate to our lives “off the mat” as well. We talked about one concept in particular this weekend that I think really applied to inversions: “practice dispassion.”
Dispassion is not indifference
What does it mean to practice dispassion? What does “practice” even mean? In yoga, practice is simply steadfast effort toward quieting the mind. I find that pretty comforting. Just the effort is enough; it’s not about the result, metrics, value creation, bottom line, or any of those other business-y terms that we find cropping up in all aspects of life. Practicing dispassion means not attaching to your results. Let’s say you’re working on handstand but having trouble getting up into the pose. You try to kick up several times, and when the teacher says it’s time to move on to the next pose, you still haven’t made it up. You could justify it every which way (I’m strong enough but it’s just a mental block, or, if I could only do such-and-such, or, if I had just tried a bit harder…) and agonize over the fact that the pose didn’t happen the way you had hoped. Detaching from the result means that you don’t continue thinking about it and replaying it in your mind over and over. You accept it and move on. The same goes for the opposite scenario: you feel strong and confident in your handstand, and you fly up into the pose with no problems. Instead of congratulating yourself or comparing your pose to others, you accept it and move on. It’s kind of a relief, really, to be able to let go of some of the constant analyzing and questioning and agonizing that it’s easy to spiral down into.
This is not the same as not caring or trying; it is not indifference. Ultimately, the physical asana practice is a means of using the body as a tool to meditate and quiet the mind.
Right now, though, I am going to make my mind very quiet by getting some sleep!
What a week! Not only did I have my regular schedule of yoga class Monday and Wednesday and anatomy class Tuesday, but we had a dinner party Thursday, birthday drinks with friends Friday after work, and a very lovely birthday dinner at Hearth on Saturday evening after a full day of teacher training! Now it is Sunday night, Guy is making a batch of chili since the weather has turned chilly (har!) and I finally have a moment to recap some of the things I learned in TT this week.
This weekend we focused on the sun salutes. A sun salutation comes from the ashtanga method of yoga, typically practiced early in the morning and facing east, towards the rising sun. It is a series of poses (nine in variation A and 17 in variation B) that link together breath and movement. The sun salute is often used in class as a warm up since it incorporates many elements of a well-rounded practice: standing poses (Warrior 1), arm balance (chaturanga), inversion (downward dog and standing forward bend).
There are many, many variations on the classic versions and I have done what feels like endless, eternal amounts of sun salutations. I have gone to class an average of two to three times per week (or more, depending on the week) for nearly 10 years, and each class has probably at least five sun salutes. So, if you were the math-doing type, you would know that that is… about 5,000 sun salutes in my life thus far.
What should we make of this? Well, for one thing, I KNOW the poses in a sun salute inside, outside, backward, forward. I could do it in my sleep. But more importantly – for me (and anyone who practices yoga regularly) it is so very important to practice this series of postures in a safe way that will not cause repetitive stress to my joints. And it is far easier than one might think to practice in a way that could cause injury.
Root and rebound
We have been talking a lot about the concepts of “root and rebound” – when something goes down, something goes up. There are endless examples of this in the yoga practice, but one that springs to mind is in a handstand. The more you push down through your hands, the more you can lift out of your shoulders and up through the tops of your feet. Put another way, teachers often instruct “counter actions” to help students be evenly balanced in their poses. Press the outer edges of your feet down as you lift your inner arches up. As Jenny put it on Saturday, counter actions “don’t just happen, you need to make them happen.”
This is a principle I strive to practice off the mat. It’s the same in life: you have a great job but a crappy apartment. Or you live in an amazing neighborhood but your significant other lives in another borough. Or you hate your job but you have friends who give you a support system. Something’s always up 0r down relative to something else. How do you deal? You have to take action and make change happen for yourself.
Sun salutes as a mirror
The beauty (and the ugliness) of the sun salutations is that they are a mirror that can help you see yourself. The series doesn’t change, only we do. Whether I feel strong today or out of breath, whether I have the energy to jump back into chaturanga or I linger in downward-facing dog, whether I take extra breaths or I maintain one breath per movement – these fluctuations show me not only how I am feeling on any given day, but what my habits are. Do I rush through one pose to get to another? Do I hold the breath during challenging moments?
Sutra 1.3 says that when we calm the fluctuations of the mind, we can see our true selves more clearly. Practicing the sun salutes, perhaps another 5,000 times, is one way to work toward this goal.
Guy has made me a very cool “nerd tattoo” on my computer! If you’re wondering, it’s an om etched into the top of my laptop:
Today’s practice was intense. I doubt a majority of the class feels the same way, but for me, it was intense. For today’s post, I’m going to focus on just two poses we worked on and why they were notable for me.
Fear of commitment
We worked on extended side angle as part of our externally rotated standing pose series. This is a pose that I have never found particularly accessible – it’s really hard to get the hand down on the outside of the front shin. Most teachers will instruct you (or let you, depending on your perspective) to use a block to raise the ground up to you if you have trouble reaching the floor. I almost always reach for a block because I “know” that I need one in this pose. This is another one of those yoga paradigms, where sometimes the teacher tells you not to judge yourself for using props, as if you know that using a block somehow cheapens your effort, and other times the teacher asks why you are always reaching for a prop without trying to do the pose first.
In teacher training, we’re not really given a choice. We’re learning both to do the classical poses and to teach it. So we were essentially told to put the hand outside the front foot and like it. As I was silently cursing to myself for not being “able” to do the pose, one of our assistants came over and gave me a hands-on adjustment that completely changed my understanding of the pose.
The secret to extended side angle is commitment. You have to really go all in. You can’t hold anything back. The front knee has to bend deeply and you have to let your hips open to really get down in there. It seems like it would be harder to bend the knee more, because now it takes more effort to hold yourself up; perversely, it’s actually easier! All of a sudden, voila, I had my hand down and I knew I was not going to collapse. Remarkable.
Tapas: beyond Spanish snacks
You may know tapas as the appetizers you order at a Spanish restaurant to go with your sangria. It is also a sanskrit word that, as I understand it, means ”the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation.” I experienced this form of tapas today while practicing plow pose, leading into shoulder stand. I should start by saying that plow pose is, in the general case, no big deal for most people. It’s not a “hard” pose that people work towards, agonize over, fall out of, etc. For some reason, I find it terrifying. I worry that I’ll keep rolling backwards and snap my neck. This is, of course, impossible. My legs would get in the way (if I would let them!) and keep me from going too far backwards.
Our assistant knew that I have trouble in this pose, so she came over to help me. And she did something that I’m fairly sure no teacher has ever done with me before. She did exactly what Julie told us to do yesterday – made her words so clear that she didn’t need to gesture or physically adjust me to get me to do the pose properly. Usually I get about halfway into the pose and start to freak out. Inevitably, the teacher will help me or let me come out of the pose. But Dani didn’t do that. She made sure I knew that she wouldn’t let me fall, and then she just let me freak out. She reminded me to take deep breaths, and kept talking me through it until I got my feet to touch the ground behind my head, and eventually, up into shoulder stand.
Part of me was feeling indignant, like, I shouldn’t be forced into doing this pose that I don’t want to do! But this is teacher training, not regular class. We are supposed to be learning to teach others, and that means we have to be able to do the poses ourselves. And you know what? I did the pose all by myself, and I found that I could actually do it. I didn’t really like it, but I proved to myself that I could do it. And I bet next time it will be easier. (At least I really hope it will be!)
As Jenny and Julie say, “wherever you go, there you are.” What I take this to mean is, even in moments of chaos (i.e., plow pose, among others) the work of yoga is to find your true and consistent self and abide in it.