Yoga is as ancient as civilization, and has evolved just as quickly as humanity. The teachings have come down from the Himalayas and worked its way into the very fabric of our culture today.
For those interested in yoga simply as a physical practice, it is easy to access public fitness classes, free online instruction, retreats and teacher training programs. But for those looking for a path that integrates body, mind and spirit, it can be difficult to turn this myriad of resources into an intelligently designed yoga practice that leads to both a strong, open body as well as a strong, open mind. How do we honor the ancient traditions while keeping ourselves open to innovative practice?
What is a yoga practice?
Each of us has a unique body, mind, and path to inner harmony. Some people “practice” by attending group classes; others attend classes and then practice at home. Some yoga practitioners are devoted to a single teacher and others are open to various teachings. Some consider yoga to be a fitness routine, while others see yoga as a spiritual path, an alternative lifestyle, or even a business venture. The practice of yoga is as individual as the practitioner of yoga.
The purpose of practice depends too on individual goals. This is true of music and art as well. If, for example, one did not care to become a musician but enjoyed music classes as social entertainment, then it is makes sense to “practice” by visiting different teachers cueing different songs on different instruments. Then there would be nothing to practice at home, because the social experience has come and gone. But if one desires to become a musician, then it is important to choose one instrument and see one inspired teacher who guides a journey of knowledge, passion and technique. In artistic disciplines, the classroom is the place of learning and there is much to practice at home. The practice itself becomes the craft.
The practice of yoga is not unlike the practice of music, except that the instrument is the body, the song is the breath, and the only performance is life itself.
When we want to grow a tree from a little seed, we have to surround it with a fence and to water it. Once the tree takes root, and gets big enough, we don’t have to do anything anymore. It will stand in any situation, even when the wind is strong, even when the sun is relentless. Our fence is the time and the space we dedicate for practice. (Orit Sen-Gupta, Heart of Practice, 2012)
The two traditional lineages of yoga are Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Iyengar Yoga. Though the founders of these two schools were disciples of the same guru, they established different settings for the practice of yoga.
Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is traditionally practiced in an open room where each student moves through her own sequence, at her own pace, while the teacher watches and helps rather than cuing synchronized movements for the group. This is called “Mysore style”, named after the place in India where Patabhi Jois established Ashtanga Yoga and this system of teaching. Rather than instructing, the teacher is a guiding presence, watchful of each student in the room. This individual attention creates a unique relationship between each student and her teacher, based on body language rather than spoken word. Just by watching the student move, the teacher knows when she is ready to learn a new pose or is in need of help, encouragement, or just space.
Practicing in this setting requires singular focus (dharana). Each individual moves through her own memorized sequence of postures, without cues from the teacher, meaning that the mind must attend to the breath and body throughout the practice. Traditionally, the practice begins at dawn; the Mysore room is open from about 6-9am. Each student arrives at her own time to begin her own practice, meaning that there is never the need to stress over being a few minutes “late” or “early”. The practice begins when the student arrives. Those who are newer to Ashtanga know fewer poses than those who have been practicing for longer, though each student has memorized her own sequence of postures. This independent practice is a gift. It means that one can practice yoga anywhere, with or without a teacher present. Also, being an Ashtangi draws you into an international family. There are Mysore rooms all around the world, and every Ashtangi speaks the same sequence, which goes beyond spoken language, and has experienced the difficulties of daily practice, as well as the benefits and the joys.
The Iyengar school of yoga is founded on led classes, in which the teacher designs a sequence ahead of time and, during class, adapts each posture to each student as needed. This means that the class does not flow, but starts and stops with each posture, allowing the student to deeply understand the details of each posture and its effects on her own unique body and mind. The sequences taught vary class by class, teacher by teacher, and so the student is given the responsibility to learn and practice the sequences at home. Here, too, there is a beautiful relationship between teacher and student, which deepens over time, especially because the teacher is modifying each pose for each unique student.
Learning different postures in the context of different sequences empowers the Iyengar student with perspective: each pose takes on a different nuance depending on what comes before and afterwards. Understanding the intricacies of alignment also helps the student to deeply benefit and even enjoy the practice, rather than looking to accomplish a posture to earn the next. And so the practice of Iyengar yoga encourages creativity: the student can adapt each home practice session to suit her needs of that moment, because she has learned many sequences and many entrances and exits to each posture.
Interestingly, neither Ashtanga nor Iyengar classes feature music. The rooms are silent: the Mysore rooms are filled with the sound of breath, and the Iyengar classrooms with the teacher’s cues and the silence between instructions.
The Ashtanga Yoga method recommends that you practice six days a week. … To make the transition from a fitness-oriented approach to yoga to a devotional one, you need to practice consistently and regularly… The six-day requirement is meant to develop the kind of mental, spiritual, and devotional determination needed to progress along the internal path of yoga… On a purely physical level, a six-day-a-week practice is both advantageous and challenging. By performing the poses more often, you will see results faster, building strength, stamina, and flexibility at a faster pace than if you were to practice only once or twice a week. In fact, those individuals who choose to attend yoga class once a week are actually setting themselves up for a weekly struggle in which they must always face the same weaknesses and other issues; they have no chance of realizing the improvement through sustained practice. (Kino MacGregor, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, 2013)
The Mysore setting of Ashtanga yoga creates accountability for students; each person is encouraged to practice daily Sunday through Friday and rest on Saturday. There are also monthly holidays: Moon days, for everyone, and Ladies Holiday, for, well, Ladies. Traditionally, Ashtanga is not practiced on Full moons, New moons, or when women are on their cycles. The theory is that energy is very high on full moons and very low on new moons, so to prevent injuries on these days, practice is cancelled. This sounds logical but we see that teachers often reschedule the Moon days, especially if the full or new moon falls on a Saturday. Also, the particular day off is often determined by the school in Mysore, India, where the moon phase can be 12 hours off from us here in the west. This means that if the moon is fullest at 12pm on a Saturday in India, the US teacher may decide to give a Moon day (rest) on Sunday, even if the moon was fullest in the US on Friday. The basic intention, though, is to give Ashtangis extra days of rest, because the physical practice is intense.
There are not so many practice traditions for Iyengar yoga, because class is separate from practice and each individual determines her own practice sequences and schedule. She can choose a softer, shorter practice whenever she likes, and so it is not necessary to have an institutional system for days of rest. She has the responsibility of choosing sequences for her own home practice, which requires creativity as well as discipline (otherwise she will always avoid the postures she finds difficult!).
Success will follow him who practices, not him who practices not. Success in Yoga is not obtained by the mere theoretical reading of sacred texts. Success is not obtained by wearing the dress of a yogi or a sanyasi (a recluse), nor by talking about it. Constant practice alone is the secret of success. (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, circa 1500 AD)
Practicing the same sequence each day, as taught by Ashtanga yoga, means that the student has the opportunity to be a scientist: many variables are eliminated. The time of day, the difficulty of the postures and the order of the postures are all kept consistent, allowing the yogi to clearly witness the ways in which daily habits and life circumstances influence the body-mind. But the routine can become monotonous without intelligent intention and creative approach, just as the naturally creative sequencing of Iyengar yoga can be lackadaisical without rigor and discipline. So how do we bridge these gaps to honor both structure and creativity?
How to Practice at Home
Dona Holleman studied with BKS Iyengar in the 1960s and integrated his teachings with her own independent practice and studies. She created eight Principles of Yoga, which is not so much an eightfold path as it is the guide to a true yoga practice. I have been applying these principles to my own home practice every day for many years; the results have been revolutionary.
Below are her Principles along with my interpretations:
Principles of Practice
1. not-doing of the mind
The clearing of the mind is not the result of yoga; it is the beginning of yoga. Practice begins when the mind enters the meditative state, and the internal dialogue stops. Then the mind of the yogi still, attentive to the movements of breath and body.
2. not-doing of the body
This is the practice of taking awareness inside the body to consciously relax places of tension.
Our bodies tell the stories of our lives: habits, injuries, stress. When we dissociate our minds from our bodies, we look at our bodies like strangers, but it is also possible to take the mind into the body and observe from a place of unity. When the mind is fully within the body, it becomes possible to alter habits, heal injuries, and truly relax. This relaxation is not the same as collapsing onto the couch with a beer and netflix. This is a relaxation that is paired with awareness, alertness. It is the way a cheetah may sit on a boulder, watching the savannah: at attention, and also at ease.
Intent is the mental force that has the power of self fulfillment. This is the energy that truly creates the posture: it is deeper than the muscles, less tangible than the breath, and more than simply focusing. Intent is the ability to create action through will.
Yogis apply Newton’s law of equal and opposite reaction: in order to lift upwards, we must root downwards.
Dona Holleman also calls this principle the intelligent use of gravity. Gravity is the largest field that we live in, much larger than wifi or bluetooth or 4G that occupies our waking attention. When we consider our position and movements in relation to gravity, we see that there are ways to work with gravity such that our asanas feel natural and effortless. For me, this means enhancing my awareness of whichever parts of my body are on the ground, and allowing the pull of gravity to flow smoothly from those roots, so that energy lifts up and along my spine.
Dona Holleman lived and studied in many cultures, and teaches centering from an Eastern perspective. The energy that flows through our body can be called chi, and is gathered in the hara, which is the Japanese word that refers to the very center of our bodies. Hara is a place that goes deeper than the muscles of a six pack; it is the seat of the will, and is physical just as much as it is energetic.
We are so visually focused in our daily lives that we typically move with most of our attention in our eyes and a little in our feet, leaving everything else to fend for itself. But it is possible to train the mind and body to move from the hara, the very center of ourselves, from behind the navel, where lies our center of gravity. When we move through awareness of our center, engaging bandhas to lift the energy of our spine, then we find that our pelvis and ribcage are suddenly quite light, our hearing is attuned to our breath, and the feet follow the body rather than the other way around. Centered movement is light, graceful, and makes accessible even the most advanced asanas.
These are the lines along which energy flows.
If we look at the body from an engineering perspective, we will see thebony structure is unusual for humans compared to other animals, because we are bipedal. Our vertical spines and arm joints are mobile, and stabilized by the pelvis, which is in turn supported by the two legs and feet. If we consider a standing posture, then the feet are grounding, rooting, so that the press down of the feet results in an upwards flow of rebounding gravitational energy. From the feet upwards, we can follow the flow of energy along the stacks of bones: each foot leading up to each leg, then the energy joins at the pelvis and rises up along the spine to the cranium. If our habits have created blockages in these pathways, then the posture will feel effortful, because the muscles will try to compensate for the misalignment of the bodyscape. But when we align the body along smooth lines, the energy flows smoothly, and postures become effortless.
Dona Holleman teaches two types of breath. One is the soft awareness breathing, for daily life. The other is accentuated awareness breathing, for lifted energy. This uses the bandhas to channel energy upwards, infusing the body, mind, and asana with powerful energy.
In conventional exercises, muscles work in pairs so that one muscle is contracted and its opposing partner is stretched. Muscular contractions are repeated for strength exercises, and muscles must also be contracted for stretching. If the contracting muscle overpowers the stretching muscle, then tears and injuries occur. “Over stretching” happens often in gym settings.
Elongation, unlike stretching, is the expansion of the body without contractions of muscles. Using intent, breathing, and the undoing of the body, the muscles can relax from the inside such that there is energetic flow in two opposing directions. The sensation of elongation is completely different from stretching. People often find stretching to be painful, especially when they are stiff-bodied. But elongation feels like inner spaciousness, and is a joyful sensation of physical freedom.
Like Patanjali’s path, each of these principles may contain all the others. When any posture includes the practice of each of these guiding principles, the posture becomes a reflection of yoga.
Last Thoughts on Practice
Our daily habits and routines shape our lives. And though many of these daily behaviors have formed unintentionally, each of us has the ability to live more fully by directing our daily thoughts and actions though intelligent intention. This can seem a daunting venture to begin as an adult—our routines can seem trivial, our thought patterns deeply ingrained, and the results of our actions can be mysterious at best. But if we dare to break habits and explore the inner life, we find that the practice of yoga provides the theory and practice of skillful thoughts and actions.
Next week: neuroscience of yoga!