Shri K. Pattabhi Jois said (quoting liberally from memory) “An intelligent person can gain enlightenment by practicing the First Series. A less intelligent person can gain enlightenment by practicing the Second Series. An even less intelligent person can gain enlightenment by practicing the Third Series…” SKPJ indicates here that it is not the complexity of bodily contortion which indicates advancement, it is the intention, attitude, and focus of the practice which demonstrates advancement. SKPJ also stated, echoing PYS II.47, (again quoting liberally from memory) “The posture is perfect when the mind is clear.”
One area where I see students (and teachers) push themselves to dangerous places just to “do it” is inversions. Just listen in class. Inversion time. Everybody migrates to the wall. Then THUD THUD THUD as students throw themselves to the wall. Breath sounds like a group of Olympic power lifters, alternately sucking air for dear life and holding the breath as if even that minor movement will topple them over. Look at the faces—twisted, snarled, not enjoying it at all. Coming off the wall, THUD THUD THUD in reverse as legs crash down to the mat.
Congratulations, you have done a head/hand/forearm stand!
But you did not do the pose at all. Asana, PYS II.46 instructs, is composed of firmness AND relaxation. Without both, you have not performed asana.
I encourage everyone to give up the wall. Asana is not the wall’s practice, it is your practice. “But wait, Ron. The wall helps beginners learn alignment!”
Headstand—The King of Poses. The key to headstand is creating a firm foundation. Most of the weight (90%) is carried in the elbows and forearms, with 10% in the head. By pressing into the elbows, the shoulders are set correctly so that the weight is carried by the bones. The core muscles are stabilizing the alignment of the rest of the body, which is, in the truest expression, the exact same as Samasthiti—crown, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles aligned. If one is using the wall, first they kick up to the wall, so they are overshooting the weight of their torso and legs to get to that wall. This causes more weight to be carried (quite suddenly, because a kick up is generally uncontrolled) on the head and neck, and the rotator cuff muscles are strained because the head of the arm bone is no longer correctly placed in the shoulder socket. If the student remains at the wall, either their hips or their feet will remain on the wall, drawing weight to the head—the wall is behind, not aligned with the head.
Handstand—The stability in this pose comes from having wrists, elbows, and shoulders aligned so that the bones carry the body’s weight. The safest way to do this is to begin with shoulders, elbows, and wrists aligned and set, then pivot the body up. To do this, there needs to be room for the head, which initially is forward of the arms. Let’s say this would put on 6-8 inches from the wall. Again, kicking up places weight past plumb—shoulders, elbows, and wrists may still be aligned, but hips, knees, and ankles are behind the shoulders to get to the wall, causing strain on our friends the rotator cuff muscles.
Neither of these methods allows for sustainability in the poses.
Learning these poses in the center of the room has several great benefits. It forces you to focus on creating a stable foundation, without which there is no safe way to do the pose. Physically, you have to learn to use your muscles in conjunction with one another—you must move slowly because there is no wall to catch you. This creates muscle memory and strength needed to enter (and exit—remember transitions are part of the poses) the pose.
More important physical benefits are the mental benefits. Committing to inversions in the center of the room is very humbling. You have to admit failure. There are times when you will fall, and there are times when you will not make it up. You have to learn when to bail out, and how to do so safely. You have to learn to get back up and try it again. You have to commit to practice away from group classes—free-standing inversions cannot be learned in 10 minutes of practice once a week. Through repeatedly approaching a difficult pose you gain personal understanding of that pose. The pose becomes sustainable because you are in your expression of it, not the wall’s or your teacher’s expression.
My practice was born when I learned headstand. My practice became cemented when I gave up the wall. It was the last prop I used. Without props, practice is freed because props focus on the “can’t”—can’t touch your toes, use a strap; can’t invert, use the wall, etc. Build on what you can do and your practice grows; define your practice by what you can’t do, and your practice stalls. Work with your teacher to create a practice which is correct for you. Always remember, preparation IS the pose—movement of energy, not movement of body is the purpose of the poses. All poses can be found in the only pose prescribed in the Bhagavad Gita:
V.27 Shutting out (all) external contacts and fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the outgoing and incoming breaths moving within the nostrils,28. With the senses, the mind and the intellect always controlled, having liberation as hissupreme goal, free from desire, fear and anger—the sage is verily liberated for ever.
VI.11. In a clean spot, having established a firm seat of his own, neither too high nor too low, made of a cloth, a skin and kusha grass, one over the other,12. There, having made the mind one-pointed, with the actions of the mind and the sensescontrolled, let him, seated on the seat, practise Yoga for the purification of the self.
13.Let him firmly hold his body, head and neck erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of his nose, without looking around.
That’s all you need to do. But I am not so intelligent, so I have to practice more asana!
This week, we continue to focus on handstand preparation, utilizing FULL Vinyasa counts for all poses (meaning every pose in the series will begin and end in Samasthiti.) Come turn your world upside down with me!