A Peasant spoke to Ramakrishna: “I am a simple villager. Please give me in one sentence a method by which I can obtain happiness.”Ramakrishna replied: “Totally accept the fact that you are a machine operated upon by God.”(From Gregor Maehle, Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy. He does not cite orig. source)
When I left class Monday night, the roads were pretty nasty. A thin base of sleet covered by an ever shifting coating of snow. Felt the wheels start to slip, so I shifted into 4H, slowed down, and made it home without a worry—I trusted the machine, in this case a 2800 lb. hunk of Detroit steel that is my Jeep Wrangler, to get me home.
We spend a lot of time in our yoga practice attempting to come to the realization that we are not the body and not the mind. These things are changeable, impermanent, and compound, therefore they cannot be Truth. The catch-22 is that the only tools we have to discover we are not the body and not the mind are the body and mind. They can be useful tools, when used correctly.
The body is a wonderfully complex machine which provides us with all sorts of good information. If our mind would only shut up enough to listen. The mind can create resistance in the body (“I can’t do that,” the mind says, and <poof> that is impossible). The mind can remove resistance in the body (“I think I can. I think I can,” and <poof> the impossible becomes possible). The mind can also override the good sense of the body (“I know I can do that. I’ll just work through that sharp, shooting pain. It’s only a flesh wound” <pop><agonizing screams>).
Contrary to popular belief, advancing in this practice does not mean adding more complex poses and going fasterdeepermore. It means slowing down and paying attention. We can make good use of the tools of our body and mind by paying attention, interpreting the feedback, and adjusting our actions.
Pay Attention: No one understands our bodies better than ourselves. We have to be honest with ourselves and develop awareness of what working correctly feels like and what working too much (and little) feels like. What was appropriate yesterday may not be appropriate today. You must take 100% responsibility for your practice. When you hit a roadblock, stop and listen. Your body is trying to tell you something.
Interpret the Feedback: Something is happening, now we need to understand what that is. Consult your teacher and other appropriate authorities about what is happening. This is why it is so important that you study with teachers who have an active, consistent practice. If they cannot motivate and safely conduct their own practice, they cannot advise, motivate, and safely guide you in your practice. Seek advice from those who have experienced and traversed obstacles on this path. Some obstacles are physical (seek appropriate medical attention), some are mental, some are in combination. An outside authority’s perspective provides valuable insight.
Adjust Actions: Once you know something is not working, and you have input on why it may not be working, you have to act. Knowledge without action is useless. If you keep doing what you have always done, you will get the results you have been getting. If the result is injury, then continuing to practice the same way will still lead to injury. There are times when we need to dial back from our strength, flexibility, and what we have accepted as our practice if they are yielding negative results. Just because I have 4 wheel drive does not make me invincible and entitle me to drive like a maniac; I have to apply the tool correctly in order to make it home safely. Your teacher can offer suggestions, but you must take the action.
An example from my own practice. For a long time, my practice (and teaching style) had been based in the Ashtanga Vinyasa System of Krishnamacharya via Pattabhi Jois. I worked with the First and into the Second series. About 6 months ago or so, what I had been doing, steadily, consistently for a long time was no longer working. My body was not responding as it had and neither was my mind. Road Block! Orange Cone! Traffic Advisory!
My body told me something was wrong, I listened to it, and consulted authoritative sources.
In Yoga Mala, SKPJ says that “As the bodily constitution of each human being is different, it is important to practice asanas accordingly. The benefit to be had from one asana or pranayama can be derived just as well from another that better suits the structure of a person’s body.” Swami Sivananda states: “Common-sense or Yukti should be used throughout your practice. If one kind of exercise is not agreeable to your system, change it after due consideration or consultation with your Guru. This is Yukti. Where there is Yukti, there is Siddhi, Bhukti and Mukti (perfection, enjoyment and salvation).” [Sivananda, The Science of Pranayama]
My practice needed to change. My practice was rajasic—perfect for creating discipline, strength, and endurance, necessary at one time, but no longer appropriate for me. I needed to move to a more sattvic practice, less jumping about and more sitting still and shutting up. I went on to identify and adapt to a practice which has proven to be more suitable to my current state of body/mind. Don’t worry, I still practice handstand (and full lotus handstand and other assorted cool tricks), but I no longer jump to handstand 25+ times a day with every vinyasa.
As my practice changed, I had to alter my teaching—I could not teach what I did not practice. That would be unfair and potentially dangerous to my students. Mercifully and thankfully my students stayed along for the ride and adapted to the different style.
This speaks volumes to the caliber of students I am blessed to have.
The body and mind are imperfect, yet they are the tools we have. Yes, always have unshakable faith in Truth [or insert the name that best suits you here—God, Divine, etc.], but it is also important to trust in the machine that lets you realize Truth.
After all, who do you think made that machine?