Friday, March 23, 2012

Habits of Highly Effective Yoga

I offer a nod to Stephen Covey for the inspiration for this post.  While I freely admit that I have never read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, nor do I have any desire to ever read this book, I have found that Habit #2 “Begin with the end in mind” is extremely useful for our yoga practice.

Most of us know and practice some variation of Hatha Yoga.  Hatha Yoga is ANY yoga practice which is primarily concerned with utilizing the body and breath to manipulate energy flow.  Take your pick: Ashtanga, Iyengar, Hot, Jivamukti, Kundalini, Vinyasa, etc, etc are all under the umbrella of Hatha Yoga.

It is easy to get caught up in Hatha Yoga practice.  I can identify postures I want to be able to do; I can look at another and judge my postures against theirs; I can measure how long I can inhale, retain, and exhale the breath.  I can easily (and unconsciously) use these benchmarks to mark my progression in the practice—last year I couldn’t touch my toes,  now I can put my foot behind my head.  WHAT A GREAT YOGI I AM!!!!!

One of the oldest surviving, and most widely available texts we have on Hatha Yoga is The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written by Swami Svatmarama +/- 1350 AD.  It is a true pity that this work is not read by many yoga teachers and trainees, as it very succinctly outlines specific practices (which we still use today) and the reasons behind these practices.  To be clear, this small work forms the basis for EVERY Hatha Yoga brand name offshoot that you encounter. 

Before explaining postures, breathing techniques, cleansing practices, mudras, and bandhas, Swami Svatmarama states the purpose, the whole reason to apply any of these techniques.  Chapter 1, verse 2:

“Yogi Svatmarama presents Hatha Vidya (wisdom) solely and exclusively for the attainment of Raja Yoga.”(Hans-Ulrich Rieker, tr.)

Raja Yoga, the yoga of Patañjali, is “The cessation of the fluctuations of the mind,” (I.2) which happens through meditative absorption.  Only 7 of the roughly 200 verses of the Yoga Sutras speak of posture (3) and breath control (4), and no techniques are given.

Why then do we spend so much time with Hatha Yoga?  Because we are not prepared to jump right into meditative absorption.  Don’t ask why, just accept it.

For our Hatha practice to be effective, we must remember its goal—to be able to sit still and shut up.  As an example, the Ashtanga system achieves this through the practice of Trishtana,  3 focal points: Posture, which purifies the body; Breathing system, which purifies the nervous system; and Dristhi (looking place), which purifies the mind.  Basically Patañjali’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th limbs.  Other systems have different methods of achieving the same purpose: using the body and breath to prepare for meditation.

An essential element to all this is to ACTUALLY PRACTICE MEDITATION. Yes, we may not be prepared to make meditation our entire practice (yet), but we need to include it to move forward.

Let’s say you want to learn to ride a bike.  You read books and watch videos on riding techniques.  You talk to those who ride.  You do extensive balancing and leg-strengthening exercises.  All are very good preparation. 

But if you never get on the bike and try to ride, you are wasting your time. The goal is to learn to ride, not to know theory or add pure bulk muscle to your legs.

No, you are not going to do the Tour de France your first time out, or your first year, or maybe ever; but you can ride up and down the street then increase the distance over time as your ability grows.

When you practice Hatha Yoga (asana and pranayama), reflect upon how what you are doing is helping to prepare you for Raja Yoga (meditation). Seek to understand that every pose emanates from and leads to “Sitting with the head neck and body erect and perfectly still, gazing at the tip of the nose” (Bhagavad Gita VI.13) and “Shutting out (all) external contacts and fixing the gaze between the eyebrows, equalizing the outgoing and incoming breaths moving within the nostrils.” (Bhagavad Gita V. 27). 

Not dropping some serious lb.’s, not putting your foot behind your head, not doing what that person can do.  Sitting still and shutting up is the endgame.  No need to wait for some level of “perfection;” put your practice to its rightful use: add seated meditation to your practice.

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