Friday, June 29, 2012

The Correct 'Why?' to Ask

In my  teaching career I have heard students ask, and in my own practice I found myself asking: “Why can’t I do [fill in the name of pose here]?”  Usually the answer (at least mine do) strays into technical sounding pseudo-anatomy speak “The medial rotation of the kneecap spiral is impeding the colloidal suspension of the hyoid bone…”

Speaking only from my own practice (I’ll spare you the hyperlink to my Nemesis posts, find ‘em if you want to read ‘em), I have given this answer to myself:
Q: Why can’t I do Urdhva Dhaurasana?
A: Well [all answers sound more authoritative when they begin with ‘Well…”] the external rotation coupled with the extension of the psoas is impeded by……”

That may be all well and true, and it may not make any sense, but it is much easier to grasp than the REAL answer. 

Because the real answer is also a question:
“Why do you feel that you are not doing the pose correctly right now? Because you are, you know.”

Allow me to play the Patañjali card again:
“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” (I.2)  For a practice to be called ‘yoga’ it must be focused on the mind, its fluctuations, and the methods to cause their cessation. 

The physical expression of the pose is relatively unimportant (excepting that it does not cause injury “The suffering that is yet to come is to be avoided” II.16); it is the mental state in the pose which defines success: “Postures should embody steadiness and ease” (II.46).  This describes mental, not physical states, but if there is not steadiness and ease in the physical state, that is a sign that there is not steadiness and ease in the mental state.

Here comes the tricky part.  Yes, physical and mental are related.  Yes physical state is easier (more tangible) to grasp than mental state. So, do we help the student (and ourselves) MORE by focusing on the physical or the mental?

From my own direct experience, focusing on the mental leads to infinitely more sustained benefit and growth than does focusing on the physical.

My practice for many, many years focused around Urdhva Dhanurasana.  First being very frustrated (putting it in “safe harbor” terms) at not being able to match my thought of what the pose should be, then to consciously trying to block the pose out and do it as a matter of course (ie. “Ok, let’s get through this and move on.”) 

When my practice began to evolve away from the strongly rajasic Ashtanga System, which includes this pose, I had to confront my attitude toward this pose.  “Why can’t I do this pose?”  Because my ego is telling me I have to do it and I am pushing myself to the point of constant injury to satisfy my ego.

Practicing this pose is causing fluctuations in the mind.
Ego is causing fluctuations in the mind.
Yoga is the cessation of fluctuations of the mind.
Therefore, practicing this pose (for me) is not practicing yoga.

That is a hard effing pill to swallow. But swallow it we must, if we are practicing yoga. 

At some point in our practice, we need to apply this level of analytics to what we are doing.  Self-analysis is actually more ‘yoga’ than asana (see again I.2). 

The next time you find yourself (or your students, if applicable) asking why then ‘can’t’ do something, avoid the easy out of focusing on the physical and turn the focus inward. Assure them (as long as they are not leading toward injury) that they ARE doing the pose.  The absolute correct version which is right for them at that specific time.

You’ll be both scared and amazed at what you will find.

And you will continue to define the practice which is correct for you rather than adapt to the ideals of someone else.

“Full effort is full victory.” ~MKG

Friday, June 22, 2012

Last Stop!

All the workshops—Arm balances, Spring Training, Inversions, Gita, and even the Student Training Program—have led us to the pinnacle:

Creating a Home Practice.  Saturday June 23 2-4 pm @ Hudson River Yoga, Poughkeepsie

I will hand you everything you need to practice at home: A method, motivation, visual aids.

The only things you will need to put this method into practice are:

You. 15 minutes. A timer of some sort.

That’s right—you only need 15 minutes.  You can find them. 

Practicing at home enhances your group classes—you’re not sore for days because it’s been a week since you’ve moved those muscles/joints.  You will be better prepared to face your day—by removing stiffness in the body and focusing the mind. You will build discipline and resolve by doing something you thought you couldn’t do—and if you can do “the impossible” in one area of your life, “the impossible” in other areas of your life become more probable.

I know this method works because it is what I do 6 days a week.  And have been doing 6 days a week for nearly 8 years.

The hardest part of this practice is showing up.  But when you show up once, the next time is easier. Show up to the workshop and you have already succeeded.

See you there.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Sense of Urgency

This is a picture of a clock in the kitchen of The French Laundry, one of the top restaurants in the world. (Caveat and apologies-I pulled this image from Google and do not have photo credit info). Every time someone in that kitchen looks at the clock, they are reminded that time is valuable.

I have paralleled before the attitudes which make successful cooks and successful yogis and will continue to plow forward with that theme today. 

Swami Sivananda writes anecdotally that he has known some students who focus totally on asana practice and neglect meditation, saying they will do that when they are older. Swami S chastises this attitude and encourages students not to wait because there is no guarantee that tomorrow will come.

How many times have you approached your practice and said “I don’t feel like it today, I’ll do it tomorrow?” How many times have you thought “Well, I really should practice,” or “I wish I had practiced?” 

I have been there, too. 

I can say with complete honesty that there are days I did not practice and wished I had, but I have never once come away from practicing thinking “Boy I wish I hadn’t practiced today.”

We have a very short time to do a very large amount of work.  In a restaurant kitchen, especially a 3* Michelin kitchen like the French Laundry, there is so much work to be done.  Perfection is a requirement, not an option, and the guests are waiting.  Every dish must be executed with speed, precision, and finesse. We need to cultivate this mindset with our yogic practices as well.  The main difference though: Cooks know what time service starts. The deadline is well defined.  In yoga, we do not know when ‘time’s up,’ so we need to take advantage of every opportunity to build our practice.

We can make great strides by cultivating a home practice.  A little bit every day will move us much farther along than practicing a lot one day a week, or practicing a lot during one yog-acation then not doing anything for weeks.

Practicing at home, on your own, with no teacher watching or motivating you is the single best thing you can do for your practice.  A little movement—no need to try handstand lotus, Sun Salutations are quick and easy—and a little sitting still, that’s all you need to start with.

I have a great idea.  Why not come to my workshop on Saturday, June 23rd and learn how to create a home practice?  We’ll talk, we’ll do, and I’ll make sure you have a nice little tool to take home with you.

How do I know my method works?  Because I do it. I have been practicing at home, near daily, for about 8 years.  The method I’m presenting is what I do 6 days a week, only shorter—this is only a starting point, a seed which will grow with time.   No untested theory, no flavor of the month sequencing, nor a blind retelling of a celebri-yogi’s dvd.  This workshop is based in my own direct experience which has been cultivated and has evolved over time. My sincere hope is that by creating a habit, you will find enjoyment and the motivation to make this practice a part of your life.

Do not wait! Start to build your home practice today!
“Practice and Detachment are the means to still the fluctuations of the mind…And this practice will become firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time”
~Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras I.12,14

Friday, June 8, 2012

It's Time for America's Favorite Game Show

It’s time for America’s favorite game show: <audience shouts> GURU OR VRITTI!

We learn from the texts that we already have all that we need to progress on this path.  To paraphrase Vivekananda, we are Lions who have deluded ourselves into thinking we are sheep.  We seek teachers, those who have traveled the path before us for guidance.  The texts tell us that gurus are nothing more than mirrors—they only reflect what we already are; more accurately, they dispel the darkness so we can see what we already are.  The real Guru is us, the indweller, not the ego.  If we listen carefully we can hear the teachings within.

On a day-to-day basis, for most of us, these teachings get drowned out by the noise of our vrittis, the fluctuations of our minds. The vrittis are much louder and more convincing to our ego than the advice which will actually help us. As students, we continually play a little game called:

<audience shouts>
<applause and theme music>

How to play:  When the little voice pops up in your head, you have to decide is speaking words of Truth from the Guru, or words that lead you away from Truth of the Vritti.

How do you tell the difference?  I find that Vrittis sound something like this:
“I don’t wanna…”
“I can’t…”
“That’s DANGEROUS, don’t even try”
“Do it tomorrow.”
“Godd_mn you guyyyyyyyyyyyyys.”
Volume: VERY LOUD!!!!!!!!!!  Broadcasts loud and clear over everything.

And Guru sounds something like this:
“Don’t you think you should?”
“Just one.” Or “Just one more.” (Except when confronted with cookies, pie, cake, ice cream, etc.)
“Yes and thank you.”
“Maybe you could try and see.”
Volume: very very soft. You have to be actively listening to hear.

An example which happens all too frequently.  Feel free to play along at home:
Cat wakes me up about ½ hr. before the alarm goes off (3:30 am and 4:00 am respectively).  I fall back asleep really hard.  Alarm goes off. 
First thought: “Godd_mn you guys.  I don’t wanna get up.”
Second thought: “Godd_mn you guyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyys. I feel like crap.  It’s no use to practice today.  I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Third thought: “You could just do a little.”
Later: “You’re on your mat.  You’ve done a little.  How about just one more?”

Does Guru always win with me?  Regarding getting to practice in the morning, yes, the majority of the time.  Believe me, it took a very long time to create that habit. I’ve still got a long way to go with hearing Guru over vritti in other aspects of life.  Success in one small area means that success in other areas is possible.  Just takes practice, study, and faith. 

That’s all the time we have. Be sure to join us next time when we play GURU OR VRITTI!