Monday, April 25, 2011


Yoga Sutras 2.49-2.53

"Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention. It is to be practiced only after perfection in asana is attained. Pranayama has three movements: prolonged and fine inhalation, exhalation and retention; all regulated with precision according to duration and place. The fourth type of pranayama transcends the external and internal pranayamas, and appears effortless and non-deliberate. Pranayama is not only an instrument to steady the mind, but also the gateway to concentration, dharana."

-translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

Breath…I have so much to say about breath that not many words comes out. The more I feel about the importance of something, the harder it is for me to say something coherent about it.

During most of the day, most of the time, I think most people rarely take a single full breath. It’s the source of our energy and we sip at it.

If we do nothing else, as yogis and yoginis, let’s teach the world to breathe. It could change everything.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Belief: Mayurasana and Pushing Buttons

I don't often talk about the specific asana ins and outs of my practice on the blog. I don't talk much about it because I think reading about it would be boring. That doesn't stop me from talking about it to friends and family in person...but after a few minutes of "pose chatter" their eyes start to glaze over. :-) I get up. I do the poses. Some days they go more smoothly than others. Over time there is more ease, less effort....yawn...

...but I'll deviate a bit today for a short rant and a bit of self pity....fair warning.

At the moment, I hate mayurasana. I've never really hated a pose before. There were, and are, lots of poses and transitions that I struggle with. For any number of reasons, that doesn't especially bother me. I've waited years for things to open enough to do a full expression of a pose. Again I've worked for years to strengthen things enough to hold a pose together. There never seemed to be a reason to hurry. what's the difference with mayurasana?

I think it comes down to belief.

For a long time, (like years) I didn't really believe that this practice was something I could do with any sort of skill or grace. I could muddle my way through the fundamental poses, laugh about how weak my upper body was when trying to hold chaturanga, and that was okay. I was a "smart kid" with a venomous hatred for all things "sporty" and a knack for breaking things as I clumsily knocked them off counters. A hike in the woods?...great, count me in for sure. A game of kickball?....oh god no. I used the words of others, of family, of friends to reaffirm what I thought I already knew...physical grace was for other people.

...but I kept practicing

...and the unexpected happened. I got more flexible. I got stronger. I learned to breathe. Each new pose seemed equally impossible, so when some new pose happened in my body for the first time, I accepted it with delight. I was never disappointed when I couldn't do something, because I had no expectations that I would be able to.

...and over time, the practice and my teacher slowly worked to change my belief. Maybe this was possible after all?

I thought I might hit a wall with karandavasana, but no. Even there, my teacher showed me how to break it down into pieces. I patiently worked on each one. There is still alot to do on this pose. It's challenging, sure, but doesn't especially frustrate me, because I can find a way in. As I work on it, it improves.

With mayurasana, for the first time, I am disappointed. I am frustrated to the point of tears, to the point of wanting to stamp my feet and yell that it's not fair. Mayurasana is pushing buttons. The feeling of someone taking a sharp stick and poking at all the tender and vulnerable spots has been a hallmark of second series practice for me. Layers and layers of feelings and experiences that I thought were gone have risen to the surface to be either embraced or burned away for good.

I was still frustrated after this mornings' practice, unusual for me. As I was stomping around the kitchen, my husband asked why I was frustrated. My answer?..."I think my boobs are too big to do mayurasana." ...he burst into laughter.

Yes, it's of course, it's absurd. It's ridiculous in some sense that existential angst is brought on by my attempt to wedge my elbows under my chest and pick my toes up off the floor. Then again, in some sense it's not so absurd. This is a practice designed to help me see what is actually there in front of me. Samskaras by definition, run deep. It takes some creative digging perhaps to bring them up to the surface to be examined.

The more I see, the more my beliefs are challenged....because when you believe so firmly that you can't, what do you do when you see that you can?

Mayurasana is pulling at deep samskaras and asking big I really enough, just as I am?

My teacher seems convinced that doing this pose is entirely possible for me...with practice of course. This will not be the first time that I lean on his belief in hopes that it will drown out my own doubts.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Looking in the Mirror: Asana as a Door to Yama and Niyama

My trek through the Yoga Sutras continues... ...sutras 2.35-2.39 describe all that comes from following through on the yamas. Likewise, sutras 2.40-2.45 describe what's possible when we follow though on the niyamas.

...but as I wrote in my last post on the sutras, my observance of the yamas and niyamas is definitely a "work in progress". I find that I don't have much to say about all the loveliness that Patanjali describes. Sure, years of asana practice is steering me in the direction of yamas and niyamas. Moments of quiet and clear-headedness are definitely more plentiful than in my pre-practice days....but there are still so many moments of stickiness that any presumption that I really observe yamas and niyamas in each moment is laughable.

As always, the first place that I notice myself getting tangled in all the stuff that I put in my own way is in asana practice. Sunday's practice found me running on the hamster wheel. I watched my mind leave breath and bandha only to attach itself to a situation that was not mine to be concerned about and was really, none of my business....driste violation! Practice is the best mirror I've found.

...which brings me to Yoga Sutras 2.46-2.48 "Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit. Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached. From then on, the sadhaka [student] is undisturbed by dualities" -translation by B.K.S. Iyengar

These sutras are my favorite, probably because, while I would hardly claim to have met perfection in asana, when it comes to asana practice I can at least find a place to start the work. On a clear day, I might even see a little bit of the road out in front of me, maybe even see my footprints behind me and notice some of the places where I've wandered off the road on the foggy days.

Iyengar's commentary on sutra 2.46 has this to say: "But in any asana the body has to be toned and the mind tuned so that one can stay longer with a firm body and a serene mind. Asanas should be performed without creating aggressiveness in the muscle spindles or the skin cells. Space must be created between muscle and skin so that the skin receives the actions of the muscles, joints and ligaments. The skin then sends messages to the brain, mind and intelligence which judge the appropriateness of those actions. In this way, the principles of yama and niyama are involved and action and reflection harmonize."

Mr. Iyengar's comments give me hope. If his vision of the limbs of practice is right, and I venture he knows considerably more than I do on the subject, then my morning asana practice is enough. If I do it with all the honesty that I can manage, then it's all the mirror that I need. Practice and yamas and niyamas will come...or in the wisdom of Pattabhi Jois: "Practice and all is coming."