Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Yoga Sutra: Yama and Niyama (Restraints and Observances)

I'm still reading the Yoga Sutras....albeit, slooowly.

Yoga Sutra 2: 30-31 "Nonviolence, truthfullness, nonstealing, sexual restraint, and nongreed are the restraints. The five restraints practiced universally, uncompromised by type of birth, place, time and circumstance, constitute the great vow."

Yoga Sutra 2: 32 "Cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-study and devotion to the Supreme Being are the observances."

Yoga Sutra 2: 33-34 "If conflicting thought obstructs those restraints and observances, the opposite should be contemplated. Obstructing thoughts like violence and others, done, caused, or approved of, stemming from greed, anger, or infatuation, whether they are mild, moderate, or intense, will result in more pain and ignorance. For to realize that is to cultivate the opposite." -translation by G. Maehle

Thoughts: As far away as I might feel from any of the yamas (restraints) or niyamas (observances) at a particular moment, practice continues to nudge me in their direction. For that, I am grateful. If I look at the list of yamas and niyamas as a list of "How to Be Good.", then what I see is a list of lovely sounding impossibilities. If I look at the yamas and niyamas as a practice that is cultivated (love that word) one breath at a time, then I see the possibilities of change...slowly....with time and practice.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

On Driste and Not Falling Apart

A student asked if I would write something on driste. Here's your post Bob! (*waves to Bob*)

There are a list of reasons that I might not have practiced this morning.
1. I strained something in the left shoulder/pectoralis on one side in modern dance class a couple weeks ago and it's still sore and tweaky (although improving).
2. I've been doing a lot of biking and I'm feeling tightness in my right hip (where it seems that all tightness in my body resides...), right IT band and outer knee.
3. I slipped in the shower a couple days ago and caught my inner ankle on the bathtub knob....which has apparently sharper edges than I gave it credit for as I now have a long deep scrape where a chunk of skin was removed and a lovely purple and green bruise.
4. I slept on my right shoulder in some way that my body did not approve of and now have strange catches and aches coming from the right shoulder joint.
5. The time changed a little more than a week ago and early morning practice now has me getting out of bed with that slightly delirious feeling of getting up several hours before the sun for a long drive to some far away airport...

...But I practiced anyway.

...and yes I'm getting to driste...

...Because really what I notice and react to has a lot to do with what I see.

...And what I saw this morning was a studio filled with patches of moonlight. It was warm enough that I didn't need to turn on a heater, so the only sound was that of my own breath. When I looked out the windows, I saw piles of bricks and construction debris...the materials being used to expand the studio space at my house where I teach Mysore classes. Every new pile of materials and every new phase of construction makes me smile.

In the past couple years, spring, especially March and April, have been quiet months at the studio. It's post-"New Year's Resolution" time and pre-summer vacation. It usually trickles down to just 2 or 3 regular students with a committed practice. This year's group of regular students are a particularly committed bunch and we have had quite a few busy days in the studio.

It's a small space, a "packed house" is 7 students....and that's good. It's allowed for lots of individual one-on-one time and helped to build relationships between students. When it's mat-to-mat, it's best to just decide to befriend your neighboring practitioners from the beginning. :) on a recent busy day in the studio, we had a short chat about driste and maintaining attention on our own practices despite the challenge of the close quarters.

What happens when I move my driste? attention and actions follow. Many of the random things I wrestle with over the course of a day could be considered "driste violations". Does it matter what someone else did, said or didn't do if it doesn't have anything to do with me, and there is nothing I can do to actively change the situation? No. Those are the moments when I need to put my eyes back on my own practice/life and wrestle my attention back to where it serves some purpose.

How and what I see changes everything that follows. This morning I chose to see much that I have to be grateful for. I can move, breath and I get to spend some part of each day doing what I love most: practicing and teaching Mysore style Ashtanga yoga.

I don't always make that choice. I can share plenty of examples of getting bogged down by driste violations, far too many really. But this morning, I put my mat down in a puddle of moonlight and got on with it.

credit goes to Loo, whose blog you can read here, for the broader idea of driste violations

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Blackberries, Asana and the Eight Limbs of an Ashtanga Practice

I began a walk through the Yoga Sutras about a year ago with this post: Yoga Sutra 1.1: Yoga Begins Now.

The walk slowed to a winding sort of stroll with lots of stopping to look around along the way. I've found that as I read each next sutra, it's nice to let it drift on the wind a bit and see where it settles before I say anything about it here.

Recently, I seem to be running into lots of conversations, posts and articles on the value (or not) of asana practice.

The Yoga Sutras have this to say in 2.29:
"Moral injunctions (yama), fixed observances (niyama), posture (asana), regulation of breath (pranayama), internalization of the senses towards their source (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption of consciousness in the self (samadhi), are the eight constituents of yoga."

When I look at the way my practices unfold each morning, I think each of the limbs is so entangled in the others that there cannot really be a separation of asana from the rest. The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga look in my mental image, more like wild blackberry shrubs complete with thorns and tasty looking fruit, than the graceful, tidy tree often depicted.

Asana, as I understand it at this moment, is a way of placing the body with attention that makes space for the other limbs. At one point in my day or in the evolution of my practice, asansa may look like the primary series. At another, it may look like whatever posture my body needs to adopt to meet the needs of a moment.

I think if I define yoga asana as moving with attention (or sitting...or standing...), then yoga asana can become something that quietly follows me off the mat in the morning and provides needed steadiness and ease during the rest of my day.

...and perhaps with enough time and practice, I'll navigate the tangled brambles that are the eight limbs and just be left with fruit...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Yoga: A Relationship with Practice

I'm piggy backing on Nobel's recent post today as he ponders, "Why do Ashtanga?"

Here's an excerpt from his post:
"Lately, I've been thinking about the nature of the Ashtanga practice, and how and why I came to practice Ashtanga. There are many questions that come up in the course of my reflections, questions such as: Do all Ashtangis go through the same experiences and processes in the course of encountering and starting the journey of practice? Are there common themes that run through all such encountering-and-beginning-Ashtanga stories? Or is every practitioner's story very different from every other practitioner's, so that there are no commonalities at all? Is Ashtanga for everyone? If it is not for everyone, what kinds of persons is it for? "

Great questions!...and Nobel's blog is a great one for keeping me thinking...

I dabbled in yoga classes of various styles from the time I was 16 until age 23...a bit like dating really...or something like an encounter with the 3 bears. I liked yoga in general, but no particular class was just right.

I went to my first Ashtanga class and that was it. When the time came to move to a new city, I went looking for yoga classes in the Ashtanga style. I wasn't interested in anything else.

...but why Ashtanga??

The one word answer for me is relationship.

As Nobel pointed out, within this yoga practice is structure. That structure let me dig one hole deeply. I've spent the past nearly 10 years digging just a little bit deeper to see where it would take me.

I'm not the first person to point out the similarities in the way Ashtanga practitioners relate to their practice and the way we relate to actual human beings. I've heard my teacher refer to the reasons that he is still "in love with the practice". I have "good practice days" where understanding seems to flow freely and I have "difficult practice days" where the practice and I seem, for the moment, to be at cross purposes.

...but it is that day to day digging within, that results in one deep hole. The path to depth has asked for more patience and commitment than dabbling with a little of this and a little of that, but it has also produced more steadiness, clarity and compassion. If I am going to attempt the same seeming impossibilities daily, I'm going to have to learn to cut myself some slack!

The daily relationship with a set series of poses done in a particular way (with breath, bandha and driste) have provided great opportunities to wrestle with surrender.

Nobel has this to say about surrender:
"All is coming. The practice, by its very nature, demands surrender within effort and effort within surrender: One tries one's best at every posture (effort), and if one doesn't "get" a particular posture today, there's always tomorrow's practice (surrender)."

The Ashtanga practice is subtle this way. What appears to be the same sequence of postures is never really the same twice. If I surrender to the practice as the ultimate teacher and to the guidance of my human Ashtanga teacher, then my understanding of both the practice and of myself evolve continually. As soon as I think I understand, there's more.
This process of meeting seemingly the same practice daily and frequently being startled by something new, is exciting, sometimes intense and often humbling. I don't know nearly as much as I momentarily might think I do and the practice always knows more.

To provide just one person's thoughts on Nobel's questions:
Yes, I think there are commonalities in what practitioners find within the Ashtanga practice, although of course each person's story is their own.

No, I don't think Ashtanga yoga is the technique for everyone. I think everyone could do it, but not everyone will want to....and that I think is key. This is just one path to the center. Patanjali's Yoga Sutra mentions several ways in. The important part according to Patanjali is that we choose the technique with which we can maintain a relationship...whatever that practice may be. Practice consistently, over a long time, without a break and all is coming.