As you may know, I am taking an advanced Yoga Teacher Training course with Srivatsa Ramaswami. He is the longest living student of Krishnamacharya. It is a training course I have wanted to do for a while, so I am feeling very blessed that the stars aligned for me to attend.
Today, someone in my class did the pose where you stick your leg behind your head – ek pada sirsana. She was young, flexible, and it was impressive, so kudos to her for having the ability. But I am not doing that, nor do I need to. I mean, I think maybe I might have been able to do that when I was a kid? Maybe? But my body doesn't move that way, nor does it need to. My yoga practice is here to help me release stress and re-align my mind with my breath and my body. If I have to force myself into a pose, then it is my ego taking over, which is not the state of alignment yoga intends.
I liken yoga postures to figure skating. Many of us can ice skate. Some of us have tremendous skill and interest as youngsters and will continue to study how to figure skate. Some will even go on, after many years of practice and skill building, to be able to do a triple axel! Many of us others, may just skate for the sake of skating. We do not all need to do a triple axel, we can achieve many of the physical and mental benefits from just getting out there for a skate. Attempting a triple axel might just be downright dangerous for most of us!
Practicing yoga postures is the same. It is not about forcing oneself into a pose. In fact, yoga is not about the pose at all. Yoga is a secular philosophy about how to cease the activities of the mind – Citta Vritti Nirodha. Those of you who suffer from anxiety, worry a lot, or get stuck in ruminating about the past know what I am talking about when I say “activities.” It is all those thoughts race around our minds, often keeping us up at night, or making it hard to make decisions. They cloud our perception, and prevent us from seeing things clearly.
How to achieve Citta Vritti Nirodha was explained by the Indian Sage Patanjali, at the beginning of the Common Era, codified in the Yoga Sutras. There are 196 Sutras, and only three relate to the poses or asana, what many of us think of when we think yoga. Moving our bodies in asana is an important step to preparing the mind for meditation. If we do not prepare the mind for meditation, our minds will still race and we will have a difficult time.
The rules around the asana are clear. They state:
YS II.46 - Sthira Sukham Asanam – the pose should be steady/stable and comfortable. If you are in a pose and not feeling this way, you are not doing yoga. So pull yourself back to the point where steadiness and comfort dominate.
YS II.47 – Prayatna Saithilya Nanta Samapattibhyam – By making the breath smooth and long, and by concentrating or focusing on the breath, the perfection of the posture is obtained. So, if you are in a pose and your breathing is short and your mind is not focused on the breath, you are not doing yoga. If you are struggling, back up or come out of the pose. It is not going to have the effect that it is intended to have and may create distress.
YS II.48 Tato Dvandva Nabhigatah– by the mastery of asana, a yogi is able to overcome the pairs of opposites – essentially the rajas and tamas, the yin and yang, to bring us to the entered state of being.
There are many different asana and different ways to get in and out of asana. There are asanas that are beneficial for certain conditions and not so good for other conditions. The postures we practice should help us release and strengthen the body, to bring to a more centered state and prepare us for meditation. We can deepen our practice over time, remembering that anything that causes undue struggle will aggravate the mind and be counter-productive.
For me, when I start to push myself beyond the point where my breath is stable and comfortable, it is because my ego starts to take over telling me what it thinks My body should do, and I really must watch it. I know that the second my breath becomes shortened and laboured, I need to pull back a bit in my pose. Even though my ego might not like it, I know that at that point, I am no longer doing yoga.
I encourage you to notice this and do the same. There is no need for competition in yoga, especially competition between your mind and your body. There is no Olympics, or gold medal waiting for us if we allow our minds to push our bodies. If we do, we will likely injure ourselves, and miss the whole point of practice. Then we are not doing yoga at all.
 Hoxsley. P. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra Based on the teachings of Srivatsa Ramaswami. 2005 self published.