Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Asana with Care
When I was first learning the primary series in Ashtanga yoga (of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) I would lay on my mat at the end, totally covered in sweat, good and hot, and felt as if I had just wrestled a big gorilla. I was the big gorilla. There is a good feeling to exerting oneself to that degree. It feels so good to lie down at the end.
It is good to work hard in yoga. But the scenario I just described isn’t so great. I was really yanking to try to be where I wanted to be in the poses. This is a vexing way to practice; my frustration would mount as I went from pose to pose. I was also hardening myself with over-effort.
At the same time I think it is important to challenge one’s self with the practice. So trying poses you “can’t do” is a good idea. What is crucial is how you practice. Practice with care.
Asana is the third limb of Ashtanga yoga from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Asana is the physical pose we are practicing in class or wherever you practice (Doing a yoga pose is a nice way to wait for luggage after a flight.).
A good way to practice asana is to put your self into the pose. Then assess it. Are you over-working certain parts, and under-working others? Do you feel strain? Can you breathe? Then adjust the pose so the whole body is actively sensing and responding to moment-to-moment feedback from the pose (including the breath). And this can all happen while “holding” a pose.
Sometimes I see students work by finding the general shape of the pose, and then freeze, perhaps waiting for it to be over. The moment you are waiting is the moment that you have stopped doing. The muscles have become like glue, rigidly holding the bones and organs in place. This way of practice is like when a bunny freezes. Sometimes rabbits do this when startled. There is nothing tighter than a tense bunny (I have two, so I know)! Their little bodies become like alabaster sculpture that shakes. Don’t do this to yourself! Don’t “hold” the pose still like that.
Keep finding the pose. Instead of trying to remain absolutely still, see what you can do to improve the pose. Does it feel dull anywhere? Can you activate that dullness? Does it feel like a rock somewhere? Can you release that or extend that? Do everything you have learned about the pose, and then discover more. Practice is fun!