Monday, July 23, 2007

Practicing Yoga

It’s important to remember that yoga is not asana…although the other way around is true. Of course, depending how you use it, asana may be the only part of the eight-limbs of yoga that you have time or interest in. (For a basic, easy-to-understand description of these limbs, read B.K.S. Iyengar’s Tree of Yoga) Most Western students get completely involved in the physical aspects of yoga—refining their poses, building their strength, challenging themselves with more difficult and demanding sequences—but I think they miss out the greatest value of yoga if they take this approach.

To my understanding, what is really important about yoga is how it affects your psyche. Asana helps move the process of deeper understanding and self-acceptance along, but it is only one part of a much bigger system. You don’t want to get so absorbed in achieving the perfect backbend drop-back or lengthy headstand, that you miss the subtle, and in my mind, more demanding practice, involved in pranayama (breath work) and pratyahara (turning the perception inward) and even in observing some of the yamas and niyamas (behavior modification).

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my asana practice is taking a big hit during this third trimester. Standing on my feet longer than 10 minutes is very uncomfortable and most twists, inversions or strength poses are either contraindicated or simply impossible. I know there are ways to modify a lot of asana, but most of the adapted poses aren’t really helping me right now. I kept thinking, “This stinks, how am I supposed to prepare physically for the big marathon at the end of August without my yoga practice!” (I am in love with swimming, tho…lose 40 lbs. in 2 minutes!)

I realized I needed to rethink what constitutes “practice.” As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been doing a lot of pranayama lately. The more I focus on clearing my mind and concentrating on the breath, the more I realize how useful this type of work is, both physically and mentally. You hear about the “mind-body connection” in reference to yoga, and it is very obvious when working on your breathing. As I settle into Supta Baddha Konasana, I can bring myself into a quiet, contemplative place quite quickly and can get my inhales and exhales to smooth and deepen within the first five minutes. I can feel the aches in my joints dissipate, the tightness in my ligaments soften and my circulation in my feet improve as I relax. The “fluctuations of the mind” (what pranayama is suppose to control) still flutuate a lot, but it’s getting a bit easier to concentrate.

If you beat yourself up about not finding time to practice asana, remember that you can still do yoga. There is a lot more to it than Sun Salutations and Down Dog. The physical practice is just one part of a series of “exercises” you can do to get yourself centered and calm. Try to incorporate some of the other limbs into your week and notice if they don’t make the asana practice that much more effective and useful. I am really curious to see how my postures have changed, once I get back on the mat.

Do you agree? Have you tried to work on the other limbs of yoga? What does practicing yoga mean to you? My ears (and comments page) are always open…©Brenda K. Plakans. All Rights Reserved


Kristin said...

Beautifully written! Yes, I agree!

Coming from an strong Ashtanga and Hatha tradition, in conversations I often get asked, how often do you practice at home?

This question both amuses me and angers me, because the question they are asking is, "How often do I do asana?" My life is such that I do very little asana at home, however, and (this is where the anger comes in) the perception is that being an Ashtanga student/teacher, all I do is asana.

But you are so correct! Yoga is NOT just about asana, it is NOT about creating the perfect down dog or getting your nose to your knees in a forward bed. For me personally, my challanges lie in bringing stillness to my life through meditation, to deepen my practice through study and breathwork, and to be mindful of the yamas/niyamas in every waking moment.

So, to ask me if I practice at home, my reply is always a very simple, "yes, I do."

Gypsy Girl said...

Yoga for me is so much more than the asanas. It is constantly a journey of self discovery. Observing myself and my reactions,especially when I feel anger, envy or jealosy or any other negative emotion for that matter, is a challenge.
When I went to the gym to practice yoga it was the physical aspect, the asanas that were the most important.
Now that I practice at home in my own yoga sanctuary, I find that, the asanas lead me to stillness and I meditate and do breathwork right after my practice. Which sets the pace for mindful living all through the day.

Anmol said...

I look at Asana, Pranayama, Bandha, Mudra, etc. all as appetizers. They help make for a tasty feat, but, the main course is always Meditation. So, yes absolutely yoga is far more than asana or just physical exercise. Thank you for this wonderful post.