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Mo Betta Asana November 21, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Abhyasa, Changing Perspectives, Healing Stories, Philosophy, Science, Vairagya, Wisdom, Yoga.
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“According to Krishnamacharya, practice and knowledge must always go together. He used to say, practice without right knowledge of theory is blind. This is also because without right knowledge, one can mindfully do a wrong practice.”

– A. G. Mohan

A couple of my early yoga teachers (and my substitute Gaelic teacher) really got me thinking about what we’re “practicing” in any given moment. To break down several different encounters, let me just boil the ideas down to this: If you have anger issues and someone tells you to hit a pillow, you are practicing violence. You may argue that hitting the pillow is better than hitting a wall (which might result in damage to you and/or the wall) and that hitting a pillow or a wall is preferable to hitting a person. But, the bottom line is that you are still channeling your anger towards a violent, potentially harmful act. So, according to this premise, there is really nothing, in any given moment, that prevents you from accidentally or intentionally hitting someone – because you are preparing yourself for the moment.

In some ways, this is the whole idea behind self defense classes. You want to practice and integrate, integrate and practice, until your reaction to a dangerous situation is automatic and almost instinctual. Keep in mind, in self defense classes, you are taught defense: how to escape, evade, and defend yourself. The offense actions you are taught during a self defense class are related to awareness; because, ultimately, you are not practicing how to engage, pick a fight, and beat someone up – you are practicing and integrating how to stay safe: which is also what you’re practicing in yoga.

Yoga Sūtra 2.48: tato dvandvānabhighātāh

– “From that (perfected posture) comes lack of injury (or suffering) caused by the pairs of opposites.”

Vinyāsa is a Sanskrit word that means “to place in a special way.” It is a technique that has also become a style in yoga. But, one of the tricky things about practicing the style is that many people don’t understand the underlying theory or concept that is the technique. They think vinyāsa is what happens when they move from “high to low plank, Up’dog, Downward Facing Dog” – and that, is, in fact, one example of a vinyāsa. The reason why it is an example, however, is two-fold. First, you are linking your movement with your breath. Second, instead of moving randomly, you are moving in a way that mimics your body’s natural reaction to the breath: extending (and rising up) on the inhale, flexing (and getting closer to the earth) on the exhale.

Sometimes, like with the inclined series described above, it’s really easy to see the special way things are placed. In other examples, however, it can get a little trickier. What does “one breath, one motion” really mean? What do you do when you’re standing still, i.e., holding a pose? What do you do when some movements are big and some small? Where is my focus when different parts of my body are doing different things? What if it doesn’t make sense for my body to move like that? Can I take an extra breath?

Let’s start with the last two questions and work backwards. Yes, yes, take an extra breath if you need it, but be mindful of why you need it. Do you need an extra breath because you’re not actually breathing fully and deeply or is it because the move is too big? Bringing awareness to how you are breathing brings your awareness to the important parts of your practice. Once you focus on those important parts, you start mastering those parts. Part of that mastery is knowing when something is not an appropriate move or not an appropriate move for your body.

“Teach what is appropriate for an individual.”

– Sri T. Krishnamacharya

The physical practice of yoga (haţha yoga, regardless of style or tradition) is sometimes described as a practice of the spine and one of the foundations of vinyāsa is the idea that the spine naturally reacts to the breath in a very specific way (see above) unless something gets in the way. So, first and foremost, consider how each transition is reflected in the movement of the spine and hips. Next, consider how the movement is reflected in the movement of your big joints. Once you get an understanding of how the body moves, you bring more awareness to what is appropriate (in general and for you specifically).

Note: there are times, when you may find that a sequence moves around a joint you weren’t expecting. For instance, there are some lunging sequences where the front knee bends on the exhale and extends on the inhale – which brings focus to stretching the back of the front leg. Other times, the same sequence of poses is performed with the front knee bending on the inhale and flexing on the exhale – which brings more awareness to the spine and the hips. Keep in mind, the same parts are being affected, but in a slightly different way – and that way can make all the difference.

When you are matching the movement to the breath, with an awareness of how the body moves, then you start to mindfully and intentionally engage the muscles and the joints so that you are following the pace of the breath. This means that while an inhale from a forward fold to Mountain Pose will take the same amount of time as an inhale from forward fold to a “Half Lift,” you have to change the way you move your body by slowing down or speeding up the movement (while keeping the breath long and fine and deep). Similarly, when you are holding a pose, there is an opportunity notice how you are creating space (with the inhale) and engaging space (with the exhale). Early in your practice you may actually “do” things while holding a pose. Once you’ve mastered a pose, you may find that your awareness is drawn to what happens as you relax into the pose; letting gravity and your breath take you deeper.

Yoga Sūtra 2.46: sthirasukham āsanam

– “Cultivate a steady [or stable], easy [comfortable or joyful] seat [or pose].”

Yoga Sūtra 2.47: prayatnaśaithilyānantasamāpattibhyām

– “[The way to perfect the seat or pose] is by relaxing [or loosening] effort and by merging with the infinite.”

Ashtanga Yoga was one of the first vinyāsa practices introduced to the Western world and it’s where most people get the idea “one breath, one motion.” The Primary, Intermediate, and Advanced sequences feature vigorous continuous movement which can be incredibly therapeutic or incredibly dangerous – depending on how you practice. The sequences were set with an awareness of vinyāsa krama (which is a step-by-step progression towards a goal) and, therefore, even when one practices a “short form” your body is prepared for each subsequent pose until you reach the end. Each sequence is often taught in the West as a whole, but traditionally each sequence was taught piecemeal – meaning a teacher would give a student the beginning and the end of the sequence and only introduce new elements once the original elements were mastered.

Practicing Ashtanga in the traditional way can create an opportunity for great strength and flexibility. However, if enough attention isn’t paid to alignment and an individual’s needs, it becomes a recipe for injury. Additionally, if you study alignment and study the Ashtanga sequences, you start to understand that no matter how vigorous and challenging the sequence gets, the body really isn’t making big moves. This is why Seane Corn advises that if you are going to practice any kind of vinyāsa you should also practice an alignment-based style of yoga, like Iyengar. Combining the awareness of alignment with the awareness of breath also allows you to actually practice āsana, as opposed to just posing.

“Stability and comfort go hand in hand, allowing us to remain relaxed during the peak moments of the posture.”

– commentary on Yoga Sūtra 2.47 from The Practice of the Yoga Sūtra: Sadhana Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Please join me for a 90-minute virtual yoga practice on Zoom today (Saturday, November 21st) at 12:00 PM. You can use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0.

You can request an audio recording of Saturday’s practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.)

Today’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for 07112020 An Introduction”]

“I had come to understand that yoga has never been about the stretch; it’s always been about the reach. And if I could use my reach to bring yoga’s healing powers to people everywhere and my influence to raise awareness and funds for social causes that alleviate suffering and separation, then I was all in.”

– quoted from Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing, and Conscious Action by Seane Corn



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