Mindful awareness

Monday, October 25, 2010

Steady Attention and Maintain Comfort

Yoga is about process, not outcome. But if there were to be goals in asana practice, they would be to steady one’s attention (sthira) and to remain comfortable (sukha) in the pose.  These qualities are what make yoga practice challenging and rewarding. Some poses are easier for some people than others. But every yogi can identify particularly challenging poses. Some of my students find savasana (deep relaxation pose) most challenging because quiet and total stillness is difficult and uncomfortable for them. Other students find eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose variation) most difficult and uncomfortable because sitting so many hours in the day tightens the muscles around their hips and pelvis.

Often students seek classes that quickly move them from one pose to another. This might be right for their bodies some days. But it also helps them to avoid the hard work of settling into a pose and finding stillness there. I can’t help but wonder if these students are unconsciously avoiding the hard asana work of steady attention and maintained comfort while holding poses. It is in holding poses that yogis will be rewarded. Any action that is difficult brings greater rewards.

My role as their instructor is to create an encouraging and safe environment. Sometimes it means encouraging students to soften. In eka pada rajakapotasana I encourage students to breathe long, steady breaths to still their minds and soften the muscles around their groin and hips. Sometimes it means encouraging students to use props. Using props is a good thing in that they help students to attain sthira and sukha, providing students with greatest benefit from their practice. A blanket or block under the front hip in eka pada rajakapotasana may help the student to hold the position more comfortably, in turn helping her to sustain her attention rather than fidgeting to try to avoid the deep hip rotation that it requires.

There are no shortcuts in yoga practice. Reaping the true benefits of asana practice, steady attention and maintained comfort, requires settling into the poses. The discomfort can be assuaged by extending the breath and using props. But avoiding the hard work is never the answer.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Observing without Reacting

Observing without reacting: This is my most difficult lesson on and off the mat. Where does my mind go when I fall out of bakasana (crow pose)? Excuses like “these pants are slippery.” Where does my mind go when I don’t go as deeply into hanumanasana (monkey pose) as I know I can? Excuses like “the room is too cold” or “the teacher didn’t include enough prep poses in the sequence before going into this advanced pose.”

My habitual mind does similar things when complications arise off the mat. I tend to react immediately when another car cuts me off on the highway. I fret and worry about what has happened to our relationship when a friend neglects to wave from across the street. Reacting often seems to be my immediate response. I’d prefer to just observe.

My yoga practice has helped me to at least recognize when I’ve reacted to a situation. I am more often now to reflect on a missed opportunity to “just observe”. To take my practice to the next level I sometimes decide to work on this very lesson. This is when I work with challenging standing sequences. Moving from trikonasana (triangle) to ardha chandrasana (half moon) to virabhadrasana III (warrior III) to parivrtta ardha chandrasana (revolved half moon) to parivrtta trikonasana (revolved side angle) isn’t easy. It requires me to move mindfully and deliberately.  Working with this sequence also means that I am likely to fall out at some point. Practicing with this difficult sequence affords me plenty of opportunity to practice observing without reacting. I practice using my breath to stay in the present moment. I practice moving meditation by observing, “I’m unbalanced” and finding balance again. Without reacting.

It isn’t easy. It takes practice. I've practiced with this all week. And I'm grateful to my students for working on the lesson with me!