On personal practice…

A lot of my students are hesitant to start a personal practice because they don’t know what sequence to do or think they can’t remember any poses. That’s because they’re trying to practice with their brain.

Now, if you’ve ever taken a class with me, or even met me, really, my speaking so ill of the most important organ may seem a little off base. I’m in many ways defined by my brain, and I certainly keep all my stuff there. However, because I am so invested in mental exercises, it is all the more important for me to remember my body and mind.

I have a condition that makes certain poses too hard on my neck,  due to disc degeneration in my cervical spine. It’s called forward head posture now,  and leads to low back problems as well, but in prior generations it was called “scholar’s neck.” We sit with our head forward so much– reading,  watching TV– that our whole spinal curve begins to change. It was especially associated with the learned, just like the absent-minded professor trope, because people who live in their heads often forget their bodies.

For me, that is the value of asana. It reminds me that I am not just a brain in a jar walking on stilts, I am my body, my brain,  but also my spirit,  my mind, and whatever it is that has been here inside of me the whole time, unchanged by circumstance or experience: that observer-me, a sense of self beyond my thoughts that is able to recognize itself as the thinker of thoughts instead of getting sucked into identifying with them. I still need the other limbs of yoga to practice in the seat of that self, but as any is a good way to get in touch with it.

I don’t practice traditional, lineaged poses every day. I don’t do 108 sun salutations every day. Frankly, the time it would take would get in the way of practices at value more, including ethical reflections, meditations, and breath work. It also causes me to ritualize the asana practice in such a way it becomes too easily mindless. Some students like having the same practice everyday so they can just go through the motions and get into the groove, and early in study it can be comforting. However, for me, there is little difference between that and pledging allegiance to the flag every day in first grade. We just mouthed words that didn’t really resonate or have power.

Many habitual practices start out this way and then gain value over time. Think about songs, poems, or stories we teach our children hoping to instill values in them. We often teach these songs several years before we expect them to understand the meaning of them. We do it so that the habit is instilled in them before they need to call upon it. We make it an instinctive behavior.

I don’t practice that way anymore because there comes a time when the message is already instilled in you. It’s like when an older child who does know the message rolls his or her eyes and sing-songs the poem or song. Rather than exploring a personal understanding or internalizing the message, it becomes something disconnected from intrinsic motivation being thrust on the child from the outside. This is how ritualistic practices that don’t adapt or conform to in-the-moment needs feel to me.

For my personal practice, I don’t know what it is going to look like. I practice based on what I need,  moment to moment, and so my practice must necessarily change. This weekend I was struck by a bug that left me in bed and extremely weak for 5 days. I did not do 108 sun salutations every morning. I rested. I stretched when it did not cause harm. I breathed through pain. I healed.

This morning, my body insisted that I do a physical practice. It informed me, clearly and in no uncertain terms, that it was time for a half forward fold that slowly, over the course of about 5 minutes, became a full forward fold. After that it demanded a strong, determined but open Warrior 2. The rest of my practice was dictated to me as clearly as if I was being instructed with a teacher in the room, except instead of hearing I was feeling. “And now parivrrta prasarita padottanasana,” (wide-legged forward fold with a twist), my low back, hips, neck, shoulders, all silently intoned.

“A little parsvattanasana, into down dog,  and then come down into an extended child’s pose, settling into your hips as you feel your torso drop down to the floor slowly,” said no voice, as my body just instantly recognized that this was what it needed. A few more floor stretches, then another twist, one with  many contested English names and rarely seen in books or ever in Sanskrit. My brain would think about that as it tried to articulate, but in my practice only the body needs to form the shape. The tongue and language centers of the brain are unnecessary.

When I was sick for a few weeks over the holidays, adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) was my best nasal decongestant and wheel pose my most effective cough and breathing relief. When I’ve been exhausted, viparita karani (elevated legs up the wall pose) & nadi shodhona (alternate nostril breathing) have come through for me. This is my asana practice, one that avoids engaging my monkey brain but doesn’t risk ignoring or overriding my heart and mind in the process.

As yoga students become more set in the approaches of their first few years of study, they can become intimidated by the layers and complexities of yoga that continue to arise in their practice after they feel they’ve “mastered” it. I have met teachers who’ve said they won’t study with new teachers anymore because they feel like they already know enough. However our tiny blip right now, our current approaches, fads and fashions of yoga, is such a small part of the thousands of approaches that have developed in response to different contexts over the years. Just as I adapt my practices to meet whatever is happening in the moment, so has yoga shifted over thousands of years to fit the needs of different times and places. How can we, as practitioners, comfortably close ourselves off to our practices instead of continuing to dig deeper and deeper?

I think sometimes this closing off of self in the yoga world, this “I hold the One True Yoga” attitude, stems from a fear of the monkey brain and a misunderstanding of what an embodied practice feels like. If someone had to think up their practice on the spot, what kind of other thoughts would arise? Yet this concern about over-intellectualizing yoga brings an equal harm: disrupting the balance, and thus union, between body and mind, the material world and inner self, the fleeting, changing flesh versus the perpetual inner observer. By engaging the brain early in the learning of yoga, and then learning clearly how to disengage it, I believe more students are able to truly ingrain the practice into their body, mind, and every moment of their lives.