September 12, 2012

Meeting the Edge, Exploring It & Going Over: The Backbends of Yoga. ~ Heather Morton

“Consistent practice leads to changing perspectives.
An altered perspective leads to taking greater risks and
not just meeting but going over the edge.”

A follower of mine has posted old notes and quotes of mine so I decided to share this one.

He refers to me as Heater…so here’s my Heater note!

While practicing the postures it’s popular to hear teachers talk about meeting “the edge.” This is usually in reference to the place where you feel challenged or that elicits fear and/or resistance.

It can also refer to the place where you’re holding back, not letting go and wanting to make it happen in “your” way. We may perceive our edges as the limit in which we can physically bend.

But what about internal edges? The places of fear and the areas we dislike, ignore, neglect and reject within ourselves?

These are also edges but because they’re internal (and ingrained reactions, responses and behaviors) they’re far more difficult to explore.

The edge really then can be understood in a number of ways.

The main point from what I’ve understood with my teacher is this is the place you need to stay—not run away from. Moreover, it’s not so much the external edge (the edge that got you to where you are now) but the internal one we need to turn our gaze (the drishti) toward.

In teaching backbending—and in particular the drop-back from standing to wheel—the edge or external limit is met very quickly. In other words, it’s such a challenging move for many students that fear and feelings of doubt surface rapidly.

This is the internal edge and quite often the place where many give up or run away. Looked upon from a different perspective it can also become the perfect place to explore ‘the edge’ and our perceptions.

The zen story about the overflowing tea cup reminds us about how we need to shift our perspective. If the teacher keeps pouring tea into a full cup it will continue to overflow—there being no room for growth or expansion. The same is true when we come to the teacher with fixed notions or want to force the body into a prescribed shape with only an external ambition. Lacking an internal focus or awareness in both conditions is like the tea that spills over the cup, onto the floor and into the garbage.

When the edge appears we’re faced with how to move beyond it.

It may become counter-productive if we’re not able to undo, let go and challenge our “ingrained” perspectives. It’s like being too full, but at the same time craving and expecting more. People tend to forget that the whole purpose of yoga including the postures is not to continue to “get stuff” but rather to let go and loosen up. Practice is far from being about acquiring more tools as it is about un-doing and un-learning.

Trying then to push past the edge usually does not work. It will surface again in another posture. Forcing will not work because the physical muscles have not been trained to endure it and the mind is not familiar with what’s happening. BKS Iyengar once wrote you cannot tell the knee to bend with the brain. While everyone may want to learn the classic lotus pose it’s not doable with this approach. Iyengar poetically suggests understanding the intelligence of the knee—slowly removing its stiffness.

The limits we come across in practice whether in the back or the knee (the physical edge or a mental one) can be understood as a relative point in time, practice and space. We tend to perceive it as something solid and not subject to change with time and practice.

It is, however, always subject to change.

Of course writing all of this is just a bunch of words. How does it actually to apply practice?

Here are a few ideas to explore. Keep in mind that not all of the suggestions will be suitable for everyone. In fact, the cookie-cutter approach leaves many people thinking yoga is only for the born flexible. I am using the example of the standing pose called mountain (tadasana) to the wheel (chakrasana).

These are starting points:

1) Contract and relax the muscles of the buttocks and legs. This is the first of two parts.

The second is to allow the spine to rise and fall and become aware of this being the natural tendency. The contraction/relaxation should be done over a series of breathings not up/down in rapid movements.

It works better to hold the pose, breathe and contract followed by relaxing while breathing and isolating certain muscles over each other—the legs contract and the buttocks relax.

2) Train your mind to never stop feeling and thinking about the breath. Every move (whether it’s big or small) is generated by the breath. This is how it really works whether you’re aware of it or not or think you know how to breathe.

Learning to “wait for the breath” and combining it with the body is challenging. This method helps to learn how to stay longer without letting the mind direct the posture. It’s a way of understanding how the prana (the vital force) is more powerful than the physical body and the mental fluctuations.

3) While practicing consider the central theme(s) of yoga beyond the flexibility of the body. The deeper teachings of Yoga are about the mind being a container of passing fluctuations. This should not be misunderstood as suppressing or denying what you experience. It is through the physical body we are working. However, it’s not through the physical body alone that you can deepen the experience. It’s by channeling the energy, the prana, focusing the mind and then shaping it along with the body.

4) Number three is well-worth repeating and in particular the part about allowing the energy to shape your practice. We often think of the body first but in Yoga it is breathing and bending.

A personal mantra to work with is, “Breathe and bend” rather than “Bend and breathe.” There’s a difference.

Try it and see.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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