Photo credit: Wendy Cope
I have been practicing yoga for nearly 30 years and even though there have been times I have had to put my practice on the back burner, what has remained constant is my love of hatha yoga.
My practice has taught me about myself and has assisted me on my journey as a human being. The word yoga means “yoke” or “union”, but union with what?
Hatha yoga is one of eight limbs of this body of knowledge. Traditionally hatha, the physical body branch of yoga, was a means to master the body so that one could master the mind. If our body is uncomfortable in lotus position how will we be able to open our attention to the practice of meditation?
The asanas as we know them today were not the main focus of yoga until the mid-1800s. The objective of yoga is self-realization, not firm buttocks. The real pearl inside of the oyster, the true benefit of a hatha yoga practice is its inherent design as a vehicle to self-realization. I am referring to union with “self” as in capital “S” or “higher self”, as distinct from ego or little “s”.
Can we, as modern day people, practice this art and glean the inherent treasures of this body of knowledge? Are we able to use it as a foreground to discover the gifts of our life, our own unique purpose and the intelligence within our bodies, i.e. the attributes of our higher self?
One of the adjunct benefits and possibly the lowest common denominator of these yoga postures may be firm buttocks—I say yes to that! Having firm buttocks is perhaps a self-esteem enhancer. We feel good about how we look.
This system, hatha yoga, goes way beyond being a self-esteem enhancer.
I want to explore today how we as modern day people can practice this art and glean the inherent message of this body of knowledge. I have identified three dimensions or stepping-stones, if you will, to increased self-awareness: focus, attention and mindfulness. These may be baby steps to self-realization, but they are doable.
Focus is fostered by a yoga practice. In order to execute a demanding posture such as the Standing Bow Pulling Pose or Dan Day Amana Dhan U Ra Sana, we must focus our attention on one spot. Our eye gaze, fixed, then becomes the forefront of all other thoughts and sensations that arise. This one-legged balance is a serious back bend.
It is a beautiful form; it is balance in action.
What are you thinking about while performing this posture? Where is your attention drawn—certainly not to your next professional meeting or even a night out with friends?
On what are you focusing? As a new student we are imitating the postures. As we progress we begin to notice and appreciate how well another student is executing the posture. As we progress we begin to seek guidance asking, “Am I doing this properly?” We are focused on the proper mechanics of any posture and this never entirely goes away with demanding postures.
However, as we continue to practice, new layers of awareness arise one breath at a time. This is the mental training that is fostered by our practice. Through focus and attention we become acquainted with the art of mindfulness in this pose. During the execution of the standing bow pulling posture, we become acquainted with the process of doing and the process of being.
This is the pearl we are seeking.
For the last 15 and 1/2 years, I have taken classes in San Francisco from Mary Jarvis. Mary is a very inspiring teacher. She is technically very knowledgeable, but the one-liners she shares during class enrich my life and point to this art of mindfulness.
At some point she will remark how we have done it again. She will say, “Thank you for giving me some of ‘that’ again—that feeling of union and peace that yoga class provides. In the true sense our practice is recreation: “re-creation.” We reset ourselves each time we practice.
Do we then leave class and forget about this mental training, the clarity that we feel during class, in posture? Have you had the experience of leaving class feeling aglow only to find yourself glaring at another driver?
Our practice is about bringing yoga/union into our daily lives. Our practice is about bringing non-judgment and peace into our lives/our world, one moment at a time.
When I teach yoga I ask my participants to differentiate. This word means to perceive a difference, for instance, between a sunken rib cage and a lifted rib cage. To distinguish between a lifted and a reaching rib cage.
Triangle posture or Trikonsana is a way we develop or enhance our discernment. Any wide base posture grounds us. We take a stand and we spread our wings in this posture. We are taking a stand and holding our ground as we connect with our heart and lungs—or our feelings and breath.
We are imitating the structure of the Tri/Angle—a beautifully balanced, basic form. We are opening our heart and lungs and nurturing this relationship in this posture. We are reaching to what is above, as well as attesting to what is below.
The same process is possible in our daily lives through mindfulness. We are able to differentiate the subtle nuances of our attitudes toward others and ourselves. Opening our hearts allows us to take a path that has heart.
We feel it. We know it.
Are you familiar with the vow of “ahimsa”? This vow originated, as did yoga, over 5,000 years ago. Later it was adopted by a religious sect called Jain, which began in India in the 8th century B.C., at the time of Moses. Simply put, the vow of ahimsa is “harm to none.”
The distinction is made that this includes all sentient (feeling, e-motive) beings—even ourselves—and practicing the vow of ahimsa means accepting ourselves as we are in the posture on any given day and having enough compassion for ourselves to celebrate the fact that we are in class.
Borrowing a phrase, I tell my students we are human beings not human doings.
Harm to none is a tall order, one that requires attention and focus or mindfulness. It helps to ask the question: how can I honor the light, the life force in this person, within this situation?
Ram Das, the ex-Harvard professor who has written and lectured on spiritual exploration for over four decades and best known for his book, Be Here Now, illustrated this quite well in one of his early talks.
He related the story of a woman who was involved in the process of spiritual awakening, this mindfulness to which I am referring. She was on a New York freeway when a truck changed lanes and came dangerously close to hitting her car. She opened her window and yelled, “You, you weird expression of God, you!”
Bless her for expressing her feelings in the highest manner possible in that moment. Even in a moment when she was reacting to what felt like a life-threatening incident, she adhered to her commitment of spiritual awakening, to her vow to honor the light in each person.
We learn about ourselves by simply showing up and executing the postures. I lecture on wellness to corporations. I invite my participants to define the word “fitness.” I have come to define fitness as the ability to respond to a situation or the circumstances that make up our life, in a proactive not a reactive manner.
Our practice assists us in being responsive rather than reactive. This response-ability is required for spiritual awakening.
In my mind, mindfulness is the most important gift of a regular yoga practice.
Hatha yoga is meant to assist us in our daily lives, make us more responsive, stronger and more committed to our values. Through our practice we develop the ability to stay in posture.
This endurance can translate into our lives. We are able to hang in just a little longer in difficult situations or when life doesn’t seem to be going our way. We learn how to dig down and find the focus and attention, the strength that is really required.
This tall order of self-realization—what does it feel like? Many of us know from the psychological model the term self-actualization. Maslow wrote about what he termed the “hierarchy of needs”; to be self-actualized means to have all of our needs met: physical, mental and emotional—this engenders happiness.
This psychological model of happiness points to being free of pain or discomfort. In the fitness world the benefit of any exercise program is self-efficacy. One is able to supplant a negative behavior with a positive one, i.e., go to an exercise class rather than a bar.
Is this what self-realization means—to have our needs met, to be happy? Are the words happiness and at peace synonymous? Do you think that self-realization is attainable by you in this lifetime?
Imagine right now one attribute of someone who is self-realized, one word. Someone who is patient, knowing, loving? Perhaps in modern terms, someone like Adyashanti? Let’s suppose that to be self-realized means to be free from fear, from judgment. Fear and judgment make us feel separate, the opposite of yoga or union.
Gratitude is a way to feel the union of yoga.
When feeling gratitude it is not possible to feel separate or fearful. In the 1970’s, a group with whom I was involved hosted Baba Hari Das for a weekend workshop in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Because I was an organizer, I was able to have a private meeting with him.
He now has Mount Madonna Center, but at this time he was new to America. Practicing silence since 1952 he writes on a chalkboard. I was very excited about my session with him. Hari Das had amazing eyes and a pervasive gentleness of spirit.
He sat quietly waiting for my question. I said I was practicing yoga and attempting to meditate. Would he please suggest a mantra from me to use? He wrote on the chalkboard: religion of origin? I replied, “I was raised Catholic.” He wrote: say the Hail Mary!
I was dumbfounded.
Here was my opportunity to receive a real mantra from a Holy person and he told me to say the Hail Mary! I left disappointed. Yet…he was giving me sound advice. Repetition of a sound, word or any positive phrase relaxes, calms and leads to meditative brain waves. It was my little self who objected.
Over time I developed my own mantra—funny enough, I modeled it after the “Our Father”, (chuckle, chuckle).
In my own practice, I recite this prayer or mantra throughout the whole 90-minute class. I can tell when I am present and when my mind wanders. Here is an explanation of it: to me this prayer sums up our human experience and our connection to the Divine.
“O Being of Cosmic Consciousness
Greetings and Honor to You!
Thank you for Giving Me Some of This!
Thank you for assisting me in recognizing that which has heart,
That which nurtures me for the Highest Good of All.
To err is human to forgive is Divine.
Reveal to me the ascending spiral of life so that
I may live in this ever-present moment of peace (love, light, happiness…you fill in the blank.)”
Yoga studios have become the churches of the present day for many of us. In the past—centuries ago—the vestibule of a church had two functions: one was to separate the inside of the church from the outside elements and the other was to act as a buffer before entering the sacred.
Our yoga practice can become the sacred in our lives. We walk into the studio or club yoga room and we leave the mundane behind. We open our attention to our breath, the moment and the process.
Angeles Arrien, Ph.D., in her book, The Four Fold Way, describes the four-fold path to wholeness or health: show up, pay attention, tell the truth and be open to outcomes. In our yoga practice we have this opportunity to show up and transform our little “s” into the experience of the big “S”.
In yoga rooms all over the country, we finish class by putting our palms together at our heart and bowing to say, “Namaste”—I salute the place in you that is God, where we are one.
Laura, a fitness professional, teaches classes in San Francisco and provides lifestyle consultations on nutrition, exercise and relaxation. She has produced the E-Motion® Mind/Body Fitness Video, Relaxation and Yoga Walk downloads. She blogs as FitFoody, which includes “Whispers of the Breath Diva!”
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Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers
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