I have recently been reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, interested to hear a modern interpretation of yoga philosophy. He asks us to distinguish our life from our life situation. Our life situation describes what has happened in our past, and our speculations about our future. Our life is what is happening now, with this current breath.
Many people have lost, or under-utilise, the ability to fully engage in the moment by moment life experience. The rare moments of connection then seem wondrous, as for instance watching a beautiful sunset or a harvest moon rising above the horizon. Take a moment and recall a standout memory from your past... Does the memory just live in your head, or can you feel yourself starting to embody the experience: muscle relaxation, breath opening up, perhaps lengthening. Any change in mood or mental tone? So we can use held information in the mind to bring us into the now. But be aware, when we brought that memory back, we fully committed to the experience in the present moment, without simultaneously trying to do anything else.
The author goes on to encourage us to be at least as interested in what is going on inside of us as outside by checking in with ourselves regularly, noticing our internal weather and barometer readings, our sense of ease within. We can then adjust our course for the better. This skill is a big part of what we do in our asana practice, and it begins to creep into more and more moments of our day. The theory is, when we move ourselves into better harmony and wellness from within, our life situation also seems to find better balance. We plant the seeds, and some do take root.
Welcoming some new students recently, it seemed timely to bring the theme back to the Yoga Sutras. Sutra 1.2 defines yoga as stilling the fluctuations of the mind, and then moving onto Sutras 1.12-1.14 we consider the qualities of a firmly grounded practice: well attended to, for a long time, without break, in all earnestness. (From Sri Swami Satchidananda translation and commentary). But what is practice? Practice is our efforts toward steadiness of mind (Sutra 1.13). No mention of asana. So how does this feature?
Our asana practice can be one tool to transform unhelpful life patterns into the qualities described above. So the HOW we practice becomes more important than the what. We learn to be fully present and committed to what is happening during this breath, and then the next. The demands of the asana practice help to retain our focus and concentration and can help to rebalance our nervous system so we are in a better place to work at establishing the qualities of a firmly grounded practice.
We can then realise that our yoga practice is embedding this shift in the qualities of our awareness to whatever moment we now find ourselves in. Taking these lessons off the mat and into our daily encounters and routine tasks is where the “firmly grounded” practice really gets challenging! So our yoga classes and shared community can provide a vital boost and encouragement to keep at it, a time to reflect, laugh a little at ourselves, and renew our commitment- one breath at a time!
What role does sound have in our yoga practice? Consider its power: sound waves can trigger massive avalanches, literally moving mountains. Sound is used in medical as well as military applications. It has the power to heal or harm. Think of the joyful act of singing vs. the annoyance stirred by an incessant car alarm. With a slow decay rate, sound waves linger well beyond the point we cease to hear them yet we can continue to feel reverberations within and notice how it affects us.
We routinely bring sound into our yoga practice when we cultivate Ujjayi breath, the slight constriction at the glottis that keeps the air audible. We hear its pace, rhythm, the silence as breath changes direction. As the intensity of our practice changes, we note the impact on the breath. Deploying conscious control over the breath enables us to develop and harness its power, helped by the ability to hear it.
Sound also features in yoga with mantra (repetition of word(s) or sound(s)). It helps us to draw awareness inward and supports a calm mind state as our exhale becomes extended. This week we explore the Aum (Om) vibrational landscape, aware of all three parts of the sound- ah, oo, mm. We allow time for each of these sounds as the lungs empty, cultivating better breath capacity and control. Through repetition, we begin to unshackle our voice. The soundscape vibrates within and around us and we become absorbed in its power.
This week I return to another reflection by Liz Huntley in Elephant Journal. (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/11/words-to-breathe-by-10-poems-to-ignite-your-yoga-practice-liz-huntly/), this time on her chosen poem for movement. I cannot say it better, as she remarks” As long as we are alive, we are in motion. The transition between asanas, the care with which we move in and out of a pose, are as important as the poses themselves. Even within the held space of an asana, we find the dance of the breath; the constant subtleties of tuning that align the body [the self] more harmoniously.”
I love the phrase “held space of an asana”. Just as in conversation, there are subtle and refined skills to effectively hold the space for all parties to be heard. For this to be achieved, we need to be anchored in the present moment, not anticipating a rebuttal, not pre judging words yet unspoken.
And so it is with our yoga practice. We hold the space for ourselves with each breath: we listen, we probe, we feel, we begin to understand. We practice unconditional friendship and compassion toward ourselves so we can then take it into the world.
Ruth teaches yoga in Cheltenham UK, weaving yoga philosophy into the asana practice to help students connect yoga on the mat to their lives off the mat.