Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Off the mat -- What's this Yoga Business About?

**Note: I've begun to work with a subset of my yoga students to explore Yoga beyond the posture practice. The following is the first of a series of discussion-starters that I thought might be useful to post here, as well.**

To begin the “off the mat” series of weekly discussions (and I hope that they become discussions, rather than just my ramblings), I’d planned to jump in directly to ahimsa (not harming), but it occurs to me that it might be more helpful to start a little more deliberately. With that in mind, I’ll punt ahimsa til next week, and use this week to provide some context that might provide a framework for thinking about the different practices we’ll discuss. We can get more elaborate later on.

First, what is there to Yoga besides physical poses? Yoga – poses included – is a set of practices that have been done for millennia. Those practices are intended to help draw together (think of the word “yoke” – it’s from the same root as “yoga”) one horse – the body – to another horse –the mind –that otherwise tend to go their separate ways, leaving us pretty disconnected, distracted, and stressed.

In your practice of yoga, you’ve probably already discovered at least briefly some of what happens when those two horses are brought into alignment and coordination – into yoga. It’s the unexpected feeling of profound peace, mind-quieting, and things working right. How on earth does such a physical practice lead to that experience? I don’t know. Yoga’s pretty devoid of theoretical analysis on questions like that. But the practice of Yoga does work. The poses are an important part of it.

But they’re not the only part.

Much of the teachings of yoga come from a work called the Yoga Sutra, and tradition says it was written by a person named Patanjali. Whether it was written by one person or by several, Patanjali or Davy Crockett, in 300 AD or 300 BC isn’t really very important. Here’s why: what the Yoga Sutra teaches is not that you should believe anything in particular. Yoga is not in the slightest a set of beliefs. Instead, it teaches a path composed of eight aspects that, Patanjali tells us, if followed will enable us to see both the world and our relationship to it more clearly. It is a practice that produces the experiences you may have perceived some of already in your own practice.

So what is the path? The path Patanjali outlines is a series of practices: (1) ethical guidelines for interacting with others, (2) guidelines for self-discipline, (3) postures, (4) breath patterns, (5) withdrawal of the senses (an inward meditation practice), (6) concentration (more of a meditation experience than a practice, but once experienced, it can become a practice, as well), (7) meditative absorption (a second kind of meditation experience that can be practiced), and (8) oneness or Yoga – the experience of union of body and mind and environment.

To my ear, some of those things sound pretty much like common sense. Some of them sound well beyond my experience. I can’t tell you everything about the path of Yoga, as I’ve not explored all of it. But I have practiced some of it, and I’m much the better for it.

If nothing else, I can do something I never could do before: I can touch my toes. For a person who started as inflexible as I did, that seems pretty dang remarkable.

In yoga practice today and Friday, think about (and comment back by email, if you'd like) whether and how your yoga practice has affected your life off the mat. Maybe not at all? Maybe a little?

I look forward to discussing and exploring more of Yoga with you all.


**Discussion for next week: the first of the ethical guidelines for interacting with others (both on and off your mat): ahimsa or “not harming.” How can that (not doing something) be meaningful? It’s a part of the instruction to all medical doctors in their initial medical training: “First, do no harm.” It is a guideline that will make our yoga practice safer on the mat. Off the mat, it’s a way to avoid the actions that tend to drive wedges between our bodies (or our feelings) from minds (or our intellect).