OK, I confess. I’ve created a sensational title for a simple blog about our January class focus, “Back to Basics.”
“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” was the sensational headline for a recent New York Times article (link below) that tells a simple story. That headline – and the article’s content – generated more media reactions, responses and official statements than any article on any topic I’ve seen in a long while. Perhaps more than “Occupy.”
Lively debate! Impassioned professions! True confessions! All due to a newspaper’s intelligent twisting of heads for their benefit. All due to a newspaper headline writer’s clever choice of wording. All due to that newspaper’s strategy to promote its science writer’s upcoming book release!
If you can get past the hype, or accept that the article is only discussing one aspect of yoga (Asana, or, poses), or focus on the words How and Can, or perhaps, erase the headline from your mind altogether – you might find a simple story conveying one yoga teacher’s honest and humble experience. That’s the story I found. Therefore, I should have quit while I was ahead.
But no. In preparing to write this blog, my goal was to read 20 or so online articles (all found by Google-ing “Yoga Wreck Body”) and numerous Facebook comments related to the original New York Times piece. The pieces span a wide range of discussion: what constitutes “real” yoga; whether yoga should be practiced as exercise; how the NYT article is scientifically incorrect; how the teacher featured in the article is morally wrong; what we can do to practice yoga safely. And so on. Truly moved by people’s passionate and intelligent remarks, I wanted to immerse myself in public opinion, and then form my own.
Instead, the more I read, the less interested I became in others’ opinions.
On the contrary, I found myself delightfully reflective and clear about my original, personal, untainted opinion of yoga. I remembered: the media gains attention by twisting facts, embellishing mediocrity and inspiring controversy; any form of physical activity can lead to serious injury; and the definition of “real” yoga will be relative to each person who experiences it.
So I stopped reading.
Now…getting Back to Basics…
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“Tadaasana, Pranayama, Sankalpa.”
There is a reason I repeat these three words each time we regroup at the top of the mat between Sun Salutations. For me, these three elements – The Pose, The Breath and The Intention – are the basics of yoga. Although mentioned as three unique parts of yoga’s eight-limbed system, in my practice they are inseparable. When I align myself in Mountain Pose (Tadaasana), I firmly embody my intention (Sankalpa). When I breathe deliberately (Pranayama), I exhale obstacles, and inhale my intention with resolve.
When I fuse these three elements together, I fortify my purpose for that session of practice – and that sense of purpose begins to trickle into my life.
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The Pose (Asana)
When teaching the basics, I like to start with the body. In my own practice, focusing on healthy alignment and mechanics have established a practice that will last – I pray – a lifetime. In addition, I find that the body is the primary reason most students come to yoga classes these days. Either their doctor recommended this ancient remedy for modern health conditions; or, they’ve decided they want something different from the usual workout.
January yoga classes are traditionally packed. New Year’s Resolutions and special offers bring row upon row of newbies and long-lost practitioners to studios, gyms and workplace wellness programs. And so I offer a month-long Back to Basics approach that builds throughout the weeks. Tadaasana is the perfect starting point, because the alignment cues in Mountain are foundational for many yoga poses. That same week we flow through and finely tune a basic Sun Salutation; then we break down the mechanics of backward bends.
By the end of week one, beginner students are melting into the comfort of a safe and traditional Asana practice; and more experienced students are rolling their eyes and exhaling loud sighs of frustration! Thanks to past experience, I smile inwardly, speak encouragingly and trudge forward resolutely!
The 2nd week we focus on bends, folds and twists; the 3rd is inversions and counter-poses. At this point, the blissful exclamations begin: “Oh my god, I’ve never felt so safe in that pose!” and “I never realized how much pressure I was putting on my neck/lower back/knees!” and “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.” I include this not to pat myself on the back as a yoga teacher, but to spotlight the effectiveness of patiently committing to healthy alignment and mechanics – and, to give major credit to the teachers who taught me that patience and planted the seeds of a life-long practice.
We finish the month with yogi’s choice, where students request detailed instruction of the poses that frustrate, frighten or baffle them. This is the fun part! Just yesterday, I strapped myself up to demo Chaturanga mechanics and the class cracked up as I slithered like a clumsy lizard into the pose. There’s nothing like the release of a good laugh at the end of four weeks of Asana intensity!
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The Breath (Pranayama)
The 2nd aphorism in the most widely used yoga teacher training text – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – says, “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah: Yoga restrains disturbances of the mind.”
By practicing Asana, warming up the structure, activating the nervous system and stimulating digestion, we essentially get the body out of the way. When the body is at ease, the mind can be at peace. Pranayama practice enhances that peace.
With few exceptions, I complement Asana with the traditional technique of three-part nostril breathing, or Deergha Swaasam. The benefits of this Pranayama style seem infinite. It gives the wandering mind something to focus on. It lays a strong foundation for inner peace. It increases our oxygenation and consequently strengthens the immune system. It prevents energetic burn out and dehydration. It massages our organs and stimulates digestion. And on and on.
Although I’d been training to breathe through the nose since my 1st Kundalini yoga class in 1993, my 2008 “Yoga for Athletes” training and introduction to John Douillard’s brilliant book, “Body, Mind, and Sport” truly sealed the deal on nostril breathing for me. This workshop and book reminded me how a peaceful baby breathes through the nose, its belly softly rising and falling with the filling and emptying of the lower lobes of the lungs. Only when a baby reaches crisis – a congested sinus, a shocking sound, the need for food – does it open its mouth, take chest-height gasps of air, and cry for help. When the crisis is over, the baby intuitively returns to soft nostril belly breathing.
As adults, however, we somehow depart from that natural state of peace! As if in constant danger, we habitually take short breaths, in the upper chest, through the mouth. Our exercise choices reinforce this crisis breathing. No wonder we fall prey to stress, anxiety, distraction and energy depletion! In addition to the benefits I’ve already mentioned, Douillard poignantly points out, “This shallow breathing soon becomes a way of life,” and results in serious health considerations, such as excess fat storage, digestive diseases, compromised lymphatic drainage and neck and shoulder tightness.
In class we pause between Sun Salutations or other Asana practice. I invite students to “allow the body to rest, but keep the breath deliberate.” Returning to Deergha Swaasam regulates the heart rate, breath rate and overall energy. Plus, if the heart is racing, what do you think the mind is doing? Racing.
The ancients did not invent yoga as a cardio workout – in their society, they found a great need to calm the mind, and enjoyed the resulting benefits. Even the Mahabharata – another ancient text that informs yoga practice – highlights a story of finding inner peace for the sake of effective battle.
What is the battlefield in your life? Deliberate breathing practices can help maintain peace, calm and clarity during disturbances – whether they take the form of a pressing deadline, a workplace conflict, a family crisis, a traffic hassle or an internal struggle.
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The Intention (Sankalpa)
Speaking of internal struggle… I don’t want to tell my entire “What brought me to yoga” story right now; it would distract from the Back to Basics monthly focus. I will briefly share: Before I started practicing yoga in 1993, my life included much harm – being harmed and committing harm, in both subtle and more palpable ways. Over nearly 20 years, this ancient practice has given me tools for healing, transformation and growth. Yoga is not a physical practice for me. Its Eight Limbs present a design for living. They guide me to set ethical intentions, then practice physical and mental exercises that will liberate my body and mind, therefore allowing me to be more effective in and of service to the world.
At the beginning of each class, I invite students to notice what’s on their mind – without editing or judgment. To honestly notice what’s there, whether pleasant or unpleasant. We start where we are. I then suggest focusing on one thought that’s strongly calling for their attention – something that’s been tapping them on the shoulder all day, or perhaps much longer. This thought, when shaped into a positive reflection, affirmation or dedication, becomes their intention for class.
A Sankalpa is an intention, resolution and/or commitment that brings purpose to our time on the mat – and can affect our day, our world, our lives.
It is also a practical tool for facing challenges – both physical and mental – during the Asana practice itself. When feeling challenged, I ask myself, “How can I align my reaction with my Sankalpa? Which gives me more peace of mind and fortifies my efforts – facing or stepping back from the challenge?” Because sometimes I need to dive into something daunting; other times I need to accept that it’s not the right time to push my limits.
Having a Sankalpa during yoga class not only forms a habit of self-inquiry and motivation, it also guarantees that my practice is harm-free. It might feel uncomfortable to face or reduce challenge. Yet, discomfort is different from harm. While discomfort can yield constructive learning, harm can result in destructive pain. By having an intention for practice, we become aware of and harness the positive effects of these nuances.
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So, indeed, real yoga doesn’t hurt. There’s just so much more to it than being afraid of potential physical pain, seeking rehabilitation of physical conditions, or plainly, addressing any physical need.
Let’s get real…as my favorite teachers like to point out, there must be a reason we’ve chosen yoga. If we just wanted to “feel the burn,” we have a million other exercise plans to choose from. I’ll take the plunge and say: we choose yoga because we want more than a workout – we want to change. We know it is a transformational practice. Again, even the ancients knew this – there were enough troubles in society that someone invented a practice to cultivate an “easeful body, peaceful mind and useful life.”*
To this end, I like to stick with the basics: keen awareness of body, breath and mind. Setting our intention, aligning a pose and deepening the breath – and bringing all three elements together to fortify our purpose – we not only exercise the body, but we empower our lives.
May all beings discover their own “real” yoga. OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Peace, Peace, Peace.
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The original article that caused an avalanche of opinions:
* Quote from Integral Yoga Founder, Swami Satchidananda
Photos: Top – Larkin P. Goff (by permission); Others – Holly Meyers (the author)