The Essence of Physical Yoga Summarized

What are we doing in the physical practice of yoga and what’s it all about?  Though I’ve said what will follow, I have never written about it and I’ve only said it sporadically, it seemed helpful to those who heard it in class yesterday, so here is my take on the essence of the physical practice of yoga.  What we are endeavoring to do is:

1. Get things that aren’t working to work,
2. Get things that are ALWAYS working to be able to pause in their working,
3. Get parts that always work together to not immediately work together, and
4. Get parts that never work together to work together.

Can you see the implications of this for Life in the world?  In one sense, it all hinges on choice: being able to CHOOSE the best action, or inaction, in any given moment.  (As Americans, we apparently crave choice.  Maybe that’s why yoga is so big here, far away from its land of birth.)

At the baseline and something that my yoga teacher trainees will immediately answer when I ask, “What’s yoga all about?” is “Awareness!”  True.  And we use the breath and conscious movement to facilitate and strengthen our awareness, but purely on the physical level, what we are endeavoring to do is those 4 things, at any given time and often in combination.  All that helps build our awareness and, just as importantly, our capacity to BE WITH whatever comes to the awareness (this has been the theme in my classes of late).

Taking each of the 4 parts one by one (and I do not at all mean to imply that it is a sequential process!):

1. We come to the mat, even after years or decades of practice, with parts of our body (and by extension, our mind, energy, emotions, etc.) that aren’t working, or don’t work, or can’t (yet) work.  Certainly there are parts of our body (etc.) that will never work, but let’s let that be another blog.  For our purposes here, there are parts in there that COULD and CAN work but for whatever reason, don’t.  Initially we don’t even know where they are!  The first part of getting awareness is, of course, to realize that.  That part of the process alone can be challenging since the “lost” part exists in our unconscious, and we have to become aware of what we are not aware.  It’s simple but not easy.

Once we have awareness of some non-functional part, the next part of the challenge is to get it to begin to function again, ultimately on-demand.  This step involves a willful effort in a particular direction, bringing energy, life and control to where it had previously been lacking.  If we try to do this effort without tuning into the actual place and seeing what’s happening with it, we may get it to work, but we also don’t know at what cost.  Ideally it will work/become alive because it WANTS to and because from its own experience it knows it FEELS better when it is.  In the process, we may have to face the hidden underlying cause, maybe aspect of our personality, that we unconsciously put in that place.

2. Do you reading this have a part of your body (or mind!) that won’t STOP working?  Some muscle or muscle group, for example, that is continually “on” (=habitually tense)?  Usually we are aware of at least some of the parts that won’t/can’t (yet) relax… for the simple reason that they can easily be uncomfortable at best and painful at worst.  There are, of course, parts that are continually contracted of which we are not (yet) aware, some may be subtle but some may be not but still unconscious. Turning off the constantly functioning parts in theory could be as simple as “just relax!”  In practice, however, the direct route generally won’t work here.

On the mat then, sometimes the physical practice functions to have those parts work harder in order to tire them out so they can (have to!) then relax.  We may also work them in uncommon or unnatural ways, in order to set a new pattern in our being which may allow relaxation.  The conscious breathing and the whole range of poses in a practice also help to “rewire” the hardware to allow the uneasy and tense parts to find some degree of ease and peace.  And simply “stretching,” remember, is not really stretching but releasing unconsciously held tension, which is the essence of #2 here.

3. By (intelligent, I think) design, parts of our bodies function together; these are called synergists.  Parts work together to have the effect be greater than the sum of the parts in some cases and so that individual parts don’t have to work so hard on their own in some cases.  There is no inherent problem with this set-up in the physical body; in fact it’s a really great thing deserving of our gratitude… AND, going back to “awareness,” in general things that work together by design do so without our awareness; it simply happens.

On the mental and emotional level, though, we can easily see some possible negative outcomes of this automatic connection between things.  For example, someone says something unfriendly to you and you get angry or sad or head to the ice cream store.  Or if I don’t get the income I expected, I may get fearful and worried.  If this, then this other thing.  If A, then B.  No choice.  It’s logical, yes, but not helpful for maintaining our peace of mind or the energy and insight we need to move forward powerfully in our life.

Therefore if we want to deepen our awareness and have some degree of choice, we can also explore how things work together and then potentially how to have things that work together deliberately NOT work together for some time for a different effect.  This process is also a willful and deliberate process, in most cases fairly straight-forward, though not necessarily easy, of course.

4. Now we arrive at what may be the hardest aspect of these 4, if we look at the current political arena as a reflection of our collective consciousness! (or lack thereof!)  Things that never work together could very easily include parts from #1, and if we have multiples of those all involved in a particular case, remember being patient, gentle and disciplined can take you a long way.  Parts that don’t work together, generally don’t work together for a reason.  It could be part of the intelligent design of our bodies, as in #3, or it could be what we learned from our life and in-the-body experience.  It could be that there are physical reasons for this situation, and just as easily, there could be emotional or mental reasons.

Whatever is the cause, this part of the process is probably going to be more challenging to our awareness than the others.  In general we will be called upon to be more sensitive and strong and conscious, possibly MUCH more, than our norm.  Imagine if you had to work intimately with a PERSON you didn’t know or didn’t like or trust, and then you have a sense of how challenging this can be in our own body!  But of course, it can, and really, ultimately, MUST be done.  If we think we can’t, our thinking will make it so that we can’t, guaranteed.  If we expect this to happen quickly, no doubt we will get to experience the “joy” of frustration, so we might as well be realistic with ourselves 🙂

Being one of the political seasons, to me it’s obvious that all this has not only personal implications, which I consider as my main area of focus, but also interpersonal and political/societal implications also.  We are not isolated beings; we cannot do this inner work WITHOUT it affecting the “outer” world.  GOOD politics (governing of society), I think, is much the same as all that I have written above.  In fact, if you have time, you could go back and reread all the above through a political/societal lens.  I think that much of it is still true and directly applicable, in some cases with a few minor adjustments to the language or terms (like substitute “society” for “body”).  If you do this, you may also see how if WE as a GROUP of citizens don’t self-reflect, then we get the current political situation, heavy on reactivity, anger, blame and hate and with a painful dearth of self-reflection resulting in  (mostly) low-quality and selfish, ego-centric politicians.

On the personal level, these simple aspects of the physical practice help what IS working to function at its optimal level, and they can and do lead naturally and inevitably to (the numbers correspond to those above) 1. awakening deeper and previously unknown aspects of our Being/Self, 2. releasing the control and hypnotism of our small and apparent self/ego-mind, 3. releasing habitual reactions and thoughts, and 4. helping us to break out of our apparent separateness to connect with the Love that we are and that binds us all together as One.  OK, maybe THAT’S why yoga is so popular 🙂

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