Definitions of āsana Part 6: heyam duḥkhamanāgatam Yoga Sūtra II.16Prevent future suffering
My grandmother had painful bunions on both feet. Though she didn’t complain, her red-hot joints and crooked toes caused her lots of suffering. By the time I was old enough to notice, she was wearing soft, padded shoes exclusively. (You might be familiar with the brand, SAS?) My mom has bunions, too. Her feet ache though they haven’t reached the severe stages that my Grandma’s did. My mom does massages the bottoms of her feet with a soft ball and walks around barefoot a lot. She doesn’t wear heels and she keeps these padded floor mats in the kitchen. She’s managing pretty well.
With this genetic evidence, it’s no surprise that in my teenage years, I started to see my big toes take a turn. When I wore any sort of heeled shoe I’d feel a deep ache at that big toe joint for hours. Lucky for me, I’m six feet tall, not so fashion oriented and I saw how bad bunions could get. By college, I quit wearing any shoe that resulted in achy big toe joints. That helped with the pain, but not the traveling toes. With yoga I started to work with my feet to encourage those toes to point North. I want to prevent future bunion-suffering.
In the context of āsana, there are several ways that this definition applies. There can be things in the very near and direct future we are hoping to prevent and things with a longer trajectory. Practice with sthira and sukha, stability and ease (more on this next post) and you have the opportunity to improve aches and pains in the body. Practice yoga in the morning and the body is more comfortable in the afternoon. Do some gentle movement before bed and then sleep is more restful. Move the body with presence and intention and a confusing decision becomes clear.
Attending to the needs of the body now can help the it to function well over time. Asana can help improve postural and movement patterns for a well -functioning body as we age. Practice balance, you’re balance will improve. Breathe deeply and you will support a full breath over time.
Some of the things that occur in life can’t be prevented or avoided. There are other times when there’s a potential problem ahead of us and we can do something about it now to lessen or even remove what’s ahead. This sūtra sets the stage for our asana practice and encourages us to reflect on what we can do to prevent future suffering.
Definitions of āsana Part 5: Vinyāsa krāmaStart where you are and take appropriate and intelligent steps to reach your goal
Vinyāsa krāma is one of the most valuable ideas that I’ve received from yoga. It has taught me how to think, how to make change, how to move from where I am to a place that I want to be. It applies to just about every aim I have set my sights on. I so appreciate times when my teachers have helped and guided me through these appropriate and intelligent steps. The experiences have been so powerful, but it’s so hard to write about. Like all of the entries in this series, I keep getting caught up. The experience of vinyāsa krama is so much more than can be expressed in a few paragraphs. Like all of yoga, the experience is what really matters and the ideas serve best when they are a description of something you already know in your bones. So here we go again with something imperfect but sincere.
Let’s reflect for a moment… if you want to go from where you are to somewhere different, it’s really helpful to know where you want to go. Once you have an idea of where you want to go, it’s also important to know what your starting place is. With this information, it becomes possible to map out the appropriate and intelligent steps to move you in the right direction. Nothing is skipped and there aren’t extreneous things thrown in along the way. This is vinyāsa krāma.
Vi – special nyāsa– placement krāma – steps
This approach seems obvious when you think about going to the store to buy something you need. You know where you are. You know how much time you have. You think about where the store is and the roads that will get you there. Then you make the effort to transport yourself to the store. You don’t make extra stops because you are aiming for an efficient errand-running outing. You head to the store, get what you need, and you accomplish your goal.
This may also be a familiar process if your yoga practice applies principles of vinyāsa krāma (not all do). Say you go to a yoga class, and the teacher has chosen an āsana goal for you to experience. Your teacher guides you through experiences that warm your body, expand your breath, direct your mind and help prepare you for the posture. Throughout class, you work toward this goal in a focused and directed way and then ta-da! you move into the posture with comfort and get to be with that new experience. Vinyāsa krāma, when skillfully applied, invites the system to unfold, open, and move with stability and ease toward a new experience.
These principles, like all of the things we practice in āsana, apply to life, too. Do you want to learn to play the piano? Build a deck in your back yard? Develop a consistent daily yoga practice? Improve your communication patterns with a loved one? Here are three considerations when applying vinyāsa krāma in your life.
Reflect on the aim or goal. Envision it. Imagine it. It’s good practice to consider your motivations, too. Are they coming from the right place?
Understand your starting place. Where are you now? It’s easy to get caught up in evaluating where we are as good/bad, productive/deficient, likable/unlikable. But that’s not the point. When you make an aim to move toward your goal, it is so helpful to know what skills you have and which ones you need to develop. What needs strengthening? Are there things that you do that get in the way of moving toward your goal. Look at yourself with generous honesty and aim for a fair assessment of you in this moment. This will help you to create the intelligent and appropriate steps.
Develop a roadmap to help you get there. When you apply vinyāsa krāma to an aim or goal, you are choosing to have experiences that will help you move toward your goal. These experiences are steps and you take one and then the next, not skipping anything important, and not adding in anything superfluous. If you are building a deck, you develop a plan before cutting the wood. If you are learning to play the piano, a teacher gives you a simple song before something complex. In this way, we gain experience gradually, progressively, intelligently and appropriately as we move toward our goal.
The thing that I most appreciate about this definition of āsana and the experience of vinyāsa krāma is how respectful it is of my human nature. When I think about it, I sigh and relax a little bit. I drop some of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘have to’s’. I’m not expected or required to be anywhere other than where I am right now. After all, where, who and how I am in this moment is the only way I can begin anything. My path is individual. There isn’t a predetermined route to reach a goal, there is a special route that is appropriate to me and the steps I take along that route are personal. The needed steps depend on how I am functioning, what I need, and what will be helpful in my journey. The times that I’m guided by my teachers who are so steeped in these principles, I’m touched by how the thoughtful, how kind, and how good it feels to move through a process towards something I hadn’t been able to do or experience in quite that way before. It’s like magic. Without pushing or forcing, something opens and unlocks and something becomes possible.
Definitions of āsana, Part 4: Sārva Aṅga Sādhana:Āsana is an all parts practice
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you may find it difficult to describe to your non-yoga going friends what it’s doing for you. They can see that you get a lot out of it but can’t wrap their mind around how, exactly, ‘stretching’ can help you feel more peace around a difficult situation. Or how yoga can help can help you to heal – not just physically but emotionally, too. I’ve been in the yoga-game for over a decade and I talk about yoga for a living, but even so, it’s a great challenge to describe why and how yoga works to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I was at a party a few weeks ago and this very thing came up. A casual friend approached me about his injured back. He wants to feel better, and is curious about what I do, but is a great skeptic when it comes to yoga. I asked some questions and described a little of what I’m writing about here, but when it came down to it, he just doesn’t see the back injury as having anything to do with the stress at work and the chronic movement patterns that strain this area. He isn’t yet at a place where he can see all these parts of his life experience as interrelated. That’s okay. Seed is planted. He’ll know I’m right, eventually. 😉
This definition of āsana is known as sārva aṅga sādhana, literally meaning “all parts practice.” To me, this definition is a way of beginning to understand why yoga can help with so many aspects of our lives. When we practice yoga postures, we call on every part of our system to get involved. You might be wondering, what are all these parts we’re talking about? Yoga has a model to help us reflect on this very question.
The pañca maya model comes from the ancient Vedic text, the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, and describes our human system as having five (pañca) interconnected and interdependent veils or layers (maya):
5 Interconnected facets of our
human system * Pañca Maya
Body * Annamaya
Breath and Prāṇa * Prāṇamaya
Mind * Manomaya
Behavior and Personality * Vijñānamaya
Emotions * Ānandamaya
Āsana invites each aspect of our being to the practice. When we are present in this way and all parts of us are activeley involved, then āsana has the potential to facilitate deep change in our lives. We breathe consciously and with technique [expanding the chest with inhales, drawing the abdomen toward spine with exhales]. The dynamic movements into and out of postures coordinate with the length of the breath. All of this requires a lot of attention and presence. Activity that requires attention and presence also reveals aspects of our personality. Some days, āsana might be a welcome practice, other days, not so much. Why? We have different moods and modes. Āsana lets us become aware of and work with these moods and modes. Linked to all of this is an emotional experience. There’s a feeling that comes with everything we do. Āsana is much more than stretching. It involves all parts of our being. If we stick with it, we can be present to what it is to be a person. Difficulties can begin to digest, old patterns begin to change, and we awaken to something within us that is steady and light.
Even with a beautiful description of this multi-dimensional system and how yoga works on all these levels, our attempts to explaining to our curious friend will fall short. Yoga is experiential. It’s something that you do and that does something to you. It’s something your friend will feel when they are in your presence, even if they can’t put words to how and why it works.
Definitions of āsana, Part 3: Nava śarīra saṁskāra
Yoga is full of paradox. In my teaching
lately, I’ve found myself saying one thing about yoga and at the very moment
that it is coming out of my mouth, what feels like it’s opposite is ringing in
my head, ‘Not so fast, little lady…’
Teaching and practicing yoga require a contemplative mind (‘yes, and’) and
humility (there are so many ways to see truth and to know something). Writing about
these definitions of āsana continues to fall short of how amazing and
transformational the experience can be. I guess that’s because āsana isn’t something
that you can get to the bottom of by reading blogs. It’s an experience that you
fully participate in with your entire being. Only when you’ve spent time doing āsana does reading
and writing about it have purpose. Experience
it again and again over time and then these definitions and theory mean
I’m pretty sure that if you’re on this blog about yoga, it’s not all theory for you. You do it. You know what it has done to you. And the teachings and context provides a description and language for something you already know and feel. That’s why I write about it. Writing brings my interior world to the surface. The attempts to express what goes on down there is an opportunity for retasting. It helps make what’s subtle a little more tangible. So here we go. Definition number three.
Like yoga, life is full of paradoxes. One of those centers around our habits and patterns. We need patterns to communicate, to do our jobs, to feel connected to the people in our lives, and to navigate a challenging and vibrant world. And yet, our patterns can become so impenetrable that we get stuck repeating them over-and-over, even when they get in the way of what we most need or desire. Our communication patterns can leave us having the same argument with a partner year after year. The way our shoulders scrunch up when we’re under stress happens out of deep patterning and we may not be aware of it till we’re having that migraine again. When our patterns are limiting us or even determining our behavior, then āsana and the process of developing a nava śarīra saṁskāra, or “new body pattern” can help.
This third definition of āsana, nava śarīra saṁskāra, invites us to work with body patterns that we hold, repeat, and carry with us all the time. It’s funny because the pañca maya model (more on this next post) describes 5 interconnected layers of our human system from the most gross to the most subtle. These layers are: body, prāṇa/breath, mind, personality, and emotions. Body is the first one on the list, suggesting that it is the most gross. We often begin our yoga work with āsana and the body because we can move it and see it move. Yes this is true that the body is accessible, and some of our body patterns are incredibly subtle. We humans develop our personal postural patterns really early. That postural pattern makes it possible to recognize your friend from behind on a crowded street from 200 feet away even if you haven’t seen them in years. We don’t think about walking. We just walk. We don’t try to tighten or clench when we get scared. But we do. So, working with body patterns is accessible and also very deep work.
In order for āsana to help us operate in a new way, we have to be willing to have new experiences. If we’re set on continuing along the same old lines, then we are going to approach āsana in the same way we do (and have done) everything else. This willingness is the key to letting something new come in. And learning how to welcome new experiences can enrich our approach to āsana practice.
I’ve put together a list below of tips that can help you open to new experiences and get the most out of your āsana practice. You might get a feel from reading the list that inspires or maybe one thing jumps out as something you’d like to try on for a while. Nava śarīra saṁskāra, here we come.
10 Keys for developing new body patterns. Nava śarīra saṁskāra !
Invite change! (the old pattern was getting in the way, remember?)
Be willing to do things in a new way
Have a beginner’s mind. Set aside what you think you know and listen again for the first time.
Feel the sensations in your body as they arise
Stay curious and open
Have patience. New patterns take time to develop.
Suspend judgment. You can’t be good or bad at something when it’s a new experience
Defer decisions about liking or not liking the activity. (Most of us like the feeling of not being amazing at something. And when we are doing something new, we’re not going to be amazing.)
If what you’re doing feels awkward and uncomfortable, you are really doing it! Youare exploring something new!
And the #1 most helpful and important key to developing a new body pattern…become someone’s student! You need a teacher who is a keen observer, an honest guide, and who has done the work deeply and sincerely her/him/themself. Without a teacher, our patterns are very hard to see and even harder to change.
We see here
another meaning of ās, meaning ‘seat’ or ‘comfortable seat.’
śarīra – body
aṅga – limb
vinyāsa – a special arrangement
My girls are closing in on the end of the first quarter of their school year and we all seem to have bumped up against the same wall this week. Hazel announced that she hates school (or at least all the school work). Nora expressed her wall-hitting with a seriously grouchy and argumentative attitude. Dave admitted to feeling a little blue. And when I woke up on Monday morning, I thought, “Here we go again…” I caught myself feeling like Monday was something I had to hold my nose to swallow and that this Monday would be stamped out just like all the Mondays before. I was not excited.
I practiced yoga that morning, and I’m glad I did because something changed. It didn’t happen instantly, but over time, as I breathed and moved in a special way, I began to feel present. Āsana practice reminded me of something really important – this day, which happens to be a Monday, is the moment I’m alive. In āsana, we connect with what is happening – I’m breathing…I have a body that moves and feels…I can only feel this now … So much is happening… So much is possible. Yoga is a practice that helps make the wonder of the moment available again. It helps me remember how I would like to show up for my life. If normal and ordinary feel like going through the motions or ‘getting through the day,’ then practicing āsana in a way that is not ordinary helps me reconnect to what is special about being alive. This kind of practice is vital to having a meaningful life.
This definition of āsana tells us that practice looks different from what is regular and ordinary in other ways, too. If we work at a desk job that is highly analytical, āsana practice might focus on standing postures and have a focus that is more relaxing for the mind. If we cut hair for a living, standing much of the day, talking to clients, and squeezing and working the hands and wrists, then a quiet practice, reclined postures, and gentle hand and wrist movements in the opposite direction could provide a break from the ordinary. Live alone? You may enjoy attending a regular group class where you get to enjoy the company and companionship of others. Climb mountains? Drive a bus? Care for small children? Surf? Swim? Work as a cook? Clean houses? There’s a regular or ordinary set of movements that goes along with each of these activities and we look for what is not ordinary when designing an āsana practice.
There’s more to āsana practice than the primary orientation
of the postures. For many of us practice is not normal because it’s one of the
few times we turn our attention away from what is happening outside of us and direct
the attention to something more quiet and subtle within. Attention to the breath, to the quiet communications
of the body and our emotional experience can be a special aspect of āsana practice
and a special way of being.
The root of the word āsana comes
from the sanskrit root, ās. This can mean, “being or becoming.” If āsana is rooted in being and becoming,
what does that tell us about what we are practicing? How does this context and
this definition give us guidance for our practice? This is a big topic to kick
off our series, but this idea is the container in which all of our other
definitions exist, so it is a good place to begin.
When I think about ‘being,’ it feels simple. An apple can be an apple, but it can’t be an orange. Even those weird apples that were at our grocery store a few years ago that had been injected with an artificial grape flavor were still apples. A rotten apple? Still being apple. Apple juice? Still being apple. Being is basic and essential. The things that were true about my being when I was an infant are true about me now. No matter how we dress it up, how it ails, ages, or changes, we are being until the end.
Becoming is happening at every moment. What we do and the experiences we have inform our next ones. If we are doing the same things over and over again, then we are becoming the person who acts and reacts in the same way we always have. If, instead, we have different experiences, then we are becoming a ‘different person’. We can react and respond to things in a fresh way. This is one of the most hopeful ideas in all of yoga. Becoming is continually happening. That means we can help to create who we are becoming by choosing and participating in experiences that generate the kinds of feelings we want more of.
Āsana is one of the experiences where we can practice being who
and how we want to be. Do we want to be more accepting of our struggles? We can
practice acceptance in āsana. Do we want
to have more peace and calm? We can practice āsana in a peaceful and calm way. When
our teacher recognizes a pattern of tension, straining, or distraction is
present in our practice, they might help us to see that and encourage a better
way of practicing.
Daily āsana practice is an experience that can shape the moments that follow, and repeated regularly, it has the potential to shape the way we live out life. With breath and movement (and sometimes sound and intention) as our tools, āsana invites us to become increasingly present and conscious. This definition reminds us that āsana is doing something to us, and it invites us to experience something of our essential nature. You and I are invited to become who we are.
For a long time, my yoga practice was about mastering certain
postures. I worked really hard to stick
a handstand. I went to vinyasa class and
wanted so badly to be able to defy gravity and float my feet from downdog to
that forward bend at the front of the mat.
Fancy arm balances? Yes, please. Bend
further? No problem. Big, dancer-like transitions between postures that took me
high and then low? Bring it. I worked out. I got better at all of these things
and even had moments of of feeling that particular kind of strength, balance
and presence in my body that I was seeking. I also got increasingly more
sensitive, an enduring shoulder injury, way too much flexibility in important
joints, and the realization that this kind of practice was not sustainable.
Was I doing yoga? Does the ability to hold a handstand for
30 seconds make someone good at yoga? If I look at a yoga postures in a magazine
and try to do the stuff I see, does that count? How we answer these questions
depends on how we define yoga practice and what we think āsana (aaah-sun-uh, the practice of
postures) is for. In the next few posts, we’ll look at several definitions of āsana,
considerations for structuring a practice, and a few of Patañjali’s yoga sūtras
that will give us a sense of what postural practice is all about and what we
can look forward to when practice is well established.
Seventeen years after my first yoga class, how I practce āsana
is really different from those early years. With the guidance of my teacher and
support of peers, my yoga practice is now slow, safe, and satisfying to me in very
deep and essential ways. I practice at home, in the quiet. Breath is way more
interesting that balancing on my hands. In times when I’ve been injured or in
pain, I have ways to stay connected to my practice. And most interestingly, my mind
operates much more attentively and peacefully. I can imagine doing yoga like this for the
rest of my life.
Here’s the sneak peak for the series…
Part 1: Āsana is about being and becoming
Part 2: What we do in āsana is not normal or ordinary
Part 3: For Āsana to help us operate in a new way, we have
to be willing to have new experiences
Part 4: Āsana reaches all parts of our being
Part 5: Vinyāsa krāma: start where you are and take the
necessary steps to reach your goal
Part 6: Prevent future suffering (Yoga Sūtra II.16)
Part 7: Āsana should be stable and comfortable (Yoga
Part 8: Āsana helps us loosen the knots and reduce
resistance (Yoga Sūtra II.47)
Part 9: The result of āsana practice: we will not be
affected by extremes (Yoga Sūtra II.48)
Yoga practice isn’t about rising above or rejecting our
humanness. Instead, yoga can help us learn to accept, heal and develop our
human nature. An amazing guidebook for this process is the Yoga Sūtras, authored
by the ancient sage, Patañjali.
The first chapter of the yoga sūtras dives right into one of
the universal and unavoidable experiences of being a person on this planet… each
of us will have some really hard stuff happen in our lives. At times, we may be
able to move through these difficulties. That doesn’t mean we won’t feel the
feelings, grieve, get angry, suffer or realize something about ourselves in the
process. What it does mean is that we
There are other times when the hard stuff will stop us in
our tracks leaving us heavy in the chest, stuck with a negative outlook, a
shaky body, breathing that is short and shallow and with a mind that is unable
to focus. When we see these symptoms (Yoga sūtra I.31), we need help. Patanjali provides us with
nine ways that we can seek support and balance during these times.
Connect to a belief or faith in a higher
power. Can we sense and be comforted
by the possibility or even the knowing that something bigger than ourself is at
work in our lives? In difficult times, we may not know how things will work out
but if we trust that it will, this faith can help sustain us. Yoga sūtra I.23
Go deep in one principle. Let your attention
and your energy focus on one perspective or method for sorting through the
stuff that’s coming up in your hard time. Yoga sutra I.32
These attitudes will be very helpful in
moving through the hard stuff: friendliness toward those who are happy, compassion
for those who suffer, support for those doing good work in the world, and for
those who are doing bad and upsetting stuff, maintain emotional distance. If
that kind of emotional equanimity isn’t possible, then you may need to
establish physical distance. The
point with this last one is for you to do your best to stay emotionally and
mentally balanced. Yoga sūtra 1.33
Practice breathing with a focus on exhale and
pause after exhaleYoga sūtra I.34
Notice how the senses are operating. Are
they leading you or are you leading them? Yoga sūtra I.35
There is a place inside of you that is full
of light. This place can’t be
darkened by sadness or grief. If you know the feeling of this place and can
connect to it during difficult times, it can be a relief and comfort. Yoga sūtra 1.36
Someone who has come through hard stuff of
her own can be a great support. Yoga sūtra 1.37
Dreams can offer insight into a difficult
situation.Yoga sūtra I.38
Meditate on something that you like and that
is appropriate for your difficult situation. Meditation is best guided by a
teacher who you trust, and who knows you well. Yoga sūtra 1.39
The yoga sūtras acknowledge that there will be times when life
knocks you down. It’s an inevitable part of the human experience. When these situations
arise, it’s tempting to spend energy imagining the ways they could have been
avoided, to feel like it isn’t fair, or to dwell on how much we don’t like what
we are going through. If we stay in that mindset for too long, that is a signal
that we need some help. In realizing this and seeking a new way of working
through a situation we learn about ourselves– about fraility and strength. Of what we can endure and of the forces that are
in waiting to help us to keep going. This list from the yoga sūtras may seem
simple at first glance, but when we need help like we may not have needed before,
the profound nature of these solutions shines.
It has been about a year since my last post and almost three since I’ve blogged regularly. When I brought my blog to a pause, the stuff I was going through in my life seemed too vulnerable and personal to write about. Back then, so much was changing and it felt as exhilarating as it was destabilizing. I guess I needed to let the stuff gestate for a while. I needed time to float in quiet, dark amniotic murk. But I seem to have outgrown the holding place. It just isn’t cushioning me in the same way anymore.
My home life has a different vibe now that my girls are in middle and high school. My personal yoga practice and relationship with my teacher have changed and developed. Marriage is the best it’s ever been and my work life has a nice rhythm. While lots of aspects of my life are steady-eddy, there are other things that are really stirred up. I’m grappling with the messiness of being human, trusting spiritual aims in the midst of life responsibilities, clumsy attempts at becoming more clear and present, and other stuff, too. Writing facilitates something for me. Feelings and ideas get integrated and understood a little differently when I make the effort to translate them into words. Seems like an interesting time to rev up the ol’ blog-engine again.
As I dedicate time to writing, I want to acknowledge that the shift isn’t a purely internal event. There are those of you who have contributed with your patient and subtle offerings of encouragement along the way. Thanks.
This platform is more for enduring messages and not so much for the time-specific offerings. If you’d like to spend more time together and hear about workshops, classes, special offers and invitations to take your practice to a new level, you’ll find those in my monthly emails. I hope you’ll sign up for that by clicking here or on the link in the blog sidebar.
This afternoon, I gathered up the shoes I’d left around the house and as I dropped the flip flops and sandals onto their spot on the closet shelf, I lingered to look longingly at my warm winter boots. Temperatures in Austin, TX are still reaching 86 degrees, but mornings are cooler and there’s a crispness to the evenings. We’re moving out of Summer and I’m yearning for the change to cooler, boot-wearing weather.I feel another kind of shift happening, too. We had too many deaths in our circle of loved ones this season. My grandfather, a friend, a beloved uncle. We miss these dear people. Though I continue to grieve, something is shifting. Like the seasonal change, the initial stages of grief are gradually giving way to the next. And I welcome that shift.I’m glad that time and experience allows for change and that yoga can help with the patience, the digestion and the expression of so much of what goes along with living life and loving people. I’m grateful for the practice but mostly for the many dear students and friends who keep showing up and help me to do the same.