In the early days of practice it’s enough to just do the asana. Then, when we’ve finally struggled into it, it can take all our effort just to bear the discomfort for the required number of breaths. That is at least how I approached yoga for my first year. Although it was a start, and, ‘if anything’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing badly’, as the saying goes, I was pretty much missing the whole of the yoga method.
Most fundamentally, it’s not the same as a workout. This seems obvious, but we don’t have any context for yoga within our cultural here, it’s a pretty new phenomenon, so it’s completely understandable, then, that we compare and treat it like the closest thing we know, the gym. Instead of requiring this degree of aggression and suffering, however, yoga, is said in the Indian scriptures to be ‘a steady and comfortable position’ (sthiram sukham asanam, ‘Yoga Sutras’ of Patanjali).
It is true, In the beginning, yoga practice can be distinctly uncomfortable, (but, even this should only be to a degree), though in a short time the body should have developed a requisite amount of suppleness to render it possible to pursue these aforementioned qualities throughout the asana.
The idea that the practice might be involved in the seeking of balance when correctly approached, is so different from the way I see most of the students I teach relate to it; like a physical assault course to push and pull themselves through. Hence, it is worth discussing in further depth exactly what the balance of ‘steady and comfortable’ practically entails, and why it’s so uncommon here for us to relate to our physical bodies in this way.
As mentioned, for most students, the primary effort made in their practice is the getting themselves into position. After that, without sounding too unkind, there is generally just a lot of hanging and heavy breathing until it it’s time to get out of it. This is at best; at worst, and especially with men, there is a lot more pushing into the position in an attempt to ‘deepen’ their posture. This is for want of proper instruction. Usually, this relates to the details of entering the posture and ends at this point. Truly, this is unfortunate, as all the actual work in yoga is done within the posture, not in its making.
Contrary to regular instruction, having made the position, the foremost stretch required has been completed. This is actually the departure point to something a whole lot more subtle, that doesn’t involve stretching further out of oneself. Instead, the rest of the effort required is in the thoughtful work of seeking balance within the template created. That’s not to say that physical effort isn’t demanded, simply, that the force is exerted in an attempt at equilibrium, rather than the kind of penance or self-flagellation we are used to embodying, that involves pushing ourselves against some obstacle. Although, quite sad, essentially, to feel some degree of pain.
We are used to this idea passed down in our culture through the waters of our religion here. This sense of ‘original sin’ that needs to be atoned for, is simply not present where yoga originates, and this does make a difference in the varying attitudes towards its practice.
Then, there is the perspectives on progress and completion that our capitalist based society also brings to bear on a practice, again, developed in a very different context. The element of competition is instilled in our very blood; it starts with our early schooling, continuing in the world of work, and spilling over to all strongly influence even our social lives. However, traditional Yoga practice requires a different approach.
Instead of pushing against the first thing that gets in the way of our perceived goals, it is with this discipline, that we have to do something much more intelligent and subtle. Here, we actually withdraw from the first physical stimulus felt, as opposed to entering into immediate battle with it.
Yoga is a holistic endeavour, reconsidering the qualities that Patanjali recommends that we cultivate, we need to work on experiencing the body much more as a whole. Were we to push the first restriction we encounter, this first impulse would end up obscuring a whole range of other sensations that are available, by simply saturating our awareness in this one sensation. There are many different forces created within the body in any given position.
Working with integrity is learning to balance all these forces, which is to create a truly ‘strong and stable position’. On a practical level this entails a different approach to the very way we are used to considering ‘a stretch’.
The kind of movement we are seeking in yoga is better described as an inner stretch, or even, in a way, actually an anti-stretch. This is in contrast to our normal understanding of the idea of stretching which is as a reaching as far away from ourselves as we can. In contrast, yoga-method engages a unique pulling together, you could say, trying to pull against this original stretch, almost a trying to get out of it.
To give a practical example, having taken the feet in a forward bend, instead of pulling ever further forward into the place of first resistance, the hamstrings, the effort in the posture reverses; the skilful student then engages in pulling back, away from the feet. Thus, opposing forces are created, in a balance created, which most importantly utilises the spine as the metaphorical centre-pole of the tent, or the physical one of the body.
This is infinitely useful, as the spine embodies out very life force, whereas, once the hamstrings are lengthened enough for us, to say, bend and touch our toes, it remains an enigma as to why people keep on trying so hard to lengthen them more.
As mentioned, this technique is accomplished by two muscle groups pulling in opposing directions across the body. The action mobilises and elongates muscles, whereas, with the normal idea of stretching, the full onus is on joint rotation, and the lengthening of tendons and ligaments that hold the joint in place. Instead, the joints are actually meant to be kept in place by connective tissue, not over-stretched, loosened, hence actually destabilised and weakened.
This is not to develop a stable and comfortable position. Actually, yoga demands the ability in a student to able to fix and keep a joint in place by developed and precise muscle engagement. These then rotate against the joints, rather than the other way around. This is safe and effective movement, but, If the muscles aren’t capable of supporting the joint, then the supporting fascia, the ligaments and tendons will attempt to perform the same job; in other words, hold the joint in place as well as move at the same time. Rather obviously this is a recipe of disaster and what, in pejorative terms, is meant when it’s said that a student is ‘taking it in, doing it from, or pushing into’ their joints.
This, although it is an important aspect of the practice, is still not the end-game. Now, even these ideas of alignment are starting to be taken as the holy-grail in yoga, something in and of itself of value, whereas the value (which is still, nevertheless quite great) is in as much as one can continue to practice in a healthy body, not distracted by injury.
The real aim of the yoga science is the manipulation of the spine and the energy living therein. This energy is hidden, unmeasurable, quantifiable, and its regulation and engagement is more complex and subtle than the current context of this article.
The point is, that in order to progress to this level, a switch of focus is required from the pervading, which is in the getting from one place (tightness-bad) to another place (flexibility-good), through an hour or more of stretching.
Again, Patanjali’s terms need to be considered more thoroughly in the physical practice, this kind of stability he is hinting at can only be found in balancing conflicting forces through the integrity of the spine. Fortunately, though not widely heard, enough, this idea is finding its way into our current thinking here in the concept termed ‘tensegrity’.
This encompasses the natural and free articulation of muscles (also involving the elongation so definitive of the yoga style) allowing for much greater strength than traditional Western approaches of isolating one muscle, or small group and building them. Inevitably, this ends up creating an inequality that compromises the whole system. Originating in The West with Buckminster Fuller, he describes it as ‘compression in a net of continuous tension’, though I prefer the later description of a ‘floating compression’ coined by Kenneth Snelsdon.
Basically, it’s the reason why we don’t just collapse as a pile of bones on the floor; we are literally held up through the opposing guide ropes of ligaments and tendons on the spine, in turn supported by muscles. It is this principle, we are attempting to relate to more fully through yoga practice, where it is referred to as ‘trishtana’, the triple techniques of breath, bandha and drishti.
This is a way of describing the process of working, and what I have, personally, earlier referenced as the inner, or anti-stretch.
Put in extremely simple terms, as one exhales, squeezing the breath out of the body by use of a deep abdominal-contraction, bandha, a vacuum is created in the lungs which the diaphragm is pulled up towards. As the diaphragm, is itself, located in the very middle of the body, properly engaged, it will function in a subtle way to pull all the muscles of the body along with it inwards to the mid-line, or spine.
If the drishti is maintained, orienting the neck correctly, tensegrity will be naturally established as an essential governing power rising up through the spine and converging on the apex around the back of the throat, or soft-palate. Indeed, this is really subtle, but it does not render it any less powerful, actually more so.
Conversely, again, this is easily overlooked in Western culture, so entrenched, as it is in, firstly, the measurable, and secondly, in the belief that ‘big is better’. Well, it is, but we look to the obvious, presenting, challenges and try to ‘go in hard’ against them. Actually, the huge energy reservoir lies quietly hidden behind the superficiality of what our limbs ‘appear to be doing’, in our ability to considering many forces, and harness them to the lightning-conductor of the spine.
When this careful action is got to grips with, it serves to instigate two particular results from which, as a teacher, we can gauge the degree of its application in the student to some extent at least.
Firstly, there is a spiralling of the limbs inwards towards the spine. Fundamentally, all the muscles are being pulled towards oneself, ‘hugged together’, as one exhales. The limbs are subsequently pulled back into their joints by the fullest action of the muscles against each other (agonist and antagonist in more technical speak), creating an equilibrium, or stale-mate of opposing forces. In this way the joints stay firm, but the muscles allow for safe and reasonable rotation, depending on the students level.
This is a gradual process; working with muscles like this takes time, as opposed, ironically enough, to the quite early ‘seeming’ gains one can achieve by the lengthening of tendons and ligaments. However, the two actions are actually like night and day; the first, correct one, trains and compresses energy back into the middle of the body, to the guiding axis known as the spine, the other, the regular ‘stretching’, disperses our energy outwards achieving, finally, very little other than weakness and mental vacuity.
The other almost observable, thus perhaps teachable, quality precipitated through correct application of this new, or actually, the traditional technique, is the gentle undulation of the spine throughout the course of the breath whilst in the asana.
It feels to me like the easiest entry point into all this, so consequentially I emphasise it greatly in my instruction. I have most likened it to the gentle ebb and flow of the tide. On the inhale, there occurs an expansion of the chest, a slight loosening of the limbs in expansion; it might feel like the back is slightly straightening. With the exhale, there is a contraction of muscles towards the spine as the diaphragm moves up and the spine stretches in flexion.
In this phase it may look as if the back is rounding a little. Interesting to note that length and mobility, the stretch of the spine, is as much involved, if not more, in this spinal flexion, though this rounding, pulling in, as the breadth flows out is what is generally lacking in a students practice.
The instruction to lengthen the spine is normally taken to mean straightening, though if anything, this occurs more in flexion. It has been suggested, this erroneous idea came about due to the entry of a body aesthetic in The West which favours straight lines in form. Poetic as that idea is, my view is that it’s actually due to lack of cultivation of the true yoga method; a deep integrity and relation to our spine, as this is, well, extremely difficult to do.
This is the real ‘jewel’, gift offered through yoga, and it is being completely lost and obscured in the preoccupation with all our stretching. Instead, abandoning the stretch, one might just start to stumble into the territory of the unique and unimaginably potent true science and art of yoga.
For this, we need to constantly mull over what those terms of steady and comfortable actually mean in each moment of our practice.