What you value is going to change over time.
Monday, February 16, 2015
I am in Kovalum, India studying with my teacher for two weeks. It is wonderful to be back in India. Like Mysore, Kovalum is “India-light.” But even so, it is still a place that puts us out of our comfort zone. So, it is a good place for me to re-energize my practice. And it is a good place for me to confront habits and patterns both in practice and in life that are not serving me. Every time I study at an intensive with David, he seems to hit on a topic that has been troubling me. So on cue, David jumped right in and discussed samskara.
In terms of our practice, most of us know samskara as patterns or habits that are considered one of the sources of suffering. But David challenged us to expand our definition by thinking of them as more than just habit patterns of thought or dulling of the senses. At its root level, samskara literally means “perfect maker.”
What?!? Something that causes suffering can be perfect? Huh? What am I missing here? Ok, so for those of you that know me, I am a bit type-A. Maybe it is a trait common in ashtangis (humans that are attracted to Ashtanga practice) but I tend to strive for perfection. And sometimes, it’s an all or nothing thing proposition – like “If I can’t be perfect, I am not going to do it at all.” I want to be perfect. If I am not perfect, than I am not complete. But, this energy towards perfection is often misguided. And, as David often reminds me, there is value in the trying, regardless of the outcome.
I mean come on… asana practice is the perfect medium for misdirection of energy. Because really, asana and pranayama are opportunities for us to control the energetic flow of our bodies and our breath. Perfection? Control? I am all over that. So, I just need to guide the prana, the energy, in the correct direction. Easy, right? NOT!
Many times, we create habits and patterns that are not helpful, that are harmful in the long run. So really, the yoga practice is the ability to physicalize the control that is needed to change old patterns, habits and create newer, healthier ones. But it takes so much control and so much focus to let go of the ego and do this in a way that is best. So much control and so much focus, that the all-or-nothing approach is not going to serve me in the long run. In fact, it might just lead to my giving up.
Help! How do I do this? And how do we help our students do this? How do we give all the focus and control that is needed without burning out? What is our guide, especially when our teacher is not around? The short answer is to take it back to the elemental level. David reminds us that we must tune in to the stability of our practices.
Find the panchamahabhutas (five basic elements) in your foundation, your breath, your vinyasa, your mental focus, your gaze and in your mudras and bandhas. This doesn’t mean go back to the basics, although having a “beginner’s mind” is helpful. But rather find the earth in your foundation of each asana. Connect with the air through your breath. Find the fire and water by adding dynamism and fluidity into your vinyasa. Connect with your interior space by activating the bandhas. These elements are what will make the difference in your practice. These elements are what will bring you into the moment.
But, as always, the short answer is not the easy answer. Because just after we talked about the focus and power that is needed to really, truly connect, David reminds us that we must approach this as a lifetime practice. Just remember that if you want to do this practice 5, 10 or 20 years from now, you cannot be too rigid. So find the right intensity for your practice and it will evolve. Pay attention to what you are valuing in the practice and why it is important. Because what you value is going to change over time. Pain, dread, strong aversion to the practice or part of the practice is typical. BUT, too much of any of these is a big red flag.
So how do you balance the intensity required by the practice with limitations of your body, mind and spirit? Where do you push through and where do you back off? These are the hard questions that we tackle each and every day when we get on our mat. And maybe, just maybe, the challenge of finding (or not finding) that balance is what we love about Ashtanga.