“I mean really, whatever you woke up worrying about this morning, get over it. How important in the greater scheme of things can it possibly be? Make your peace and move on.”
Ken Robinson

The Element

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-06-06

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Wanting to Practice

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Not Practicing

Almost all of the people I’ve taught Yoga one-on-one encountered difficulties when it came to taking up a regular practice. They all had personalized (tailored to their needs and abilities) and short (20 minutes at most) practices. I suggested they try to find a regular time in the day for their practices and that they try to practice a few times a week. Still, it was difficult for them to find a place for the practice in their daily routines.

They all came to Yoga and to me of their own free will. They all invested time, effort and money in coming to private lessons. They all came back for more lessons. When they didn’t practice they ended up with a self-inflicted feeling of guilt. One person even said to me something like “I didn’t do my home work”.

Resistance to Change

People usually take on Yoga when they want to change something. People who come to one-on-one Yoga are usually seeking deeper – inviting substantial change into their lives.

Change starts as a confrontation with unknown elements that are appealing. But like most relationships, initial appeals are replaced with a lesser reality. You come to a Yoga teacher seeking enlightenment, you leave with a practice. A practice may be interesting for a few times – but then it loses some of it’s charm. Now instead of enlightenment you have a boring and repetitive practice. You also have a family and a job and worries … and amidst all this you need to make room for a boring practice.

This is the subtle workings of resistance to change. Change always meets resistance. If you are experiencing resistance – then you are probably in change.

… But You Are Practicing

The resistance to change cannot be removed – it is a natural and inevitable force. The feelings of guilt are redundant and can be resolved.

All of the students that came back for more lessons and who had guilt-trips about not practicing were constantly thinking about Yoga. They wanted to do their practices. Wanting to practice is a practice. Wanting to practice should always be the first “posture” in any practice sequence.

Wanting to practice means there is something inside you, a deep craving, reaching out to your awareness. Recognizing it replaces your attention from guilt & resistance into motivation & practice. It is so much better to move towards something you want then to escape something that weighs you down.

This is true both for beginners and advanced practitioners. If all you can today is want-to-practice, remember to see the wonder in that. It may not get you on the practice mat today, but if you let it it can be a rewarding practice.

Tip: It is OK to just go stand and look at your Yoga mat. It is OK to stand by it for a few minutes. It is OK to just lie down on it for a minute or two.

Posted in Getting Started, Yoga, Yoga & Life | You are welcome to read 1 comment and to add yours

Yoga Sutra – Chapter 2 Sutra 46

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Have you ever watched someone thread a needle using funny and useless facial expressions – as if that would help to get the thread into the small hole? In a way that’s what this sutra is about

sthira sukham asanam
“Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation”

Translation by TKV Desikachar

This sutra is a preamble to sutras which are dedicated to the topic of asana. It is what Patanajali chose to say first and foremost about all asana practices – and on the face of things it seems like a paradox.

  • “Sthira” comes from the root “stha” which can be translated as “fixed place”. “Sthira” can be translated as fixed, stable, changeless.
  • “Sukham” comes from the root “kha” which can be translated as space or ether. “Sukham” can be translated as soft, comfortable, happy.

TKV Desikachar explains:

“It is attention without tension, loosening up without slackness”

Examples in practice may shed some light on the duality of sthira-sukham:

  • For some people raising the arms straight up above the head  is not useful – for an effective practice they may need to bend the elbows and relax the shoulders. The correct position is personal and strikes a balance between active effort in the arms, neck & shoulders (sthira) and softness in the elbows & shoulders (sukham). Stubbornly pushing for straight arms is overdoing (excess sthira)  that compromises other physical aspects. Underperforming by releasing the elbows and shoulders too much (excess sukham) makes the posture much less effective.
  • For some people keeping the legs straight in forward bends severly limits bending in the spine. By slightly bending the knees (sukham)  they can gain access to bending the spine (sthira). Stubbornly keeping the legs straight actually defeates the purpose of forward bends – keeping the  legs straight becomes the focus and effort (wrong sthira) while the spine barely bends and remains largely inactive (wrong sukham).
  • Breathing to your full capacity is another delicate balance. Aspiring to long and steady breaths (sthira) requires delicate attention and adjutsments in breath and asana  (sukham). Over exertion of the breath (excess sthira) quickly breaks it and the flow of practice. Underperformance of the breath reduces the effect and intensity of the asana (excess sukham).
  • A present mind is key to achieving a balance between alertness and relaxation. A mind that wanders off can lead to both slackness (excess sukam – in postures where effort is required) and tension (excess sthira – in postures where forces such as habit or gravity take over). A mind that is anchored in past asana achievements can also lead to both slackness (excess sukham – when past experience indicates an asana is not accessible) and tension (excess sthira – when past experience is attached to successful practices in the past).

How can such a balance be achieved in practice?

Krishnamacharya mentioned two tools: Vinyasa and Pratikriyasana. Vinyasa is about gradually placing the body in a posture – the number and character of the steps required may differ for individual practitioners. Pratikriya-asana are counter postures that are used to counter excess effects of practice and to create smooth flow and transition in asana practice sequences.

Desikachar adds that this sutra is brief because asana practices should be learned directly from a competent teacher. A balanace of sthira-sukham is personal and ever-changing. There are no set rules or recipes for achieving such a balance. It is a pursuit that requires careful observation and attention. It is not so much a result of practice but rather an artful quality that can guide and shape it.

I would end this article with two additional interpretation that have crossed my mind for meditating on sthira-sukham:

  • Well (sukham)  – Being (sthira)
  • Correct (sukham) – Effort (sthira)

I invite you leave a comment sharing your experiences of sthira-sukham in practice.

Posted in Yoga, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Texts | You are welcome to read 1 comment and to add yours

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2010-05-30

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Yoga & Design

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The last chapter of my career was a 2 year period in which I specialized in software product design. When I started it I was convinced that it was the best possible line of work for me at the time. To this day I view it as my favorite. I left not because of the work, but because of people – namely customers.

I view design as an opportunity to go deeper – to revisit the purpose of a product, it’s alignment with the larger purpose of a business, it’s value to customers, who the customers are … many questions that come before screens are actually designed, even before user experience and way before usability is addressed. I believed (and still do believe) that having a clear purpose of where you want to go makes everything that comes after that (design, development, testing, sales, support … literally everything!) smoother, more efficient, more pleasant … better. Without it is too easy to drift off course without even knowing it … sometimes until the business itself fails (you can create a failed product with superb usability). All of this, I am happy to say is aligned with my personal beliefs and pursuits.

The problem was that customers did not share my views. Customers would usually reach design at the end of their development cycles – when there were very little time, resources or motivation to actually do design. There really was’t space for raising the kind of challenges design can bring to the surface – it would mostly introduce insecurity, aggrevation & frustration. So the alternative was a compromise. Sometimes the compromise would work OK – not necessarily in the sense that we would arrive at a good product – but a satisfied and paying customer – I never was at peace calling that “OK”. Sometimes it wouldn’t work and that would lead to friction and divert the project into harsh & unpleasant energies – I hated that but  I was OK with it – because I wasn’t expecting anything else. The odds were that “design” wasn’t going to work out well (with one outstanding exception which deserves a separate post).

I do believe that bridges between different views can be built – but that takes care, time, patience and requires that everyone involved want to pursue that. I also felt that there were some pretty long bridges to build. Design, if given a chance, inevitably introduces creativity and unknowns into any process. Most the organizational cultures I encountered were not mature enough or open to these qualities. This would start with top executives who felt it important that the fact “they don’t like yellow” be incoporated into the design process – through to programmers that would decide that some of the visual details were too much of a hassle to implement. Unfortunately the circumstances of little time, budget or patience in which most of the design projects took place – left little chance for any bridge-building.

Many times I felt that the place to start was to take the leading executive aside for two years of Yoga – and then, when the foundations were in place, to resume design. Customers didn’t want that, it wasn’t part of the contract … but it came to a point where I felt that was the only way to move forward. I felt that people needed Yoga but didn’t want it. Add to that the fact that I like teaching Yoga waaaay more then I like design – and you may be able to see why I chose to leave my career behind.

Recently I had another “business-related” incident – which prompted this collection of thoughts. I was participating in a high-friction business-related conversation (there is no customer this time – it is a project I initiated) – and it reached an  impasse that had a deja-vu feeling from my design days. But this time the other side wanted and insisted on understanding. So we got into a conversation about communicating, the limits of understanding and it’s friction with the need to understand … and finally I tabled my theory and said “But this isn’t about me being your Yoga teacher – you don’t really want that!”. Before I finished saying those words I intuited what the response would be – and it was “Yes I do”. Woah!

This stayed with me for a few days – and I began to wonder … is it possible that people I met in business were actually looking (consciously or unconsciously?) for a more spiritual significant context in their lives that I overlooked? Is it possible that many of the frictions I experienced (and sometimes still do) are actually an expression of unspoken words? It is possible that people need Yoga and (consciously or unconsciously) do want it?

Knowing this doesn’t make building bridges any easier. A “mind & control” dominated business relatioship does not resonate well with a “heart & surrender” teacher-student relationship. Reasoning can lead the way in business, but it takes faith to let a spiritual teacher into your life. I have no doubt that qualities that can be acquired in Yoga can be beneficial in business – but they can’t be acquired using the way things are acquired in business.

Things keep going round and round 🙂

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