Over the past few weeks I’ve been asked a lot of questions that have got me thinking about the fruits of Yoga practice – Why are we doing the Yoga that we are doing?
For me, Yoga practices have been a saving grace. They have not saved me from suffering, however using the tools and techniques of Yoga I am learning how to work with the cards I am being dealt, how to play the game of life with compassion and skillfulness, and how to re-connect (over and over) with my most authentic heart-mind to live and express from this place (instead of what I “think” I “should” be doing).
There was a time when I thought that being a Yogi was going to save me from the sufferings of the world. When it did not I was very disappointed… I stopped practicing actually; feeling like Yoga had failed me. What I came to realize was that I had mistaken perception around what the practices were about and what they can and cannot do. I also realized that I had no way of checking in with how my practices were serving me (or in this case, weren’t serving me)… and this caused a huge disconnect.
Here are a few questions we can ask ourselves to see if the practices we are undertaking are serving us:
1. What is Yoga to me?
According to Nicolai Bachman (Yogi and sanskrit scholar), “Yoga involves learning about ourself and how we interact with other people, then refining our behaviour to reduce pain and suffering.” I also like to think of Yoga as a practice of integration – deepening our inter-connectedness to ourselves and all things in our world (thank you Micheal Stone).
These are the definitions of Yoga that work well for me. We all practice Yoga for different reasons and in different ways. You need to find the description of Yoga that works for you in order to be able to establish if the practices are serving you well or not. Based on your definition of Yoga you can begin to determine if your practices are bringing you into alignment with your Yoga, or away from alignment with your Yoga. There was a time when the practice for me was all about union – union with the entire universe, oneness all the time. However, if I was interrupted while practicing I would get really angry… glaring, snippy, growling angry. One day when I got interrupted I was going to go into a “you should feel guilty about interrupting my practice because” speech when I realized that the entire situation was about as anti-Yoga per my own definition as could be… my lack of openness to what was going on around me during my practice time was keeping me from being one with my world… turns out I was using my practice to escape my world, which was why I would get angry when the world came a knockin’ during practice time.
It was time to re-evaluate my practices: what I was using practice for, and what I wanted from my Yoga practice.
2. Why do I practice Yoga?
I practice Yoga as a way to integrate more fully as an individual (that my inner pieces connect), and into my life (that I can interconnect with others in a positive and growth enabling way) – it helps to keep me grounded, healthy, and clear. It enables me to connect easily and freely to my heart-mind, which allows me to act skillfully. When I notice that my skillfulness is, well, not so skillful, or situations are demanding a level of skill I might not yet possess, then it is time to check in with what I am doing and if what I have chosen to practice is still serving me. Paul Grilley once said that the very practice that once saved your life, if practiced beyond its usefulness, will be the practice that kills you. Sometimes we forget that Yoga is a dynamic process, one that is all about change. As we change, our practices will also need to change.
Last spring I got really into a new style of Yoga practice. How I loved it! It was fun and freeing and completely different from my existing practices. I noticed fairly quickly tho that it wasn’t grounding me at all. I figured this was ok (even if part of why I practice is to stay grounded), I could simply add more grounding practices to balance this out. Then I started to get some discomfort in my shoulder. It must be an old injury I told myself… Until the day that I dislocated a rib and collar-bone. Boo.
Does this mean that the style of Yoga I practiced is bad? Absolutely not. What it means is that style of Yoga is not fruitful for Mona. The reasons I practice (grounding, integration, clarity) were not being strengthened by the practice I had undertaken. Ironically it took me physically “coming apart” to realize what was going on, that I had undertaken a practice that was not serving me – it literally dis-integrated me.
3. What is my intention?
Intention is subtle action (thank you Deepak), and so it is important to ask myself why I have chosen the practices I practice. You might be surprised why you are doing what you do. Interesting story. A few years back I started a mantra japa practice. I had decided to practice Maha Mrityunjaya daily (100+ repetitions) for 40 days, with the intention of practicing longer than that, however 40 days was going to be my minimum. The practice was going great and I was really enjoying immersing myself in this beautiful nourishing mantra. After a few weeks I was talking with a student and it turns out that this student had chosen to undertake the very same practice – even started it on the same day! I learned that this student was planning to do the japa practice for 100 days. Wow i thought to myself, that’s awesome.
The 40 days had come and gone and I was still practicing. I noticed one day that the practice had become more of a struggle… not as fluid, more forced, and less enjoyable. Something changed. I took some time to contemplate what was going on and found a little thought seed: “If my student is doing 100 days, then I should too”. “Should” is not heart-mind talk. “Shoulds” come from the brain-mind. As soon as I realized that my practice had shifted to “keep up” with or “out mantra” my student, I stopped it immediately. I know that for me if my intentions are not positive and whole-hearted, then the fruits will not be positive either and it is time to choose differently.
I see this a lot with asana practices. Over the years I have had many students want to “accomplish a pose” – like headstand or forearm balance. In most cases, great! Yay you for going beyond your current baselines of being. However I have had a handful of students with serious injuries (ex: herniated cervical disks and bulges between cervical vertebrae) wanting to do these poses, which are going to hurt them. Our conversations about intention become really important. Is it worth accomplishing a pose if doing the pose does not allow us to practice non-harming (ie: causes pain or injury or both)? Why that pose? Can we work on a different pose that will not harm us, and yet will give us the same benefits? And ultimately – what’s the big pose deal? Perhaps while the body heals we can focus on meditation, mantra, yamas, niyamas, pranayama…
All this to say that checking in with our practices, connecting with whether what we are choosing to do is serving us (fruitful) or not is an important part of a deepening yoga practice.
Enjoy the rest of summer, and your fruitful practice!
Om Shantih and Prema (universal peace & love),