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  Being vs. Doing Yoga

      The Journey of Yoga: How the postures lead to a state beyond just being another ass-ana.        


Well known Ashtanga practitioner David Swenson joked around by saying, "Don't make an ass of yourself practicing yoga-ass-ana." This line is somewhat paraphrased but it drives home the point that yoga is not just for the sake of the postures alone, showing off and performing. Paradoxically enough, however, it is from doing the practice and perhaps from learning to be an ass (fall down, get up, impress yourself, impress your neighbour) that we all gradually come to experience a deeper state. 

Inherent in the practice is a unique method of using the breath combined with the body. From one posture to another with a focus on staying 'there' a pocket of stillness of a moment of bliss can be felt. As intangible as these moments are they gradually bridge the state of 'doing' to that of sheer 'being'. One of the complaints about yoga in the West today is about how it namely has been taken up for physcial reasons. Instead of reducing pride, egotism and arrogance it gets increased. Rather than letting go there is pride, conceit and vanity. Given that the West is generally known for being spiritually smaller than the East there is often a lack of practising for a higher purpose. But the entire journey starts from us 'doing', 'tasting' and 'experimenting.' We cannot possibly know the taste of an apple without first sinking our teeth in. 

I think, the bigger dilemma is staying aware of all of this. Everything about the practice is a way to elicit a state of stillness. The breath, the focus points, the length of time a posture is held and the resting posture at the end of class are triggers to make this happen. A good yoga class should contain a clear beginning in which the mind is slowly directed inwardly, a series of postures practiced to help the mind from going out and the resting pose.

In the Yoga Sutras yoga is the mastery of the mind. Sutra II states, "Yoga is the cessation of thoughts". This simple statement contains a great deal of insight but also can create confusion. Can the mind be stilled? Can thoughts be vanished? Is it possible to not think? What does mastery really mean? Do we achieve it by struggling?  Usually we think of mastery as getting something, but it can also mply that one has developed a skill in both getting in and out. The ability to get it and let go of it. But how dow we remain calm in a difficult pose, avoid gripping one's jaw or losing one's breath. I believe these are all the sign posts along the way and not meant to be overruled. In other words, you have to go into it to go through it. 

Mastery is instead an overall process and a never-ending quest rather than a finite by-product. It comes from moving, doing and gradually being. We do not practice to count how many postures we can get done in an hour, but for the quality in learning "how" to watch the breath, the body and our teeth (if they are gripped). Again, I believe it is always more about awareness than anything else. 

Another sutra that speaks to the practice is on the effort put toward it become effortless. Sutra 47 states, "the efforts cease and the quality of the postures arises". And, "Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached." (B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.) The best way to understand this is in accepting that each pose while having an element of struggle also contains a level of relaxation. This, however, is different from pose to pose. The point of relaxation is not the same in the wheel as it is in the bow. If we only struggle and fight to get into the postures there will be no chance to relax, reflect and expand. This is why the end product or result is not stessed. It is more like an elastic band becoming stretched with great skill and care. 

In many ways practice is like learning to ride a bicycle. In the beginning there is great effort, but as one learns to cycle a natural rhythm gets created. As much as practice is about a struggle to maintain good health, it is also not a continous one without relief. Relief and the state of being is the balance in doing and the effort made. In any posture of yoga it is a perfect place to practice 'doing' and 'being' and 'being' and 'doing'. We learn to take both and become one with them. 

That is how the postures lead to a state beyond just being another ass-ana!                

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