As a yoga teacher I have the opportunity to see the human variety at the physical and mental level, constantly. Some of us are strong, some of us are tall, some of us are healthy, some of us are sick, some of us have a smaller leg than the other, some of us are fat, some of us are weak, some of us are wise, some of us are green, some of us are black, some of us are lucky, some of us work hard; and I’ll tell you this for a fact: some of us are flexible and some of us just are not.
Flexibility seems to be the first concern when it comes to deciding for yoga practice. And understanding why is easy. Being the Western a consumerist capitalist culture, the way yoga is mostly commercialized is always related with pictures of extraordinary Indian yogis doing a pose that looks more like a nut impossible to untie or by photographs with beautiful people doing head and hand stands with a smile in gorgeous leotards that awake sensual images and therefore attract the masses…after all sex keeps being the number one bestseller.
“I don’t think I can practice yoga, I am not flexible at all” is a very common feeling. Therefore the importance to clarify this: Yoga focuses on calming the fluctuations of thought waves in the mind. Somebody many years ago discovered that thoughts are a creative, or destructive, energy and that a peaceful mind is necessary to have a healthy body and the ideal environment to cultivate a strong foundation to walk the path of spirituality. Yes, flexibility is important, we want to be flexible before difficulties, but yoga is not about being flexible. Flexibility is only a tool. Besides, how can you be flexible if you don’t practice flexibility? After all, “practice makes the master”.
As a yoga teacher I’ve also had the opportunity to practice with great yogis, all considered the best by their students and remember this one because we’ll come back to it. I’ve been in rooms so smelly with incense that the breath becomes impossible to me, but some people love it. I’ve been in practices where not one single word it’s said about the theory of yoga and the focus is only into the asana (the body postures) – nothing wrong with it, the practice of yoga is an evolution so once you start the rest will manifest by itself; you’ll notice your mind gets calmer and suddenly deep interest towards the truth arises and isn’t that what spirituality is after all? A search for truth. I’ve been in classes where the teacher language is so full of intention and spiritual poetry that I get lost trying to understand what I am suppose to do at that very moment, but some people find it inspirational and this keeps them motivated to keep practicing even when half of the room leave thinking the teacher is trying to convert them to some kind of Buddhist religion. I’ve been in classes where the style has gone so far away from the roots and classic practice of yoga that makes me feel in lalalala-land and still nothing wrong with it. There is great people doing great things and if you ask me as long as they are happy sharing their experience and they find people who follow them and benefit from the practice they have created it’s a wonderful thing and they are contributing for a better world in peace. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Yoga is a practice of Self Observation, self reflexion, a path to “know thyself”. These are its eight levels of practice:
1. Yama = Not harming others by thought, word, or deed; not lying, not stealing, no sexual misconduct, patience, steadfastness, compassion, honesty, moderate appetite and purity of body, mind and speech.
2. Niyama = Modesty, contentment, giving, faithfulness, sacred text study, congnition, sacred vows, recitation and austerity. Purifying the body, the mind, and the spirit with simple specific techniques, like body cleansing and keeping your space clean, of dust as well as bad company. Self Observation.
3. Asana = Asana means seat, posture. These postures have been designed to accommodate the anatomy of the body, therefore even thought they have a basic alignment for all practitioners they are not meant to look the same since we are all different, have different bodies, different, nutrition, different relationships, different mind patterns, different addictions, different genetic; so our asana practice will look different. Therefore there is no need to make it look like your teachers or the person next to you; Because in the practice of asana it does not matter how we look but how we feel, we don’t try to get anywhere, we find our place within every pose and make it a comfortable place to be so we can practice the real yoga – having a free flowing breath to help us focus on quieting the mind from incessant thinking while cleansing the body from toxins, massaging internal organs, creating blood circulation, activating awareness in sensation in every part of the body so we can reach the real purpose of asana practice: preparing body and mind for stillness…to get us vibrating ready for meditation.
4. Pranayama = Control of breath. The study of the control of breath is deep and goes beyond common understanding, study of it is essential. I can tell you this: Uyai breath is the most common breath used during asana practice because besides helping us focus it creates internal heat that is perfect to achieve more flexibility and make us sweat. Uyai breath is simple. We breath only through the nose and focus on the exhale and its sizzling sound. One inhale corresponds to a movement, one exhale corresponds to a movement. Inhale is energy, intention, oxiganation, life. Exhale is extension, expansion, flexibility, release, surrender, vow and deep exploration of the body. In between we have stillness.
5. Pratyahar = withdrawal of senses. No desire, no aversion. Dettachment from the material world. And material does not only means money.
6. Dharana = Concentration of the mind, fixing the mind on a supreme energy.
7. Dhyana = A deeper level of meditation. Absorption of the self. An uninterrupted focus, a focus with a flow.
8. Samadhi = liberation of the soul. It is the deepest level of concentration, the mastery of the mind. It is the fertile ground for Paña, wisdom. The ideal peaceful state to practice Vipassana.
So, whether you choose Vynasa yoga, Power yoga, Dance yoga, or Rockstar
yoga…remember this: the teacher is within. Listen to yourself, respect your boundaries, make descisions based on how you’re feeling moment by moment not on what your ego wants to achieve, keep an equanimous mind before any challenge you face at the body or mind level and rest assured that if you are breathing freely instead of holding the breath, if you are responding instead of reacting, and if you are smiling with a loving heart, you are not only “practicing” yoga, you are living it. Otherwise you are just exercising…nothing wrong with it.