In the last two issues I have been addressing the subject of raising the practice of asanas out of the realm of exercise and into sphere of yoga. So far I have discussed the importance of keeping the purpose of our asana practice in mind in order to move to a more subtle level—from the annamaya kosha to the pranamaya kosha. In this article, I would like to consider making our hatha practice a yoga sadhana by learning a method of staying conscious and listening with awareness. We are all always listening to something, though we may not always be staying conscious and listening with awareness.
During our hatha yoga practice, the “something” that we are listening to will greatly impact the quality and results of our sadhana. If we think of our practice as an exploration into new and unknown terrain, then we can use the signposts to help us get our bearings. The two types of signposts can be divided into those messages coming from external or internal sources, so we will end up at quite different destinations, depending on which messages we chose to “read” and how we orient ourselves toward them.
What is an external orientation?
Consider the following five forms of external orientation:
1. Other people—This type of external orientation comes in the form of trying to copy others. It happens, for example, in classes when students see the person next to them with their legs higher in Salabasana, and they struggle to equal or better them. Or, they may try to make an asana look like the teacher’s pose or the picture in the book.
2. Spacial measurement—An example of this form of external orientation is to see the six inches between your chest and your thigh in Paschimottanaasana and to feel that it is your goal to remove that space.
3. Time—In this form of external orientation, how long to hold an asana and/or how long to rest between asanas is predetermined as a set period of time.
4. Listening outside—Our life is full, right? So, it would help if we could listen to the news or watch Oprah while doing our practice. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do this, but it is good to recognize, that if this is the “signpost” we are going to use to orient us on the journey, we will end up at a destination that reflects our choice. What about music? This may be a more personal issue. I find music somewhat distracting, so I don’t use it in my practice, however, some people say that it helps create an indrawn mood.
5. Thoughts—Since our life is so full, asanas may seem like an efficient time to do some planning for the day or process some emotions that we haven’t dealt with. Or, it is likely that at some point during our practice we will drift away in subconscious reverie, fairly oblivious to the present moment and the unusual position in which we have placed our body. This could be considered an “internal” external orientation, since our thoughts are driving a wedge between our consciousness and the experience in front of us.
Do you find any of these five external orientations affecting your practice? Any one in particular? I find that I am not able to totally eliminate all external awareness. There may be times when they serve our practice in some way. The person next to us may help us to realize that we can gently move further toward our edge than we had realized. Or, setting a length of time to hold an asana can allow the mind to remain quiet, without getting confused by the different inner voices arguing when to come out. Can you think of any other functional uses of being somewhat externally focused? But I believe that it is safe to say, in general, that external orientation feeds into an achievement-oriented, competitive mode of practice. And because our attention is directed outward, it is probably the orientation we have whenever we get hurt.
What is an internal orientation?
In the external orientation, often the communication that is taking place is the mind telling the body what it should do—quite possibly without regard for whether it’s reasonable, advisable, possible, or sane. In the internal orientation, we are aware of all the bodies (koshas) speaking, probably through nonverbal messages and sensations, and our consciousness is listening with care, respect, non-judgment, and wakefulness. It sounds a lot like meditation, no? I have found that the formal seated meditation practice goes a long way to increasing the internal orientation in my hatha yoga practice, and the internal orientation while practicing asanas is an aid in deepening my seated meditation practice.
I have also seen the connection between this awake, listening mode during my hatha practice, and my capacity to be still and listen to others. If my mind can stop barking directions to my body during asanas, then it can stop strategizing, searching for weak points, revolving in repetitive tape loops, or drifting away while “listening” to the person in front of me.
1. On the physical level—Are we listening to signals concerning discomfort? Do we have a sense of what our physiological edge feels like? Can we distinguish between pain and discomfort from our body working in new and unaccustomed ways? Am I practicing ahimsa? How is my breath flowing? What is it telling me?
2. On the pranic level—Is my effort in this asana awakening, invigorating, and building my energy or do I feel that I’m depleting and dissipating my energy? Can I feel the quality and direction of the flow of my prana? Can I use the energy from the earth to support me more? Can I link “my” energy to the energy around me to loosen the illusion that I am encased in this body?
3. On the mental level—Where am I at this moment? Is anybody home? Am I enjoying this? If not, why is that so? What is my motivation for doing this asana? Am I seeking to make the body a good instrument for my ego, or for Spirit? Am I practicing satya by respecting the truth of who I am and where I am? Am I practicing yoga by using the asana as a means of finding out more about myself, or am I sacrificing integrity to reach some external goal?
Bringing the listening spirit into our classes
We can probably plan on the mentality of external orientation periodically popping its head up in our personal practice. It is especially likely to manifest in a group situation, where different energies, personalities, insecurities, and neuroses are drifting to the surface, competing for expression and attention. I believe that as yoga teachers our duty is not just to train our students to approximate the correct form of an asana, but also to guide them toward an internally-oriented listening spirit. This may seem obvious to Integral Yoga teachers, but it can be helpful to remember that this is a skill that needs to be cultivated because internal listening was probably not a part of most people’s upbringing or training. This is more important for helping people to “advance” in their practice than teaching more complicated positions.
To teach in a way that supports an internal focus, some of these points can be useful:
1. Teach with a serviceful attitude—If we want the students’ attention focused on their own internal experience, rather than on how fantastic a teacher we are, then it is necessary for us to be awake to how our own ego’s needs get mixed into our teaching. Maybe we can’t totally avoid the tendency to want to “wow!” our students, but hopefully we can see that it doesn’t overwhelm our main role of guiding them to go deeper within themselves to refine the fundamentals.
2. Minimize the authoritarian style—Rather than “correcting” students, we could say something like, “You may want to experiment with it in this way…” This approach could help our students understand that their own bodies are the true authority. It is important for us to remember, especially those of us who tend to feel it is our responsibility to make sure the student does everything right, that what is “right” according to our perspective may be “wrong” for the student. And, even if it is right, it is a more valuable service to help the student find an inner reference system to assess what they are experiencing, and the skill to custom-design the asana to bring them the optimal benefit. Utilizing this approach, we will be sharing the true essence of yoga with our students . By staying flexible in our instruction and giving people permission to experiment with subtle, intuitive adjustments that only they can discover, we encourage them to take on the responsibility for awakening their inner awareness. This is the best way to “wow!” your students and to kindle the love of yoga in them. I’ll bet you will see them making wonderful progress in their practice.
3. Do not let details overwhelm the silence—We want to give precise information that helps to awaken the student’s awareness, focus, interest, and meditative experience. However, if we bombard them with too many details and an onslaught of anatomical advice, we leave no room for them to experience the asana quietly on their own. Our goal is to lead the class in such a way that the students have a real moment of stillness in the final meditation, and to foster the opportunity for a deep and profound meditation during the process of practicing the asanas. For this to happen, we need to occasionally keep quiet and create periods of silence.
It is not possible to guide people into the internal listening experience that leads to stillness without having had a taste of it ourselves. As our own practice deepens, we will find our own unique ways of conveying the essence of yoga to our students. May we remain aware of how blessed we are to be sharing this journey with each other and with those who come to us to learn.
(from the August, 2001 IYTA Newsletter)