"Use each experience as a stepping stone." --B.K.S. Iyengar

This post is the second part of the exploration of facing challenges in our practice begun in this post: "Venture from the Known to the Unknown" 

The methodology of yoga abhyasa (constant, sustained effort in practice) is there for transformation.  In my classes with Prashant Iyengar (BKS Iyengar's son, and co-director of the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune, India), reminders to "assess the conditions" became like a mantra, repeated seemingly endlessly, encouraging not just the "doing" aspect of asana or pranayama, but the "reflective" aspect. Not just "doing", but "learning" by asking: "What is happening now?" "What are the conditions of the body today in this practice, in this asana, right now?" Taking perspective with our body is learned first, when we learn to "turn our leg out" in Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) and must assess whether the thigh has also turned out completely in line with the knee and lower leg.  The muscular-skeletal body, the annamaya kosa (outermost sheath/layer), comes first as it is most tangible and we can feel it and sense it.  The mind turns in to assess the present condition of all of the body's limbs, the spine from tailbone to skull, all the attendant parts of the body, skin, flesh, bone. When those are positioned and adjusted, and studied, the practitioner seeks deeper understanding:  "What are the conditions of the breath?" "What are the conditions of the mind?"  In order to make progress, the practitioner learns to objectify his or her self (with the body as the starting place), and its challenges (pain, injuries, difficulties, weaknesses, mental/emotional imbalances etc). We learn to see difficulties not as good or bad, but simply opportunities (our work) in the present under the present circumstances to SEE.  When there is pain and difficulty we watch to see what we are doing that may be contributing to the difficulty, see what new behavior helps, and thereby learn refinement of our actions. 

Studying the breath within the asana gives insight: What are the conditions of breath right now? What are the conditions of the breath while going into the pose, while staying in the pose, while working this action or that action? This is simultaneous action and reflection, or as my teacher, Manouso Manos, has instructed, "Pose and repose." When we are facing difficulty, observing the breath helps the practitioner see where there is holding (shown by tightness, breath not reaching) or reacting (pushing with breath, holding breath). Then we can ask, "is it appropriate tension?", "where should the breath be flowing?", "where some space be opened for breathing amidst the difficulty?"  Observation of the breath also gives insight into what is happening on the mental level including emotional difficulties that arise in practice. 

 On the emotional/intellectual/instinctual level, as our practice moves deeper  (venturing into the unknown) at new levels of intensity (which may be physical, or mental/emotional/intellectual), the practitioner becomes aware of the klesas. Saying out loud: " I can't do this!" comes to mind. Sometimes new physical sensations or efforts stir up a fear reaction (abhinivesah):  "Is it safe to feel that? Will it hurt ME?" Here we have asmita beginning to arise: "is this good for ME?" "This is hard for ME because..."    And asmita coupled with raga (aversion): "This is really not for ME." It is time to re-direct our attention to the breath when we "hear" the consciousness arguing against continuing the practice. Just continuing to breathe normally requires will, courage, presence and discipline.  Breathing evenly with attention transforms intolerable conditions (for who can stay long in any position without breath?) and helps us bear discomfort, intensity, and anxiety by calming the mind.  

Again, B.K.S. Iyengar's wisdom comes to mind: "We can rise above our limitations once we begin to recognize them." Seeing these afflictions is the starting place for transcending them. They hold the potential to be our stepping stones for the cultivation of wisdom. 


The next installment will address yoga's tools for overcoming these afflictions, and more explanation of the kosas (layers) of our selves.