"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. 

"Venture from the known to the unknown"

"Venture from the known to the unknown."  --B. K. S. Iyengar

Working with challenging āsanas (postures) or difficult aspects or intricacies in our practice brings opportunities to cultivate wisdom, tolerance, and equanimity.  There is a difference between performing practice  for "cosmetic reasons" (outward physical beauty, social recognition or status, or even physical comfort) and practicing with undivided attention to work inward to cultivate physical, emotional, spiritual health and tranquillity.   

Patanjali names five kleśas (afflictions) that disturb the practitioner's equilibrium of consciousness: avidyā (ignorance or lack of wisdom or true knowledge on the intellectual level), asmitā (egoism --conception of individuality, emotional level), rāga (attachment to pleasurable experiences, also emotional), dvesa (aversion to unpleasantness, sorrow, pain, distress, agony, emotional level), and finally, abhiniveśa (instinctual clinging to life, fear of dying). (Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, II.3) 

B.K.S. Iyengar wrote that Patanjali's "Yoga is designed to help us avoid the slips and errors in our judgment which stores up future sorrows, and it builds up our strength, vigor, and courage to deal with the inevitable problems of life." Cultivating discrimination, the yoga practitioner changes their conduct. (Iyengar, Light on Patañjali's Yoga Sutras, p. 135)

 Working with difficulty in our āsana practice inevitably brings up frustrations, sorrows, physical pain, aversion, and fear.  Many of us have had the experience of a challenging asana becoming easier, perhaps joyful and comfortable, and then to want to repeat that experience many times in future practices. It is common to want to avoid difficulty and  seek out the pleasurable ease of the poses that are accessible, the "known". The trouble with this is that we may become stuck in a rut, and instead of transforming, be caught up in wanting to repeat past experiences that may have been working for us at one time but are no longer bringing about transformation on any level. Are we still paying attention in the comfortable asana, still looking for insight, searching into a state of absorption?

B.K.S. Iyengar advised "Change leads to disappointment if it is not sustained.  Transformation is sustained change and it is achieved through practice."  

There will be more on how to recognize and work with these challenges in our practice in the upcoming posts. Thanks for reading!