The Door Becomes a Wall
One of the topics we covered was how so often what brings us to the practice becomes an obstruction if we never observe and adapt it. So often, those of us who came to yoga through āsana find we need to layer meaning on top of the practice once we have developed meaningful proprioception and focus in movement. Sometimes this ends up looking like us saying we are doing something “spiritual” while simply practicing āsana, or putting symbolism ontop of postures, getting hyper-focused on alignment and anatomy, mixing the practice with music, food, and drink to maintain interest….etc.
Why do we do this?
Because the practice of yoga is layered, if we do not mature with our own growth, we stagnate. Instead of going more deeply in, we often build outward because the mind needs a chaperone at all times! The material world will always be directing our attention outward. Since our yoga practices exist within this world, if we are not careful, we will develop yoga outwardly instead of inwardly. Then it will not work. Then we will also blame yoga because we are looking outward instead of inward. This is how we get yoga āsana coupled with…everything. This, I believe, is also how yoga āsana creates physical and mental harm. So often we blame the āsana for our physical injuries and disappointments instead of considering why we got injured in the first place.
If we expect yogāsana to do everything – balance the mind, the body, etc etc all at once – we will be let down. The purpose of yoga is to develop the mind. The purpose of yoga is to develop a mind that can see and control all its parts. Yoga is a tool. If we maintain the focus (of our mind) solely on the body, we will inevitably hurt ourselves or leave behind the thesis of the practice by trying to re-incorporate meaning as we wander further from the path.
This is because, as Yoga Sutras declares, the vṛttis (the repetitive patterns of the mind) are built upon what the senses are in contact with. If our yoga practices do not reduce or monitor the engagement of the senses, our mind will reflect our outside world instead of our inside world.
The needs we had when we first started practicing are not the needs we have now if all has gone well. Every moment on the mat (and also in life) – not just every asana or every sequence or every full breath cycle – must be a Yoga – a balance or thoughtful combination of active (ha) and passive (ṭha) energies.
The effect of Yoga is revealed when we are nuanced enough to do this at every moment – both on and off the mat. This would allow us to truly decide our actions based on our real needs. It would encourage us to be delicate and thoughtful with every word and action in the world. It would allow us to admit when we are acting from attachment rather than need. It would encourage us to take responsibility for “our side of the street” and have the resilience and enthusiasm to do so.
The Art of Modification
It takes nuance and practice to know when it is time to modify. A modification is not just a “simpler version” of the posture or breath sequence. No, a modification is a thoughtful and personal adjustment to that which is offered. A season practitioner knows that every offering in class requires modification – and they know to modify in a way that builds them inwardly, not outwardly. Thus, a modification is the confidence in knowing how to make every moment specific for you depending on your overall needs in relation to time, goals, and circumstances. Modifications are opportunities to become and remain completely awake.
The process of accessing freedom through the teachings of Yoga is tricky. It is a mental practice through the body which means there are many rocks over which to stumble. Yoga is tricky because the path to freedom is through and not around. So often though, our minds and bodies become distracted by the decorations of the practice – especially āsana – and we lose our way. Instead of simplifying and clarifying, we add more decoration – in action and through language – to the practice wander further and further away.
I often say to my teacher training students that Yoga philosophy tells you what to do, but assumes you already know how to do it. The second sūtra in Pantanjali’s system assumes you already know what your vṛttis (repetitive behaviors) are. This means that to practice Haṭha yoga according to its intention, you would already have to know if the habits you are engaging in are supportive to your goals or if they are compulsive behaviors that are pulling you away from the goal.
This is why in live group yoga classes, I rarely say “do what your body needs.” The fast and compulsive modern lifestyle encourages us to get so caught up in thought and behavior patterns that make us temporarily feel better, but overall make us feel worse. So, following their requests is counterproductive and only serves to increase the power of the vṛtti. We get further confused here because we are doing “healthy” things that are not working. This creates an overall cognitive dissonance that makes us believe it is Yoga that is not working rather than the way we are practicing it. Overall, these actions pull us away from the process of “citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ” – the cessation of the repetitive thought/behavior patterns.