Friday, October 25, 2013

Balancing Effort and Relaxation in Yoga Asana

In a workshop I attended last year, seasoned yoga teacher Barbara Benagh said about asana practice: “It’s easier to engage than to relax.” This rings true for me—and the students I teach.

The instruction on the practice of yoga asana, “seat” or postures, in the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali advises that there be a balance between “steadiness” or effort (sthira) and relaxation or “ease” (sukha). Finding this balance in yoga—or in whatever situation life brings—is the abiding practice.

But Benagh is right. For many of us, the focus on sthira dominates when practicing yoga asana. It can manifest as an intense kind of effort, discipline, and competitive pushing, tipping the scale in this struggle for balance. While all ease in a posture offers no structure or space to relax into, it’s much easier to engage and employ effort in our practice. To feel like we’re “doing something.”

The fruit of working toward more balance, however, is to experience yoga. When the discipline of sthira allows us to be steady enough in a posture to trust and slide into the ease of sukha, there’s a flow of energy, clarity, and stillness of mind. This unitive state, or “moving into stillness” as Erich Schiffman calls it, is yoga.

Moving Into Relaxed Stillness

One method for navigating this journey into yoga through asana practice is the Koshas, described in the Upanishads. The five Koshas, or “sheaths,” are the layers that surround the Self, much like Russian nesting dolls. 

Here’s how the koshas can work as a practical framework for investigating where and how to create more softness, ease, and stillness in a pose. Consider one or more of these techniques when practicing yoga asana--on or off the mat:
1.     The Way In Starts With The Body

The koshas move from outside in. So, the first layer is the physical or “food” body (annamaya kosha), which is manifest in muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons. This is the primary arena for creating the shapes of yoga poses.

To access this layer in a pose, ask yourself, “Where can I relax?” Scan the body and notice where you’re clenching, forcing, or tightening muscles, or where joints are improperly aligned causing strain. Use simple physical adjustments, props, or conscious intention to release these places of tension and holding (e.g., the neck, shoulders, or belly). For example, something as simple as releasing the jaw or tongue can have a profound effect on relaxing the entire body.

2.       Breathe

Once settled in the outer form of a pose, bring attention to the breath. Are you holding the breath? Is there tightness in the belly? Is restriction in the breath (either inhale or exhale) impacting your level of energy or ability to stay in a pose?

The second layer (pranamaya kosha) is the energy body, the bridge between physical body and mind. This life force, prana, moves throughout the body. Holding the breath or not allowing for a full inhale and exhale can impede the ability to fully relax and enjoy the unique flow of energy contained in each yoga pose.

To access this kosha, release any restrictions on the breath. Coordinate movement with the inhale and exhale to synchronize the body and breath, increasing and moving the flow of energy to create a sense of calm.

3.       Bring Awareness to Thoughts and Reactions

The third layer, manomaya kosha, is our conscious mind, with its automatic habits, impulses, and reactions. The mental body is often where people find themselves. There’s a tendency to get stuck in the mind, space out, or react instinctively or with fear.

Check in with your thoughts and reactions. Are you on automatic pilot in a pose you’ve done hundreds of times? Or are you all in your head, over-thinking or using the force of your will to push competitively into a pose in a mind-over-matter kind of way? Perhaps fear is coming up.

To work with this kosha, balance thought waves and patterns by moving back into the body and breath. Return to the present moment. Bring a sense of “newness” to the asana and move with conscious intention, creating attention and focus to what’s currently happening.

4.       Open to Intuition and Compassion

The vijnanamaya kosha is the part of our personality where we find discrimination, wisdom, and intuition. This more subtle layer into the Self opens when there is enough flow, stillness, and satisfaction in meditation or other yoga asana to access deep wisdom and compassion for self and the larger world. At this point, effort and struggle fall away, and the spirit of the pose starts to emerge. You feel a steady strength and inner power, and the heart opens.
5.       Relax into Stillness

Finally, there is the joy of relaxing in the seat of the Self (anandamaya kosha), or “moving into stillness.” While this layer may seem inaccessible, we’re all likely to have experienced moments of this—both on and off the mat.

Access to this core Self is most likely to occur in mediation—or other focused practice—when there is a convergence with a flow of energy much larger than our own. In some counterintuitive way, this moving toward our own center opens us to a radiant flow of love, connection, and cosmic union.

One final thought for embarking on the journey of yoga from Buddhist monk and religious scholar Sheng-yen:

“Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you.”

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