Paradigms of Practice

Workshops should be according to the needs and capacity of those who attend. They can be themed but the theme is always Yoga. There are different starting points for yogic practice arising from various principles and precepts and depending on the knowledge and experience of the practitioner.

In the story of the blind men who each see the nature of an elephant differently one, having hold of the tail, imagines the elephant as a rope, the second has hold of the tusk and thinks it is a sharp weapon, another has a leg and describes the elephant’s nature as a pillar, yet another has hold of the trunk and thinks it is a hose; the last, touching the body, thinks it is a barrel.

We see our yoga practice according to which part we have hold of and often we struggle to see it as any more than that.

Yoga is a workshop. In it we work on our bodies. We also work in our bodies and because of this we cannot be objective in the way we would be if we were, for example, fixing the car. We rely on a car for getting us around but we can get out of it at any time. The body is a vehicle that we spend all our time in and we can’t get out of it.

Whatever happens to my body happens to me. If it experiences pleasure I enjoy that pleasure and if it experiences pain I suffer that pain. What I know about the world I know through my body and the sensory messages it sends me. What I know about my body I also know through those sensory messages.

But what do I know about myself? My emotions I experience as sensations in my body but also as thoughts in my mind. Who is the experiencer of those feelings and thoughts that are being experienced? How is it possible to discriminate between the experiencer and the experienced?

In a yoga workshop we work on our bodies; we perform asanas and we move our bodies in all different directions stretching our muscles; we practise pranayama, and learn to observe and control the movements of breath. We feel sensations in the body and we react to them, experiencing emotions. We first learn to observe the gross movements of our bodies, then we learn to observe the sensations of our bodies, then we observe our emotional reactions to that experience.

We listen, we observe, we feel, we remember, we discriminate…

…and we refine and reiterate and refine and reiterate..

Back pain is a surprisingly common problem in modern life and most people suffer from some version of it at one time or another. Yoga can be very effective in management of back pain and can even improve symptoms dramatically in certain cases. There are general principles to follow in the practice of yoga for back pain; what to work on, how to work on it, what to avoid, how to work differently according to the type of pain. It can be simplified right down but one size does not fit all and it is much more effective when tailored to individual needs. There are many different types of back pain as there are many different types of body. Whether you are stiff, flexible, strong, weak or any combination of these requires a different approach. You may have stiff hips and a loose back, or a stiff back and flexible shoulders, or a weak lumbar and a stiff dorsal and so on into infinite different combinations and subtleties. Your mental state is also important to consider – where there is pain fear takes over. Persistent and unhelpful patterns of behaviour can be hard to shift.

Yoga practice brings you into a more balanced and harmonious physical and mental state and so regular practice will help you to overcome your back pain anyway. Sometimes you have to be careful in certain asanas to avoid aggravating your condition. You find that some ways of working are beneficial and helpful for you and these need to be learnt thoroughly and practised regularly. With these kinds of modifications many people can manage in a regular class, although those with chronic more painful conditions may need more careful individual attention.

For back pain read shoulder pain, hip pain, neck pain, knee pain – even emotional pain.
Everybody suffers from pain and yoga is an antidote to pain.

Out of the 195 sutras of Patanjali there are only three which deal with the practice of asana. These are 2.46, 2.47 & 2.48

The first of these defines an asana as having the qualities of firmness and ease. The second says that absorption in the infinite comes with the relaxation of effort. The third states that from there on one is no longer subject to duality.

Only three short sutras yet they promise something which is beyond the comprehension of most people. What have they got to do with the asanas we are used to performing and which we think of as being our yoga practice? How can we possibly begin to understand what Patanjali is talking about?

Let’s take, for example, a simple asana like Trikonasana that all yoga practitioners will be familiar with. Normally when performing the pose we think of all the points and techniques we have learned; we think about how the feet have to press against the floor, how the legs have to lift, the turn of the trunk and extension of the arms, etc. There are thousands of subtle points which can be given for all the different parts of the body to improve the alignment and equilibrium of the pose and to direct attention and bring awareness into specific areas.

Where does all this activity lead? Is it only to confusion, frustration and stagnation or is there a process whereby the practice of all these techniques evolves into a deeper, more integrated understanding – and if it does how does this accord with what Patanjali says Yoga is?

I laid out my mat. I stood up, I stretched, I made the shape of asanas. I felt shaky and unsteady, I felt pain, my breath was laboured and irregular and I felt demoralised and frustrated as I realised I could not follow or even understand the teacher’s explanations.

Who has never felt these things it the performance of asanas? Patanjali lists them as obstacles in the way of our progress in yoga but they result from nine others. I mention them first because they are so clearly and immediately understandable to everybody; if you feel these things, or some of these things then you know you have obstacles in your way that have to be overcome.

The first obstacle is our health. If we have poor health then we are severely handicapped; our health affects everything we do. Second is mental dullness, that fog that descends and makes it difficult and even impossible to concentrate. The third is fear, or doubt; nervousness about change, holding back in the face of discomfort or a new sensation. These three obstacles are deeply ingrained and they can’t be removed just like that. We have to work on them gradually within the constraints they put on us. They come from the past.

The next three obstacles are carelessness, laziness and self indulgence. To some extent they can be thought of as correctable as they manifest. If we pay attention we can notice these traits in ourselves in current time and take steps to correct them within the limits of the constraints already imposed by the first three obstacles.

The last three obstacles are delusion, failure to attain and inability to maintain. These are unfolding obstacles and we cannot tackle them directly. Who is aware that he is deluded? If you knew you wouldn’t be. If you are failing to make progress towards a goal a new trajectory cannot be easily found and even if it is available there is so much investment in the already chosen path that change is not easy. Similarly if we are falling back momentum has somehow been lost and has to be regained.

Patanjali also talks about karma, which refers to the law of cause and effect. In one analogy karma is compared to a stock of arrows that lies before the archers feet. They represent his past actions and they are all he has available to shoot – this pile of arrows relates to the first three obstacles, what we have to work with. When he fits them in the bow he has the option in that moment to take careful aim and choose his target well. If however he is careless in his aim, lazy in pulling the bowstring or distracted by other pleasures the arrow is unlikely to follow a true path. Once the arrow is in the air nothing can be done except to wait for it to land and then deal with the consequences – the last three obstacles are like the arrows in the air. Once the arrows land the cycle repeats itself – the archer gathers them up and once again takes aim.

It is useful in the practice of yoga to get to understand the obstacles one has to overcome. The four indicators of unsteadiness, pain, irregular breathing and negative mood show us that they are there. Often we practice as if there are no obstacles – we flex where we are flexible and we hold ourselves stiff where we are stiff. Ignoring our limitations we delude ourselves, failing to progress and allowing deterioration to set in.

Kosas

One way of looking at a human being according to yoga is in terms of kosas – or layers.  These layers are annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya and anandamaya.

These are not layers in the same way as Russian dolls where each one has a physical existence inside another.  Rather they represent a hierarchy of interdependence, coexisting, interacting and affecting each other.

Annamaya kosa,  the layer of food, is the material substance from which the body is made.  It is constructed from food  and it is potentially food for other living organisms.

Pranamaya kosa is the layer of prana, which is the energy that animates the body.  Without it the body is a corpse and has no life.    The energy is obtained from the intake of food and is made available through the process of respiration

Manomaya kosa is the layer of mind, which organises the energy in the body.  At the physiological level the utilisation of energy is to a great extent subsconscious but is nevertheless strongly affected and even controlled through conscious processes.  Energy is also available for activities which are directed by the mind. But the mind layer responds to  physical and emotional stimuli; it reacts to feelings and is influenced by past experiences.  It does not always come up with the most productive or beneficial response to a situation.

Vijnanamaya kosa is the layer of intelligence or wisdom.     Vijnanamaya kosa uses discernment to respond with wisdom. Wisdom being defined as that which serves spiritual goals rather than material gratification.

Anandamaya kosa is the layer of bliss.  It forms the basis for wise action, which should be towards realisation of a blissful state.

In yoga the student works with a body as the raw material for the practice through the direction of energy.   The student’s mind is the director, which responds according to immediate stimulation but also habitually according to established patterns of behaviour.  The student must learn to recognise more intelligent pathways and direct energy into establishing them.

But how is the student to recognise intelligence?  In the beginning the practice of asana works on the musculo-skeletal structure of the body,  then through the musculo-skeletal structure to reach the physiological body.  The student has to be observant to recognise the effects of asana on the body, but also the interaction that takes place between the asana and the mind with all its emotional, instinctive, and habitual reactions.   By recognising these processes the intelligence of the practitioner may be awakened and the ability to discriminate cultivated.    The awakening of intelligence takes the student towards wisdom and ultimately to self realisation.    In reality this is not a strictly linear process but works simultaneously on every level.  It is top down as well as bottom up.