Sunday, June 18, 2006

Alertness and Relaxation

Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation.
--Yoga Sutras, 2:46

So said Patanjali a few thousand years ago.

Why those two characteristics? Shouldn’t asana have the quality of strength? Of flexibility? Of curiosity? Of contemplation?

I’ve been practicing this week trying to keep in mind the qualities of alertness and relaxation. In that practice, they seem to be connected – by their absence, if nothing else. I tend toward striving in my practice. I suspect that it isn’t coincidental that the noun for striving is strife. I frequently feel a kind of strife in various poses – backbending Crescent Lunge, Dolphin, Horse, a few others. When I move into those poses, I’ve come to expect discomfort, weakness, inflexibility. Strife, I suppose. And, of course, strife manifests not only in my mind, but in my body, as well. My toes clench the floor. Sometimes my shoulders rise toward my ears. The crease between my eyebrows deepens. The breath stops or accelerates.

Teachers pick up on those details. They coach, cajole, joke, touch, trying to draw my attention out of the strife. And always, they call for steady breath, in and out through the nose.


What is the difference between a mind that is striving and a mind that is relaxed and alert? One can engage only its own object. The other can engage everything.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Since I completed training, several friends have expressed interest in learning more about yoga.
Sometimes the discussion starts with a bit of yearning: "I wish I were more flexible. Yoga helps with that, right?" Sometimes with a particular question, "I think I can do all of the sun salutation. Is there more?" or "Down Dog hurts my shoulder. Am I doing something wrong?" Usually, though, it's more generalized: "I'd like to be able to relax and be quiet."

The conversations tend to end awkwardly, as I don't teach at a studio to which I could invite them. I try to respond helpfully, but as I talk, I see the light and interest fade as they realize there's no obvious solution.

So here's what I'm thinking: perhaps one evening a week when I'm in town, I'll hold an "open workshop" at my house. I'll be practicing that evening. I'll clear a space in the living room for mats, and anyone who wants to come is welcome to join in. What I haven't figured out exactly is how such an evening would proceed. But I'm inclined to play it by ear and see. Or at least that's what I'm thinking of, right now.

What would you think of such a thing?

bodies bodies everywhere

The Body Worlds 2 exhibit has been open at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for several weeks. My wife, my youngest son, and I finally got around to attending on Saturday.

No blinding flashes of insight. Just the same kind of fascination I had with the cadaver work we did during teacher training, I described several months ago here.

Perhaps one key gain: a deeper appreciation for the fact that consciousness can be embodied, and what is missing when it is not. So far as I can tell, consciousness can exist only embodied, whether my own or a chicken's. (Note: I'm not inclined to test my theory beyond the chicken level at this point. ;-))

That recognition makes me appreciate a little more the very ability to perceive and experience and move and feel.

Something to think about in this evening's practice.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Calm Abiding

In the course of a long practice session, the instructor calls for vrksasana, Tree Pose. It’s one of the really-basic-everyone-does-it-reasonably-well poses. But we don’t do it all that frequently in the vinyasa classes I tend to frequent. Perhaps it’s too static, too calm. Perhaps it’s too “easy.” It consists, basically, of simply standing on one foot, the other foot propped against the standing leg. From there, you can certainly embroider it, if you want, but that’s the gist of the pose.

The instructor calls the pose. I move into it: left foot flat on the floor, ankle strong and centered, knee in full extension, hip as neutral as if standing on both feet, right foot aligned heel-to-toe along my supporting left femur, toes just reaching the top of the left knee capsule. Right, bent knee drawn back, opening the pelvis. Torso and ribs lifted. Arms, yesterday, clasped hands to opposite elbows behind me, putting a little bend in my lower back. Neck long, chin slightly tucked, lengthening the cervical spine just a little bit more. Gaze one-pointed and steady.

I turn my inward attention to my left foot. It is stable, today. Sometimes I tend to balance on the outer edge of the foot in vrkasana, to counter the weight of the bent right leg. Today, though, my hips make the counter-weighting adjustment, my standing foot quiet, stable, strong.

And I find in the quiet, stable, and strong attention of my foot, the power of yoga. Yoga, as I’ve noted before, is union, yoking together. In vrksasana, now, it is the yoking together of my standing foot and all the immensity of the earth beneath it. Not some metaphysical union, though that happens sometimes. Not even a Whitmanesque conceptual union, though that happens at other times. Just the simple union of two, each strong, quiet, and stable, in contact along a plane of connection, each pressing against and supported by the other. Partner yoga, indeed.

Tree pose teaches rootedness.