Monday, April 23, 2007

Off the Mat -- Why Restrain Anything?

(This is drawn from the next in a series of emails I provide my yoga students interested in exploring how yoga works in their lives off the mat.)

After an initial period of getting our balance, most of us are pretty comfortable with the idea that a yoga posture practice affects not only our bodies, but also our minds. We start to perceive, if roughly, the relationship between unfocused and scattered minds and physical inability to hold a challenging balance pose, such as Ardha Chandrasana/Half-Moon or Natarajasana/Dancer’s Pose. Those experiences begin to persuade us that bodies and minds are linked together, and as we settle our minds, we find that our physical balance improves.

That perception, as simple and readily available as it is, can be a starting place for exploring and gaining understanding into other aspects of life, as well. If our bodies and minds are connected in ways that prevent our bodies from working well when our minds are disturbed, is the reverse also true – that our minds can’t work as effectively when our bodies are scattered and disturbed?

A second perception: again, after an initial period of getting accustomed to yoga, most of us get pretty comfortable with the idea that our yoga practices on the mat affect not only our abilities to perform the postures on the mat, but the practice also affects our practices (our lives, for instance) off the mat. The physical strength, flexibility, and stamina developed on the mat enables us, off the mat, to work and play with less stiffness and pain, more strength and vitality. The mind-settling aspects of on-the-mat practice also spill over into life off the mat, and we (many of us, anyway) find that we gain a little more patience and compassion for others, a little more awareness of our own minds and feelings off the mat.

The Yoga Sutra teaches that in addition to the physical yoga postures, there are other practices that enable us to refine and strengthen those mind-body conditions. One branch of those practices comprises forms of self-discipline – “yamas” in Sanskrit. And yoga practitioners are hardly the only ones to have discovered these things. The yamas are basic to many communities: don’t cause harm to others, don’t steal others’ belongings, commit yourself to the truth, avoid grasping/coveting, exercise self-control in personal relationships.

But why doesn’t Yoga just mind its own business and stick to postures, mindfulness, and breathing?

The short answer is that for most people who practice yoga in the US, it does stick to those three things. And, at least in my opinion, it’s pretty valuable even when it focuses on nothing more than that. But those three practices don’t occur in the abstract – each person who practices yoga does so in the context of a particular and unique life.

Just as yoga affects that life, so, too, does the life affect the yoga. For those who are interested in pursuing their yoga experience more deeply, yoga suggests ways to change other aspects of life to move the process along because it opens us up, allows us to perceive our own experience a little more closely, and teaches us how to engage mindfully.

But here’s what can happen to mindfulness and perception and openness. Remember the first time you unrolled your yoga mat after you bought it? It stayed curled up. Once we practice on them for a bit, they flattened out. But then, after that practice, we roll up the mat again, put it in the closet, and only take it out in time for next week’s class. But when we take the mat back out, it’s almost as curled up as it was the first time we unrolled it. So, too, are we, if we only allow mindfulness, openness, and perception to affect us while we’re on the mat. The ethical teachings of yoga encourage us not to roll up the experience of mindfulness, perception, and openness when we roll up our mats.

One of the real dilemmas associated with practicing yoga occurs when one discovers that the mindfulness of yoga practice has opened one’s perceptions to aspects of life that were previously outside our awareness. A still mind allows us to see more clearly the harm we cause to others. We understand more particularly the effect of taking what doesn’t belong to us, in all the ways that we do so. We begin to feel the contraction and limitations that occur when we speak untruthfully. We recognize how our conduct affects those we’re close to. The basic heart/mind opening of yoga, then, has the potential to change the way we live. Similarly, though, the way we live, changes our yoga practice.

As we strip away the actions that we see do harm to others, we find that we are able to explore our own minds more minutely, to perceive our feelings more clearly, to understand the effects of our actions more comprehensively. And that, unexpectedly, affects our experience of on-the-mat yoga, as well. We find greater mind-steadiness, greater sources of mental stamina and energy, finer perceptions of bones and muscles and tendons and nerves, better balance.

In that context, it makes good sense that yoga might have something to say about ethics and self-discipline.

In the next several discussions, we’ll explore aspects of the various behaviors off-the-mat that yoga encourages. I’ll ask your indulgence in this regard: just as you do on the mat, withhold your judgment about whether the particular practice is a good one or a bad one, and consider, instead, whether its something that you could implement more fully than you already do. If it is, then consider trying it out, like you try out Bakasana/Crow Pose. Yes, it seems a bit silly at first, maybe a bit precarious, too. But the penalty for failing is only a short tumble to the floor, and it might be interesting to see what life looks like from the perspective of truthfulness or non-harming, just as it’s interesting to see what the world looks like when you’re balanced on just your hands.