Yoga and the wisdom of the body

dancers/bailarinas

In Yoga classes it is common to hear “listen to the wisdom of your body” as an instruction. However, for a long time, when I heard those words in class it was unclear how the wisdom of the body was expressed or manifested. Inability to tune into the wisdom of our own bodies can, and often does, result in injury. Moreover, practicing Yoga from a competitive or ego driven mindset tends to override the immanent wisdom of the body forcing our bodies to move in opposition to life preserving and life protecting mechanisms. It is readily apparent that some innate intelligence orchestrates the myriad processes that make it possible for us to move, eat, sleep, heal, etc. The wisdom of the body consists of innumerable actions that move the body toward balance and well-being. In this post I try to illustrate the wisdom of the body in action.

In chapter 4 of Yoga: The spirit and practice of moving into stillness, Erich Schiffmann’s says that, just like the action of stretching and yawning in the morning, Yoga wakes you up by stretching and energizing you. As I thought about this idea, it occurred to me that the stretching that accompanies yawning in the morning is a perfect example of the wisdom of the body in action.

Think about waking up in the morning. Many of us stretch in bed soon after we wake up. When we stretch in bed, our minds are still in a state between asleep and awake, so, most likely, we don’t hear the mind saying “stretch a bit more to the right” or “move the right arm much more to the side.” Actually, in many cases the mind is still in the process of waking up so the stretching happens unconsciously. As we stretch, we activate the flow of blood through our muscles to energize the body. If the intensity of the stretch is too weak, it doesn’t feel like a stretch at all. On the other hand, stretching too hard can result in pulling a muscle. During the morning stretch we move intuitively in the direction or directions that feel right and with the right intensity to energize us and wake us up. In this process we are not concerned with the exact form of the stretch or how it looks from the outside, we just stretch our body until it feels perfect.

The morning stretch is a process that is highly effective. Its effectiveness results from moving slowly and gradually, so the nerve impulses travel back and forth between the muscles and the brain, generating an accurate action-feedback cycle that helps us fine tune the stretch. In other words, the body has enough time to react to the feedback it receives, thereby enabling us to apply the right intensity to the stretch while ensuring the safety of our actions.

In Yoga we try to emulate that “perfect stretch” feeling in every aspect of our Yoga practice. Indeed, numerous Yoga practices aim to remove habits and conditioning so that we can connect with our internal wisdom. Connecting with our internal wisdom helps us to be fully present and to act according to our present moment, needs and circumstances. So, the next time you are practicing Yoga, pay attention to the sensations that emerge and move at a pace that helps you honor the feedback that you receive from your breath, body and mind. By paying attention to the feedback you receive, you can guide your actions so the pace, the intensity, the level of energy and effort are neither too much nor too little, just perfect. This is what listening to the wisdom of the body means. If you wish, you can try to apply these ideas to your practice or to the 5 minute easy Yoga practice.

Namaste.

10 guidelines to start practicing Yoga

Incense sticks drying in the sun/Incienso secandose al sol

People often people ask me how to start practicing Yoga. Here are 10 ideas to keep in mind after you decide to start doing Yoga:

1. Find a Yoga class at a convenient time and location.
It is perfectly fine to try different studios and teachers. Sometimes it may take a couple of classes to find a class that is right for you. If the class is out of the way or at an inconvenient time, it might be difficult to find the time to go to class.

2. Take beginning level classes.
The beginning level classes allow you to build a strong foundation. Many studios offer introductory yoga workshops and classes. This is essential, even if you are in good shape, because the beginning classes give you the opportunity to learn the basic vocabulary of Yoga and to become acquainted with sound guiding principles for your practice.

3. Be patient.
Allow your learning to unfold at its own pace. Sometimes we want to see quick results for our efforts. Bringing this mindset to Yoga may prompt you to go beyond your level of ability. Instead, remember that you have the rest of your life to practice Yoga. Work at a pace that is perfect for you.

4. Do not compete with yourself or with others in the class.
In the U.S., we live in a very competitive and achievement-oriented society. To please our ego, sometimes we try to compete with ourselves or with others in class. This competitiveness can result in injuries as we try to do more than we can. Yoga is about self knowledge, so there is no room for competition. Actually, competing with ourselves, or with others, interferes with our capacity to be fully present in the practice.

5. Enjoy being a beginner
People who have practiced yoga before may assume that they know the pose, which can result in a mechanical practice. Being new to Yoga gives you great advantages: First, you have no preconceived notions about the practice, which makes it easy to be open and pay attention to what is happening. Second, you have not developed bad habits. Moreover, in the book Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, David Coulter argues that the quality of our attention within the body determines if our practice is advanced Yoga or beginning Yoga. Thus, focus your attention on the practice and let the practice grow with your ability to focus.

6. Do not go into pain
Yoga is not about pain. As we said before Yoga is about integrating breath, body and mind. Always pay attention to how you feel before performing a pose, as you move into the pose and after the pose. At the first sign of resistance (mental, physical, respiratory), stop, back off a bit, normalize your breath and observe what is happening. As you become more comfortable in the pose you might be able to explore the source of resistance. Whatever you do, do not go into pain.

7. Breathe continuously.
The breath is the main axis for Yoga practice. Because the breath exists only in the present moment, attention to the breath brings your awareness to the practice. Use the breath as a focusing device by checking that you are breathing through your nose with smooth and even breath throughout the whole practice. This might be more challenging that you expect!

8. Take a break whenever you need to.
It is perfectly fine to stop when we need to stop. Remember that being present includes resting when we need to. A good pose to take a break is child’s pose. Besides, we have the rest of our life to practice Yoga!

9. Be responsible.
Awareness is a key component of Yoga practice. Remember that you are responsible for your actions. So, it is up to you to determine if the activities offered by the teacher are appropriate for you. By doing this, you are preparing for developing your personal practice.

10. Notice the effects.
Throughout the day, notice the effects of your Yoga practice, enjoy how you feel. If you feel better after practicing Yoga, use this feeling as a strong motivation to practice again.

I hpe these ideas are helpful to you as you decide to start practicing Yoga.
Next time, we’ll have an example of a simple 5 minute practice.

Namaste.

Yoga is a practice

Sembrados de arroz en Bali

Thinking about Yoga as a practice, and what that really means, seems like a good starting point to do Yoga.

How is Yoga a practice? At the first level, Yoga is a practice because Yoga is something we do, in other words Yoga is an action or series of actions that we perform. However, performing an action only once or once in a while does not constitute a practice. A practice is something that happens consistently. As we repeat an action or series of actions mindfully and intelligently over time, we, almost inevitably, sharpen the skills involved. As a result, we start developing the necessary knowledge and sensitivity to deepen our understanding of those actions. This is certainly true in Yoga. I feel it is important to emphasize that the practice is not mechanical, if it is mechanical it is not Yoga anymore, because the mind is not involved in the process, in other words, we are not fully present. When we are fully present in the practice, our awareness of the actions of our mind, body and breath moves from the gross toward the subtle. For example, we start noticing the brief pause between inhalation and exhalation, or we start feeling groups of muscles moving instead of feeling only the movement of a limb as a whole. Keep in mind, that at least in my experience, this process is slow and gradual, like most natural processes.

At the second level, Yoga is a practice because it consists of specific practical steps involved in performing its actions. In my opinion, there are three distinct practical steps in Yoga practice:

  • First, we pay full attention to our initial conditions so we can make intelligent decisions to perform the action that is appropriate to our circumstances and needs.
  • Second, we focus our attention on perceiving and processing the continuous feedback we receive from breath, body and mind as we engage in the chosen action.
  • Third, once the action is completed, we observe the results on our breath, body and mind.

These three practical steps operate at the micro level of the practice, for example when we are going to practice child’s pose we first observe the state of body, breath and mind. Then we gradually move into the pose, stopping at the first sign of resistance (physical, mental or related to breathing). According to the feedback we receive, we decide, moment by moment, how long we will stay in the pose. Whenever we are ready, we return to the initial position observing the effects of the pose on breath, body and mind. Following these steps helps us develop awareness of the effects of our actions on body, mind and breath.

These practical steps also operate at the macro level of the practice, so we observe how we feel and then we decide what type of practice(s) to perform, at what level of intensity, and for how long, and then we notice the effect of the practice. This idea is related to the notion that Yoga is a personal activity and thus it should be tailored to our needs. For instance, some days we wake up full of energy and feeling ready to accomplish many tasks. Other days, we might wake up with very little energy. The type of practice we chose for each day should be tailored to how we feel and what we need so that we feel energized, relaxed and balanced after we practice.

At the third level, Yoga is a practice in the sense of a rehearsal. From this perspective, Yoga practice becomes a safe space where we can explore, observe, feel and act as is most appropriate, so that when we find ourselves in a similar situation in our lives we can flow into the most appropriate actions with ease. For instance, some Yoga poses might make us feel terrified. As a result our muscles might tense up, our breath might get short and fast and our minds may fail to think clearly. We can use our breath, inhaling deeply and making our exhalation soft and long, to calm down so we can prepare to practice the pose under appropriate guidance. Perhaps, learning to use the breath to help us calm down can be useful when we find ourselves in a situation that we find terrifying, like speaking in public or going to the dentist. Partly the idea of Yoga practice as a rehearsal comes from Erich Schiffmann, a teacher I admire and find very inspirational. You can see a short video of him talking about The Mat as a practice for Life .

If you already practice Yoga, I hope the idea of Yoga as practice makes sense to you and may help to enrich your way of doing Yoga. And if you are interested in starting to practice, I hope this idea will help you prepare to receive the benefits from doing Yoga. Your comments are welcome.

Namaste

What is Yoga?

Lotus flower/Flor de loto

In recent years, Yoga has become increasingly popular. In addition, people’s definitions, ways of practicing and reasons for doing Yoga vary widely –-which can result in lots of confusion for people unfamiliar with Yoga. In my opinion, the way we understand Yoga changes with our practice and experiences. Here is my attempt to define what I mean when I say Yoga.

Yoga is a system of practices that integrates the breath, the body and the mind so that we can be fully present.

Our minds and bodies are prone to habit formation. Such habits often influence our actions and our ways of being in the world. Although the physical aspect of Yoga practice can be very helpful in developing strength, flexibility and the ability to focus our attention, Yoga practice encompasses more than physical exercises. Indeed, Yoga provides a complete system of practices that address the breath, the body and the mind to help us remove habit and tune into our innermost nature so that we can live consciously.

In other words, Yoga is a personal, ongoing process for self-discovery and self-reliance.

The personal nature of Yoga practice makes it non-competitive. As an ongoing process, our Yoga practice changes over time to reflect our changing circumstances and needs. Thus, it is essential in our practice to be attentive to the feedback we receive from body, breath and mind so we can act intelligently and according to our specific needs. Although this sounds simple enough, it is not an easy process. However, being fully present and living consciously allow us to participate in the profound interconnectedness between all forms of life.

Namaste