Ways of Seeing: Use these five points to get the best from your yoga
While many people find themselves in yoga class because their doctor advised it as a natural way to lower blood pressure or relieve an aching back, the real purpose of yoga is to achieve the blissful state of awakening known as Samadhi.
The language of yoga is Sanskrit, the sacred language of India. Akin to the place of Latin and Greek in Europe, Sanskrit is an ancient, refined and ritual language. In the branch of yoga that I study, all postures have a Sanskrit name, and seasoned students learn these names and the postures they stand for.
The word pada, in Sanskrit, means foot. So many yoga pose names contain this word. But pada can also mean book, or chapter. The key philosophical text of yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is divided into four pada, or chapters. The first chapter of this book, which all serious yoga students will eventually find themselves grappling with, is called the Samadhi Pada. Samadhi refers to that blissful state, where the yoga practitioner is completely absorbed into the One.
As I study the English translation of this ancient text, I am struck by how relevant it is to my own modern-day practice of yoga. The first chapter of the text instructs us to cultivate both vigor and enthusiasm in our efforts, but also to practice with dispassion, or non-attachment. In order to bring about any change in the body or mind, we will certainly need to apply some force, some action, some effort, or no change will be possible. But of course we must apply this effort judiciously, and temper it with softness, or we could overdo it and end up hurt.
There was a lot of hullaballoo in the yoga world recently, when New York Times science writer William Broad claimed that yoga could cause serious injuries and even strokes! Since there is a great deal of evidence that regular practice of yoga lowers blood pressure, I am pretty sure yoga is more of a stroke preventative. But it is certainly true that you can get hurt doing yoga postures. Here’s my advice for avoiding common pitfalls.
1. Don’t compete. While in India yoga competitions are fairly common, you will have the most success in your yoga practice by checking your competitive nature at the door of the yoga studio. While the silver-haired grandmother on the next mat may not look intimidating, she could well have 20 or 30 years of practice under her belt. So don’t compare yourself to your neighbor or judge yourself harshly. Simply show up, respect your limitations, and do your best.
2. Listen to your gut. My informal survey of people who have hurt themselves while practicing yoga revealed some interesting patterns. Many students reported an intuition that something was amiss right before the injury occurred. Did you know that you actually have a brain in your belly? Yes, it’s true. While not a lump of grey matter like the one in your skull, your enteric brain is a web of neurons that suffuses the viscera. It perceives, thinks, learns, decides, acts, and remembers. Practicing yoga, we can become more sensitive to the belly brain, and open ourselves to new ways of being in the world.
3. Pay attention. If you are learning yoga from a knowledgeable teacher, they’ll be paying attention to you as you enter, hold, and exit each posture. It’s your task, as a student, to pay attention to the instructions your teacher gives you, and perform each posture with concentration and care. Don’t be sloppy. It is better to do less, ask for help, or come out of the pose, than to muscle through and risk injury.
4. Be consistent. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali advise that “Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time.” To the best of your ability, take the long view. Plan on being a beginner for at least 10 years. Relinquish thoughts of achieving anything and be grateful for the body and mind that you have.
5. Enjoy your practice. Don’t grit your teeth; relax your jaw. Broaden your perception to include a much wider area than whatever muscle group might be experiencing sensation. Observe your breath, and allow all the face muscles to soften as you perform each posture.
Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. She lives in East Middlebury with her husband, daughter, father-in-law, and two cats. Feedback for this and other columns warmly welcomed: firstname.lastname@example.org.