The Swinging Scales of Yoga Practice.￼
Many years ago I viewed yoga as a challenge to push my body into versions of itself that were not always beneficial. After so many years of practice I have come to view my asana practice in a much more nourishing way. Sitting with what feels possible at the time rather than moving beyond my limit.
Capacity is an important realization especially as the body ages.
I often despair at how yoga is presented in the West – contextually very different to how it was traditionally taught in India. Yoga studios have become gymnasiums rather than centres for personal reintegration. Pushing the body to its limit is emphasised over the finding spirit. And most people stepping into a group class don’t realise there is a difference.
In traditional India, yoga encompassed wellness on all levels. There was no shortage of moving the body on a daily basis to fulfil all the duties of life – so stepping into difficult yoga asanas was not a stretch (pardon the pun). The body had the capacity to do it. The journey was through the body towards a greater inner depth and understanding. The goal was Meditation.
In modern society, sedentary bodies that sit in desks and cars for much of the day step into class trying to create shapes that were designed for a different culture and time. Unrealistic expectation? Then the journey of trying to achieve a form that may never be attainable gets in the way of moving towards a bigger goal of ‘knowing self’.
I see people begin yoga in their 30’s and 40’s or later with an expectation they might be ‘failing’ if they can’t hold a squat, dancer’s pose or even a headstand. When someone says to me ‘I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible’ my mind wants to explode. Completely missing the point of practice. Yet the Western mind naturally likes to package things into a box – so that we have a context to digest and make sense of information. This is partly how yoga ‘styles’ have evolved.
What is the point of practice?
Most of us will come into the physical practice of yoga expecting change – it might start with being able to bend forward and touch your toes. Change is the only constant in life, so we will certainly receive that. But will it be the change we expect? If you stick at practice over time it will always evolve in different ways and create challenges – mental and physical. But it will only be sustainable if you are willing to accept each new arrival point– without trying to be somewhere else.
Yoga calls this vairagyam – to be open the fruits of practice. Along with it comes the practising itself (abhyasa) – in a sustainable and realistic way for you. Part of this is accepting change in the body, and knowing your limit.
The path isn’t always straightforward and like the metaphor of swinging scales we can go through a myriad of experiences within a single practice. Self awareness is the deeper goal of yoga but in the moment, what we aim to experience at the time is reintegration. Bringing ease into a body and mind that is often grasping is a potent tool. And understanding the nature of this body… what change am I in now? How can I proceed forward in a way that works for me?
Group classes don’t always offer options for different bodies but as practitioners we need to become responsible for our own actions – discernment. Respecting change and the moment. The goal may be a little further away than we desire.
It may be easier to tap into this view of your ‘capacity’ if you understand something about the gunas (qualities of matter). Our human body is matter. Change is a constant part of matter. The three gunas are rajas (activity), sattva (clarity), tamas (heaviness).
Here’s an example. When you eat you may experience tamas as you digest. This can be a lovely, grounding sensation that can make you feel a little dull or relaxed – unless you need to get moving to complete tasks. This requires rajas.
Throughout the day we all constantly move in and out of these guna states – just like all living matter. The goal is to experience the right guna activity at the right time so that you can function well.
Yoga practice can lead to any or all of the guna experiences. Students often comment that they feel heavy or tired at the end of yoga. This can depend on the type of postures the class has offered, the breath work involved. It will also depend on how you have come into practice. If there is underlying mental stress that keeps you moving, being forced to slow down can be an abrupt change for the nervous system.
In yoga class, down regulation of a nervous system that is constantly wired can swing you from the ‘active’ to the ‘heavy’ guna state pretty quickly. Sometimes an overload of mental activity can lead to a crash in the opposite direction. The tipping point. Rajas to tamas. Regulating back to balance/clarity (sattva) is the goal of yoga. This is where the nervous system feels at ease. But it isn’t always achievable and just because it doesn’t happen on a particular day doesn’t mean the experience will be the same the next time.
What prevents this clarity?
Mental stress is one of the things that comes with us into yoga. Like the tip of the iceberg, you may only be conscious of thought sitting above the surface, yet still affected by the vast majority of the iceberg that sits underneath (i.e. the unconscious mind).
Never underestimate all that is going on beneath the surface. Here is where the processing happens – rajas might be at play. The mind can be like the mouse on the wheel, constantly moving and not sure how to stop.
Yoga is an opportunity for the mouse to stop. Engaging in something rhythmic, with focus on the body and breath will do it. We take the Mind to a different focus from the one it has been preoccupied with. The body has to follow. This is where Yoga really is more about the Mind than anything else.
Every day is different. Experiences, preoccupying thoughts, food choices, amount of sleep, our health, tasks we have to complete to serve others or self… The list is real and endless. If you are tired from the demands of life or a busy day prior to coming to yoga, then it will be normal to step into practice with a good dose of tamas already hovering.
‘Pushing through’ is the motto of a busy society that doesn’t value rest or rejuvenation. This is not sustainable. Even in yoga practice.
Changing a view/mindset and seeing things clearly is one of the things yoga practice can helps us with. Inviting sattva to prevail. If we are open to letting go of control.
How can we move to sattva?
During yoga you are always experiencing opposites that can help you realize there are other options outside of a particular belief system or way of ‘doing’. These opposites may be bending forward to backwards, breathing in or out, comfort to discomfort, reaching up then reaching down, breathing through one nostril and then the other… All is real and teaching us to observe from a different vantage point. This can help to shift a stuck mind. What happens on the yoga mat transfers to the outside world. That’s why we keep coming back to class! We navigate life better.
Ideally, Yoga promotes coming as close to sattva (balance, clarity) as possible because it is here we reintegrate the whole body through its various layers. And the Mind sees clearly again. It is the closest state to consciousness that we can experience.
This might manifest as the lovely bubble you arrive in after savasana at the end of practice – sattva. Things seem clear, the body feels light and easeful. We all want to hold onto it but due to the guna conditioning, we cannot.
To progress in yoga on a spiritual path, desire to ‘attain’ needs to be replaced by the desire to ‘be’. This is often an uncomfortable space but one well worth getting used to if you want to learn a little more about your self. And your ability to accept change.
So for me, navigating the guna interaction is about stepping into practice with a knowledge of my starting point – on that day. In body, in breath and in mind. Noticing where the scales sit, watching them swing and tip – and trying to lead them back to balance.
With acceptance that nothing stays the same.