How Yoga Works: Overall Impressions

Something that particularly strikes me about the end of How Yoga Works is the idea that practicing yoga not only influences your life, but that of everyone around you. As we journey through the book, we see the Captain’s yoga practice move from physical, to mental, to spiritual and communal. By the end of the story, he has taken steps to help the people around him, and has the opportunity to go and teach yoga in the King’s palace, thereby spreading the healing influence of yoga to the whole kingdom. Miss Friday tells him in their last lesson, “And then later we made this thought bigger; we imagined helping countless people, in countless worlds, all at the same time: we made the thought infinite. And we talked about having the thought even as you practice the yoga poses–for it is the very goal of the poses.” (405) Miss Friday was able to transform a distressing situation (being arrested) into one that blessed everyone she came in contact with, because she shared yoga with them out of kindness and love.

I’ve never thought of how practicing yoga could be just as communally beneficial as it is individually beneficial. So much of it requires introspection and focus on my own body and mind. But through reading this book and practicing yoga this semester, I can see how reforming myself and the way I think an act is not an isolated action. No man is an island. We come into contact with so many people in our lives, people that we can either help or hurt. The more we know and understand ourselves, and especially of who God is in us, the better we can understand how to help the people around us for the better. Even if it is something small like a smile, like taking joy in the ordinary beauty of life and embracing the way God made us, has the power to do tremendous good.

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Up Dog, Down Dog

Something I’ve been trying to focus on this past week, both in class and at home, is downward facing dog. The first time I ever did this pose, my yoga instructor told me it was supposed to be relaxing. But as pushed myself into the pose I thought it was anything BUT relaxing. My arms, shoulders, and wrists were in agony, my legs were shaking, and at any second I was sure that I would collapse face first to the floor. And to my dread, this “relaxing” pose was interspersed throughout the practice.

As I practice the pose this semester, I’ve been focusing more on doing the pose correctly, and it has made a huge difference in my perspective. The more I work on the proper technique, the more relaxing the pose becomes. I actually look forward to down dog now, because I know it will give my shoulders, back, and legs a good, refreshing stretch. I still have many millimeters to go before my heels touch the floor, but the I plant the seeds of down dog in my body, the more I enjoy it.

To make the “up dog” part of the title make sense, this past Thursday I particularly enjoyed the combination of up dog and down dog. Doing these poses one after another brings a fluidity, and a harmony to the poses that is a great combination of challenging and rejuvenating. It made the poses seem like two halves of a whole, and left me feeling balanced and energized.

Kleshas and How Yoga Works

The sutra that particularly stuck out to me today was 2.5: “Ignorance is the notion that takes the self, which is joyful, pure, and eternal, to be the nonself, which is painful, unclean, and temporary.” This sutra came to mind as I was reading chapter 34 “Worldview” in How Yoga Works. Miss Friday talks to the Captain about how people, cultures, and civilizations take things that can be very harmful, like alcohol, and by repeating them and passing them down begin to accept them as good simply because others before them said so. As a result, people take things that are painful, unclean, and temporary to be the true nature of the world, or themselves, which is ignorance.

Miss Friday explains: “Most of our viewpoints about harming other beings are not something that we in any way came up with on our own. Almost everything we do, and almost everything we believe in, we do or believe in for one reason, and for one reason only: it is what our parents taught us; it is what we learned from an older brother or sister; it is what teachers in school said when we were very small; it is–it is what everyone else does. It is what everyone else believes. AND THEY ARE ONLY DOING OR BELIEVING IN IT BECAUSE SOMEONE ELSE DID BEFORE THEM, and for no better reason.” (225)

This happens so often in our world, and especially in my life. It is so easy to take what is culturally traditional; like sex or alcohol abuse or obsession with success, and believe that it is what is normal and natural, when in reality the cultural “norms” are destructive to the true sense of self, and rob us of the joy and purity of who we are truly meant to be.

At first, there seemed to be a tension to me between the Christian worldview and this sutra. In Christianity, doctrines like original sin seem to point towards the self being painful, unclean, and temporary. However, the way God originally created human beings was to be joyful, pure, and eternal; to live in relationship with Him. And although sin crept in and corrupted human beings, although we battle the nonself daily, as Christians we still strive to return to that original sense of self; a renewed relationship with God. It reminds me of Paul talking about taking off the “old self” (the nonself) and putting on the “new self” (the self), which is found in Christ. The ignorance that our true self is painful, unclean, and temporary can then be a hindrance to accepting grace: if we believe that our essential self is unclean and temporary it is difficult to believe that God can redeem us from it.

Much Needed Rejuvenation

Today’s practice of rejuvenating poses was an absolute God-send. Over the past few weeks my mind has been getting more and more frazzled as I try to wade my way through my crowded schedule and my own expectations of success. Earlier in the day I had a little breakdown. I felt like I was at the end of my rope; and I was mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. In all honesty, I was not looking forward to practicing yoga today.

The rejuvenating poses proved to be exactly what I needed. I was able rest not only my body, but also my mind. Focusing on my breathing helped me slow down and take a much needed break from the craziness going on in the rest of my life. I’ve been carrying around a lot of my stress in my body, particularly my neck, shoulders, and back, so being able to relax and rejuvenate those areas was wonderful. Even though yoga is not a solution to the specific stresses going on in my life, I was able to walk out of class today with a sense of calm, peace, and rejuvenation that made it easier to face the rest of the day. I will absolutely use these poses at home to remind myself to take a deep breath and refocus on what is really important in life.

Stupid Human Tricks

Throughout last week’s practice, I began to notice how weird my body is.

I can wiggle my right pinkie toe independently of the rest of my digits, but it is so strong that it prevents the rest of my toes from being like leaves. However, my left toes spread beautifully.

My ankles and knees both collapse inward.

My hips are very inflexible and have a hard time rotating, and if I stretch them too far they cramp up and I fall out of the pose. (so if I ever fall over during a Warrior pose without warning, you have all been warned.)

Despite my inflexible hips, my elbows and shoulders seem to be over flexible. I can rotate my hand 360 degrees while my palm is flat on a tabletop.

I carry most of my stress in between my shoulder blades and in my trapeziums (the muscles attached to my neck and collar bone).

As of right now, I am working on accepting these bodily oddities not as shameful failures and imperfections, but as challenges and distinguishing characteristics of who I am. I inherited my strong right pinkie toe from my mom. Despite collapsing, my ankles are very flexible and have saved me from spraining many times. We all have stupid human tricks that make us unique.

While there are aspects of my body that are far from perfect, I am slowly learning that these imperfections are not the marks of a bad yogi. They are simply challenges a yogi strives to overcome, millimeter by painful millimeter. So when I fall out of Warrior Two, it’s not something to be embarrassed about, but a reminder of my fallibility and the obstacles ahead. And it’s pretty funny. I’m learning to love my stupid human, weirdly wonderful body.

 

Yard Lines and Millimeters

During the football game this weekend, I had ample opportunity to work on Mountain Pose. I focused a lot on raising my arches and keeping my ankles from collapsing inwards. My feet and ankles were incredibly sore from practicing this (as well as from standing for 4 straight hours and from running onto the field in jubilation 🙂 ), but I’m glad I was at least conscious of the need to change and able to begin correcting it in my everyday life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about something that Dr. Schultz said in class this week: “Millimeters are like miles.” It’s very difficult for me to accept that progress in yoga comes in infinitesimal degrees. Usually part of the satisfaction I get from working hard is a tangible, presentable product of my work. I think it says a lot about myself, and about our culture in general, that we desire and find meaning in production and definable results.

Even though the statement “millimeters are like miles,” seems incredibly daunting and disheartening, the more I think about it the more I actually find comfort in it. Whether I apply it to my yoga practice or my personal life, it is comforting to know that while changing myself for the better is a difficult and painful task, and even though sometimes I feel like all my work isn’t making any difference, this statement reminds me that good things take time. It also reminds me that good change isn’t always about the end result, but about the journey and process. I don’t have to do everything at once, and that is an immense relief.