Coming down the mountain

“Coming down the mountain” is what teachers sometimes say when the class is heading towards its conclusion. Well, we are coming down the mountain of teacher training. We finished our penultimate weekend, and it was a long one. The previous weekend’s training was cancelled due to repercussions from Hurricane Sandy, so we had training for eight hours each day instead of the usual six. Woah.

Tomorrow will start the final weekend of our training, and I can’t decide whether I think it went quickly or slowly.  Going into the training, I thought my practice might change significantly: poses that I struggled with would somehow magically become accessible to me.  (Last night I dreamed that I could lift my leg up behind my head from an upright standing position, which, I’ll be honest, is not happening anytime soon.)  Certainly there has been some of that.  I came in focused on asana, the physical shapes you make with your body that most people think of as synonymous with yoga.  I know now that asana is the third of the eight limbs of yoga.  Did you even know yoga had limbs?!  The limbs are sort of, priorities, in terms of the aspects of a complete practice.  If you’re curious, I’ll tell you what they are.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

  1. Abstentions (Yama) – there are five yamas, and they are the things we should abstain from, or not do (non-violence, truth, non-stealing, faithfulness, and non-grasping or coveting)
  2. Observances (Niyama) – there are also five niyamas, and they are things we should observe, or do (cleanliness, contentment, tapas, self-study and surrender)
  3. Postures (Asana) – I think you get this one!
  4. Breath control (Pranayama) – regulation of the breath helps to balance the mind and body
  5. Sense withdrawal (Pratiyahara) - withdrawal of the senses of perception from their objects
  6. Concentration (Dharana) – focusing the mind on one thing
  7. Meditation (Diyana) – clearing the mind of thoughts
  8. Equanimity (Samadhi) – a state of blissful awareness

Though each limb is as important as every other limb, it is worth noting that asana is third and not first or even second. For many people in the Western world, asana and yoga have become synonymous, even though according to yogic philosophy they are not. Nevertheless, asana can be accessible and very beneficial to virtually anyone who engages with it. The postures can be modified and varied in level of intensity and difficulty to meet the needs of anyone’s body, whether the practitioner is flexible or stiff, injured or healthy, young or old. Simply taking a full and complete breath can lift and brighten someone’s outlook, which is frankly amazing when you think about it. It can take just a small change to make a big difference in how someone feels, and asana is a tool that draws many people in.

Certainly it is a big part of what drew me to yoga about ten years ago, when I was still in high school.  Over the course of the training, though, I found what changed about my practice was not so much the shapes I could make with my body, though I’d like to that think I’m stronger and a bit more flexible now than when I started.  I also thoroughly understand the correct positioning of the poses in a way that I didn’t before, which makes them more accessible.  What has changed for me the most is my perception.

Through our study of the sutras, my outlook on my ability to do or not do certain poses, or do them "perfectly," has really shifted.  In case this is all sounding kind of hippie-ish to you, let me take a step back and explain what a sutra really is.  A sutra is a short aphorism or statement. I think about the word suture, to sew together, as a way to relate to the sutras, which sew together themes or concepts. The sutras are separated into four padas, or books, and each has a different theme. In this training and in many of the classes I have taken, we focus on the sutras that relate to the physical practice and how that relates to quieting the mind. Each sutra is short and acts as an accessible tool for examining life both on and off the yoga mat. One of my favorite sutras is 2.1, which talks about tapas as an integral part of the practice. When I think about tapas, the willingness to endure intensity for the sake of transformation, it is a useful concept to me both in holding a challenging pose and in so many experiences in my day-to-day life. Moments of intensity eventually pass, and learning to see those moments as potentially beneficial instead of harmful has really helped to change my outlook on life in a positive way.