12th December 2009
Ex-hardcore Ashtangi now enjoying Supta Baddha Konasana laying over a bolster.
Sad but true.
The pattern for yoga practice lately has been one or two half Primary series practices each week (usually the full practice up to Janu Sirsasana then a short cut to the finishing sequence) which takes me about 90 minutes including Savasana. then I'm doing two ‘other’ practices of the same length but much more Iyengar/Yin/Hatha style: S L O W. And my yoga practices tend to be mostly after work now.
Mornings start with half an hour of stretches and core work simply to mobilize the lumbar/hip stiffness out of my body so I can feel more like 30 years old instead of a 70 (in reality I’m about half way between).
But the new focus of my yoga practice right now is daily sutra study.
I’ve read various translations and commentaries over the years. My bookshelf has copies of Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras, the Gregor Miele’s Ashtanga book which devotes Part 1 to the Ashtanga Vinyasa Primary series and Part 2 to the sutras, and I have a user friendly translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda which I love.
Not to mention the numerous internet sites I’ve accessed lately.
A few weeks ago I decided to make my study of the sutras more methodical and more pragmatic. Take my time…chew them over slowly…one by one…draw out their juice and mix it with mine.
As Shri K Pattabhi Jois so famously said, yoga should be 99% practice and 1% theory.
Reading is not enough. You can read Patajali's Yoga Sutras for years but we read the newspapers every day and ultimately its just a stream of facts...the yoga sutras are a map for a road journey. I’ve always loved the analogy of sitting in an armchair reading the road maps and knowing how to get all over the country but never actually getting on your bike and experiencing the changing landscape of the countryside and the journey itself.
You have to get on your bike and follow the Yoga Sutra travel guide, which means actually committing to a daily yoga practice and/or sitting for long hours in meditation to observe what happens when the thought processes subside. Practice has a cumulative effect on the body, the psyche and the spirit, only if we do it.
So the question was….what REAL exercises can I do in my daily life to sink the sutra knowledge into my psyche. I wanted a plan.
The sutras can be grouped a few at a time for studying. For instance sutras 1:1 – 1:4 sit together nicely as an overview of what yoga is, then sutras 1:5 – 1:11 look at the various kinds of thoughts we have. It seemed to me a good plan to take on a few sutras each week, read them daily, study them over morning coffee and my lunch break and invent some exercises to investigate their meaning and cement them into the psyche.
Just the creative act of inventing a practical exercise reinforces the commitment to bring the sutras to the forefront of my busy life. It helps to lessen the grip of unconsciousness that I fall into when trying to cope with the barrage of work and family commitments.
So with all this bubbling away, last weekend I did my favourite walk up at Horsenell Gully, winding my way up the foot track cut into the sides of the mountains - its about 40 minutes uphill to the spot where I turn to come down again. Pausing at the top I resolved that on the walk back down I’d count every breath until I reached the starting point in the gully where my car was parked. Exercise number one.
The purpose: to notice how often I lost the breath as thoughts distracted me from the count.
I actually didn’t think I’d be able to keep count all the way. I was sure I’d lose the thread of the count and my thoughts would spin me off into my usual day dreaming fantasy world.
But surprise, surprise, I didn’t miss a beat. The downhill track took me 35 minutes and exactly 480 breaths.
During the times when I was FULLY mindful of each breath count, it naturally lengthened into a lovely, rhythmic, Ujjiya breath.
At other times I noticed one layer of my mind counting the breath with each exhalation while another layer of my mind was following some stray thoughts – I was mentally multitasking. Only once, about half way down, did I momentarily lose the breath count – I noticed I was still counting but the count was not connected to the actual breath – very sneaky. I caught this quickly and welded the breath and the count back together again.
During one of those double layered parts where I was walking downhill and counting the exhalations while following a simultaneous internal dialogue, I noticed my self complaining that by focusing on the breath I was missing out of the experience of the walk, I was not being FULLY PRESENT to the birds, the smells, the darting wildlife, the changing cloud patterns etc. I was walking through this beautiful bushland, OBLIVIOUS to everything around me, because I was fully focused on my breath and my INTERNAL environment.
I chastised my self for doing this silly experiment and for wasting a precious nature walk, and then I chastised my self for trying to find an excuse to bail out on the whole exercise of breath counting.
These are the chitta vrittis at work and at play.
So plunging headlong into the sutras, and trying to design my own study plan with a practicum to go with it, I was overjoyed to find this website which is dense with very insightful, relevant commentary and practical suggestions for incorporating the sutras into daily life/yoga practice.
To be continued...