When we think about yoga these days, our image is of the asanas (postures) – folks twisted up into weird positions, beautiful sunsets and warrior poses! However, when we look at the actual definition of yoga, it mentions consciousness – “yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of our consciousness” (Yoga Sutra I.2). So, though yoga is probably one of the most popular pastimes in this day and age, how much are we talking about the WHOLE practice? Do we know that the aspects of yoga that deal with the mind are more numerous, and if the practice of asana is the popular thing, can we approach postures in a way that get us toward the definition or “goal” of yoga?
Well, I think that this was the genius of BKS Iyengar. I am not sure that he was “ahead of his time”, but he definitely was an expert at “observation of the present” – which, if we think of it, is another tag line of yoga – “being in the present moment”. He knew the depth of what yoga had to offer…he had an entire library of ancient books and histories of yoga that he spent much of his time in…but he also knew that in order to spread the practice it could not be just for those sitting quietly in a cave. People move. Other yoga texts like the Bhagavad Gita remind us that we are obligated into action. So, how do we engage in life AND quiet all the fluctuations of the mind?
Well, we have to practice in the moment, engage all of our senses and sensibilities as we are in asana. This can be difficult. Staying in an asana for any length of time beyond a flow through challenges the mind in a similar way as just trying to sit quietly for a moment – and I am sure that many of us know how that ends up. We sit, we close our eyes, and immediately we are struck with all the “stuff” behind the lids – who did what to me, what do I have to do today, who’s calling, etc…etc…etc…So we turn on the nice voice to talk us through it, or we put music on to lull us into some other state, but those are still distractions away from our own mind.
So, asana at least is a chance to keep our eyes open, stay in movement, but also engage the mental and sensory challenges that yoga encourages, essentially “meditation in action”. BKS Iyengar has been known to say that it is impossible to tell where the body ends and the mind begins, so the practice of asana is our chance to capture the mind toward this stillness of consciousness. If the body is constantly moving without this engagement or awareness, or we do not step outside our comfort zone with difficult or disliked postures, or we only go so far as “we like”, then what are we missing? Our practice is then just another opportunity for our mental distractions to guide us instead of us guiding our mind toward mental stillness, toward yoga.
In our teachers’ class we have been discussing the third chapter of The Yoga Sutras where much of the mental aspects of yoga are discussed. It is full of what we might think of as the “super powers” of yoga, but all have to do with a full conjunction of mind-body integration. As we still the fluctuations of our own mind and begin to “see” ourselves more clearly and fully, the whole world opens up with more clarity and hyper sensitivity. If my mind can be completely open to what others are saying, I might be able to hear any language and understand. If I can clear my mind of all previous impressions and actually “see” another in front of me, I might be able to read their mind. And the list goes on…
But first, MY mind has to be clear. MY consciousness has to be still and clear so that each new impression is exactly as it is in the present moment. So, thank goodness for those numerous triangle poses and headstands where I am challenged just to stay still, engage my whole being into the pose, be sensitive to each of those experiences as a new clean slate, so that in the end I may know myself better – body and mind, mind and body.
As I have been encouraging so many of my students lately, we have to remain curious in our practice. Get outside our boxes and habits that our own minds put us in. It can be a challenge, it does take time, but ultimately engaging the mind in practice is what will bring us closer to yoga.