I practice physical (Hatha) Yoga
and mental (Raja) Yoga.
I am not sure it is possible to do one without the other; just as we cannot inhale without exhaling – they go together. However, as we all know, there are different levels of practice to any art or science. Similarly, it is possible to be breathing every waking moment of the day and yet by days end be completely unaware of having experienced the incredible life giving exchange of oxygen.
“When the word Yoga is mentioned, most people immediately think of some physical postures for relaxing and limbering up the body. This is one aspect of the Yogic science, but actually only a very small part and relatively recent in development. The physical Yoga, or Hatha Yoga, was primarily designed to facilitate the real practice of Yoga – namely, the understanding and complete mastery over the mind. So the actual meaning of Yoga is the science of the mind.”
-From the Introduction The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Yoga is subjective and in Western culture this is very much the case. No one can define for another what Yoga should be. Once we choose to practice anything, we make it our own.
We can choose to simply go through the motions and be done with our practice, whatever that may be (Yoga, running, swimming, Tai Chi, etc.), and check it off our master list of things to do for the day, or we can choose to practice with intention, focus and purpose. It takes the same amount of time to do either and no more effort. It comes down to choice.
My Yoga practice over the last eighteen years has had its own evolution; years of intense continuous practice to some years with very little to none at all. There were moments when my ego subconsciously struggled with attaining physical goals to moments like right now where I feel deeply satisfied in practicing without a goal. The practice is the practice – just as I am beginning to understand, to really understand that there is only now.
It is definitely an interesting state of mind to observe oneself; like a spectator to my own thoughts and to my own physical practice. With this in mind I am sharing a video that I put together as an example of what practice can do.
I began filming myself as a tool to analyze my alignment. At the same time I realized that there aren’t many videos out there that actually show, through the progression of time, how we can improve with consistent practice. We often see photographs of the final product, or experts demonstrating the final product, which is important, but I think it is equally important for beginners to see that regardless of ability, we all have to start at the very beginning – our own beginning.
This video shows what 12 weeks of practice looks like (bloopers and all).
At this point, I would like to bridge the idea of practice with time. In this video I am demonstrating my attempts at doing Navasana (boat) into Handstand, which is the thirteenth posture in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary series. I get to Navasana by the fifty-minute mark and only spend about three to four minutes on this particular sequence. I proved to myself what an impact short duration practice can have. I only spent three to four minutes, two to three times per week on this.
But in the same breath, achieving the physical is actually unimportant. I realize this may come across as a contradiction, and I am fully aware of this, but I think that this is what makes it such an interesting state of mind. An important element of the physical and mental Yoga practice is about confronting one’s ambition and learning to manage it.
“Real yoga is what you can’t see. It’s invisible.”
I filmed this after about a year of an on-again regular home-based Ashtanga Yoga practice, which included Surya Namaskara A & B, the Standing Series, the first twelve seated postures, three backbends followed by the closing sequence, practiced two to three times per week. (A total of forty-five minutes for each practice session).
I did very few jump through or jump back vinyasa because doing them in previous years seemed to cause irritation (in hindsight, I realize now that because I was out of balance I would unknowingly compensate at my shoulders or neck or back etc.), so I made the executive decision to leave those vinyasa out and see what would happen.
July 2012, I felt that it was time to add on. The thirteenth posture in the series is Navasana. From all my years of practice I never attempted the handstand, which is part of that progression. I would always just do a seated lift, and carry on, which was typically taught in classes and I was not told to do the handstand by my teacher in Mysore class. Since I was reviewing and studying from John Scott’s manual, I took it as a sign that I should attempt it. Again, this felt like walking the tight rope of ambition…
Traditionally, in Ashtanga Yoga, the student should not proceed with postures until the preceding postures are attained with adequate proficiency. This makes perfect sense to me. In previous years though, when I would go to classes, students of all levels would be herded through the entire primary series regardless of ability. I decided I wouldn’t do this anymore. There is a reason for practicing the same thing over and over again until the body and mind is ready to add on. Western culture, tends to override theory with the customer is always right and wanting a perceived moneys-worth-of-a-workout. It is OK to proceed at a snail’s pace because being able to contort oneself into a pose doesn’t mean anything without Raja Yoga.
“Real yoga lives in everyday interactions, like being nice.
It’s the unity we can create around us.
If it were just about gymnastics, then Olympic medalists would be swamis and gurus. “
– David Swenson
In the video you will see that at the beginning I couldn’t even do a handstand to gradually understanding the transition from the seated lift attempting to pivot into the handstand. Now, hold on a second. I feel like I should clarify something. Yes, of course I could do a handstand in a gymnastics kind of way. But doing a handstand in a Yogic state of mind is very different. Try it sometime.
But what is important for me to share is that it is the process of practice that is the goal, not the goal of attaining the pose or sequence. I may never be able to move seemlessly from Navasana to Handstand, but that really doesn’t matter to me. If we truly understand what practice means, then we understand that a pose is never attained, no matter how beautiful of an image we see of one, because it continues to grow and transform with each practice.
We age. Life happens. We change. We grow.
And naturally so does everything we do.
Our body shifts and changes so much with every day as does our mind (from thoughts and experiences) that each day when we practice we are completely different from the previous day.
To me, this type of physical Yoga, is an incredibly thorough system of physical therapy, which makes its ancient beginnings so remarkable. As we progress through the system, if we take care and not rush through with ambition, our body will become innately prepared for the next posture. But this takes time and practice.
“Practice, and all is coming.”
Practice without ambition. Practice with focus and with a desire to learn with each breath. Practice being in the moment and not thinking about what comes next.
You will notice that I have sped up the video in some areas; however, I have not slowed it down at all. Shortening twelve weeks of practice (approximately 144 minutes of total practice time into a 5minute video has its challenges).
As an aside, I just wanted to explain that most of the seated postures in Ashtanga Yoga are only held for five breaths, which amounts to approximately one minute each. In the big picture, this does not seem like a lot of time. But when you practice regularly, then you will know that when we focus our attention on a task, a lot can happen in one minute; this is more profound than spending more time without focus. It makes a difference and it this which contributes to change.
I will talk more about focused practice vs. duration next time.
Needed this. Best instructional video hehehe! Thanks!!! 🙂
I’ve never seen so rapid progress in such a short span of time…Handstands usually take much more time to develop and you’ve absolutely blow my mind right here….Well done!
Thanks Mike. 🙂
This is a great example of what practice does! “If u cant do it now it doesnt mean you wont be able to do it tomorrow” … Ive always wanted to learn to do a handstand without wall support, but im so afraid of falling forward and breaking my neck lol, i think i need to actually learn to fall so i can lose my fear.
I love your blog.
Enjoy your handstand exploration. It definitely helps to know how to fall. As you see in the video, falling over into a backbend happened quite often until I figured out that alternately, I could step out of the fall too.
Thanks so much Isidora!
When I pursue your blog, every time I get to know your motive better, i.e. your entire aim is to serve the people. This is exactly what the ancient sages and seers used to preach and practice. That is why, they never used to trade their skills for money. In India, people like you would know, the same trend still persists. May be there has been some difference consurate with the changing time.
Sri Satya Sai Baba used to say, “Master the mind and be Mastermind”. As you rightly say, the aim of physical exercises is not to mere body build, it has a purpose. Just like going to university for the sake of some education has to have a larger perspective in getting into a job for your living. Same way, the physical exercise is meant to make body healthy so that your mind could be rendered healthy to engage in further practical jobs. In ancient India, people used to have limited physical desires and their ultimate aim used to be liberation from this painful worldly life.
Question may be asked, “What liberation may mean”? It is known that as we age and progress in this worldly life, everyday there are problems of all kinds. Do we want those problems or we should try and get rid of problems to enjoy the life? This is exactly the seers always searched the answer for. Hence, once you make your physical body strong, you live healthy life, free of troubles. Then to liberate yourself from further troubles, so that no further trouble befall. The way to do is, “Liberation from this worldly life”. As long as we keep coming back and forth in this worldly whirlpool, there will be its consequential problems, i.e. the complex situation of pain and pleasure duality. Thus the entire system was designed to live a healthy life in this worldly sojourn and to liberate yourself permantly, you control your mind to liberate permanently.
Understand the basic motive behind the Yoga philosophy, practice, practice and practice in its right emotive manner. I liked “…If it were just about gymnastics, then Olympic medalists would be swamis and gurus. “
– David Swenson
Sorry for a little long comment but I hope it may help the readers here in their pursuit. God bless
Thank you, Osudrania. Your ‘little long comments’ are always welcome. You add so much insight and I hope others will benefit from your wisdom.
I think ‘westerners’ misunderstand or misinterpret a lot of the meaning from the ancient philosophy because our world is clouded with modern conveniences and distractions and promises.
I could go on, but it is late and I have to shut down for the night. But I did want to publish your comment and reply quickly. There is an entire conversation here that I will return to another time.
Many thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.
I felt such joy watching you in the video. And, I recognize the August couch!!
Aw! Thanks, Joanna. I had to keep the August vacation practice in there!
Very inspiring, thanks for the work you do posting these videos … a nice example of what you get with dedication over time
Thanks for recognizing the work and I’m glad that my message was understood. I appreciate the feedback. 🙂