Thursday, October 20, 2011

Meet Your Edge, Explore It and Go Overboard

"Consistent practice leads to changing perspectives.
An altered perspective leads to taking greater risks and
not just meeting but going over the edge."

While practising the postures it is becoming popular to hear teachers and students talk about meeting 'the edge.' This is usually in reference to the place where you feel challenged or that elicits fear and/or resistance. It can also refer to the place where you are holding back, not letting go and wanting to make it happen in 'your' way. We may perceive our edges as the limit in which we can only physically bend. But what about internal edge? The places of fear and the areas we dislike, ignore, neglect and reject within ourselves?

These are also edges but because they are internal (and ingrained reactions, responses and behaviors) they are far more difficult to explore.

The edge really then can be understood in a number of ways. The main point from what I have understood with my teacher is that this is the place you need to stay; not run away from. Moreover, it is not so much the external edge (that was the edge that got you there) but the internal one we need to turn our gaze (the drithi) toward.

In teaching backbending and in particular the drop-back from standing to wheel the edge or external limit is often reached very quickly. In other words, it is such a challenging move for many students that fears and feelings of doubt surface rapidly. This is the internal edge and quite often the place where many give up or run away. Looked upon from a different perspective it can also become the perfect place to explore 'the edge' and therefore our perceptions.

The zen story about the overflowing tea cup reminds us about how we need to shift our perspective. If the teacher keeps pouring tea into a full cup it will continue to overflow; there being no room for growth or expansion. The same is true when we come to the teacher with fixed notions or want to force the body into a prescribed shape with only an external viewpoint. Lacking an internal focus or awareness in both conditions is like the tea that spills over the cup, onto the floor and into the sewer.

So when the edge appears and we are faced with how to move beyond it, it may become counter-productive if in fact we are not able to undo, let go and challenge our 'known' perspectives. It is like being too full, however, at the same time still wanting more. People tend to forget that the whole purpose of yoga practice (including yogasana) is not to continue to "get stuff" but rather to let go and loosen up. Practice is far from being about acquiring more tools as it is about un-doing and un-learning.

Trying then to push past the edge usually does not work. It will surface again in another posture. Forcing it will not work because the physical muscles have not been trained to endure it and the mind is not familiar with what is happening. Iyengar once wrote you cannot tell the knee to bend with the brain. While everyone may want to learn the classic lotus pose it is not doable with this approach. Iyengar suggests in a very poetic like fashion to study and understand the intelligence of the knee; slowly removing its stiffness. The limits we come across in practice whether in the back or the knee (re: the physical edge or mental one) can be understood as a relative point in time, practice and space. It is subject to change. But more often we tend to perceive it as something solid and not subject to change with time and practice.

Of course writing all of this is just a bunch of words. How does it apply to actual practice? Here are a few ideas to kick around. However, do bear in mind that not every suggestion will be suitable for all. In fact, the cookie-cutter approach leaves many people thinking yoga is only for the born flexible. These are only a few starting points from how to approach the standing pose into the wheel.

  • Contract and relax the muscles of the buttocks and legs. This is one part of two. The second part is to allow the spine to rise and fall and become aware of this being the natural tendency. The contraction/relaxation should be done over a series of breathings not up/down in rapid movements. It works better to hold the pose, breathe and contract followed by relaxing while breathing and isolating certain muscles over each other. Re: the legs contract and the buttocks relax.
  • Train your mind to never stop feeling and thinking of the breath. Every move (whether it is big or small) is generated by the breath. This is how it really goes whether you are aware of it or not. Learning to “wait for the breath” and then combining with the body is challenging. This method will aid you in learning to stay longer without letting the mind direct the posture. It is a way of understanding how the prana (the vital force) is more powerful than the physical body and its fluctuations.
  • While practising consider the central theme(s) of yoga beyond the flexibility of the body. It is the teachings about how the mind is a container of fluctuations. This should not be misunderstood as suppression or denial. It is through the physical body we are working. However, it is not through the physical body alone that you will move the body deeper. It is by channelling the energy, the prana, focusing the mind and then shaping it with the body.