Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Ahimsa, tapas and your yoga practice

I'm going to tell you about the concepts of ahimsa (non-violence) and tapas (discipline or heat) and how they apply to your yoga practice.

Perhaps you only know the word "ashtanga" in the context of an "ashtanga yoga class", with lots of sun salutations and jump-backs, but in fact the name of the yoga flavour just means "the eight limbs", the classical description of the path of yoga (notice that a physical practice is only the third of eight steps):

1. Five yamas, or restraints: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (non-lying or truth), asteya (non-stealing), bramacharya (sexual moderation), and aparigraha (non-greed).
2. Five niyamas, or observances: tapas (translated varyingly as "discipline," "heat," or "fire"), svadhyaya (study of self), samtosha (contentment), isvara pranidanah (devotion to god), and saucha (purity or cleanliness)
3. Asanas, or physical poses, used to train the mind and body for meditation.
4. Pranayama, or breathing exercises
5. Pratayahara
6. Dharana, concentration
7. Dynana, meditation
8. Samadhi, enlightenment

I possess neither the time nor the wisdom to tell you about all of this, especially considering that I have not attained samadhi (or if I have, I don't know it); I just want to talk about one of the yamas, ahimsa, and one of the niyamas, tapas, and how you can apply them when you're inside the approximately 6'x2' space of a yoga mat. And that, already, may be far too vast a subject for me to tackle.

Back in the days when I was first getting into yoga, a guy I was dating called Josh told me about a yogi he'd once lived in a house with, who he'd seen in the backyard practicing. "He was standing there with his arms up in the air, and he was probably just standing there for like fifteen minutes," Josh said with a look of disdain, the implication being that this was terribly goofy stuff and not real exercise. I can still remember my dismay at his scorn, and my stuttering attempts to explain why I thought yoga had real value, and my poorly-disguised hurt and bruised pride at the fact that he thought I was an idiot for taking it so seriously.

If it happened today, I'd be able to explain to Josh that the man was probably doing Iyengar yoga, at quite an advanced level, and that although it seemed like he was standing still, he was actually taking all of his muscles through subtle internal movements, lifting the flesh of his thighs, extending and lengthening his spine upwards, and simultaneously relaxing and wrapping back his shoulders even as his arms reached upwards, so that by the end of the fifteen minutes he may have been a half-inch taller, simply by stretching out his spine.

Even beginners in my classes probably notice a big difference between their first Downward Facing Dog and their last one, in which their hamstrings feel much more open and their heels can press back further towards the ground. When your body is still stiff, at the beginning of your practice, and particularly in the earlier parts of the day, it's difficult to stretch fully into poses. That's why, in beginner yoga classes, it is common for the first Downward Facing Dog of the day to be accompanied by an invitation to "Pedal your heels back and forth, stretch out your body, ease into the pose" - using these movements to warm up the body. In more advanced classes, however, the teacher will often instruct you, for the first Downward Dog, "Don't pedal your heels, just ease into the pose through your internal movements."

This is one of the most important things you can learn in a yoga class: that stillness doesn't mean stasis; that even if you hold the same pose for fifteen minutes, each of your breaths can help you actively push to hold it more completely and more perfectly. It's possible that the man with his arms up in the backyard managed to stretch out his spine to an extent that I'd need a half-hour of alternating Wheels and Forward Folds to accomplish.

It's the principle of tapas, or internal fire and discipline: even after you've been in your Downward Dog for twenty breaths already, you're not sagging or collapsing your arms, bored and waiting for the next pose - but ypu're still trying, still pressing your heels back a little further with every exhale, still lifting your tailbone up further with every inhale.

And the yin to tapas' yang is the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence: being gentle to your body by not taking the pose too far. Doing violence to yourself in yoga class is the eternal curse of the ambitious personality: instead of the impetus for a stretch coming from those internal, subtle, natural movements, a motion is externally imposed onto muscles that aren't ready for it, which then tense up or even tear.

Oh, I can still remember my early days of doing yoga, when I'd show off flexy twisted binds to my friends, and then my back would feel sore for days, or in class I'd keep the corner of my eye on the person on the mat next to me, and feel bad if they stretched more than I could, so I'd push myself further and strain my hamstrings. Perhaps this could all be avoided if you took a private lesson with an instructor who watched your alignment with an eagle eye, or if you took a class with other people whose bodies were all exactly the same as yours, so that the instructor never suggested a variation of a pose that was too advanced for you. But in the real world, you are often the only person who knows if you're cheating on the alignment of a pose, or hurting yourself in order to get your hand to a certain place.

Competition with other people doesn't belong on the yoga mat, and I wasn't able to explain it to Josh at the time, because I didn't understood it back then. My practice was very much centered around, "Ooh, I'd love to be able to do a cool headstand to impress people!" Unfortunately, if you spend a lot of time trying to impress people who also want to impress you, and part of that impressiveness depends on a contrast, everybody's going to try as hard as they can to pretend that they're not impressed. Further, you spend so much time monitoring your reactions to things - whether you're impressed, whether the other person is impressed - that you don't have any energy to notice what your real emotions are, in the same way that if you strain a yoga pose, you're no longer feeling the way it clicks and what it should do to your body.

I spent a lot of my energy trying to impress Josh, and it wasn't ever going to happen, because he was spending all his energy trying to impress other people. If I was interested in something he didn't know about - such as yoga - he didn't assume that since I was a dynamic person, and I thought the subject was interesting, there must be aspects to it that he hadn't seen; he dismissed it. If we hadn't seen each other for a weekend, he always assumed I'd been sitting at home, not doing much. Once, when he saw a sketch I'd drawn, he said, "Oh. Huh. That's actually pretty good."

But despite all my efforts to impress, nothing ever stuck, and my emotional yoga was overstretched and completely out of alignment, to the extent that I didn't even know what my real feelings were anymore. I'm not trying to blame Josh; he's a flawed human being just like the rest of us, but I let him do it to me, and really it was something I did to myself. Gosh, it was a real mess! I'm so glad that it's over!

I saw Josh again recently - we hadn't been in touch for a year or two - and he said, "Oh, Zoe, you look so healthy! Why do you look so good?" in tones of the utmost surprise, as if my glowing cheeks were the most shocking thing he'd seen all week. I just laughed.

Ahimsa and tapas: so hard to apply on the yoga mat, so much harder to apply to life. The concepts are very easy to explain, and mind-bogglingly tricky to truly implement - in my life, I feel as though every bit of progress is grueling and takes ten times longer than I expect it to. That's why you have to practice at it. That's why they call it a "yoga practice."


Blogger John Holt said...

You are the most wondermous yoga teacher EVAH! I love that you take such an engaging teacher, making sure your students understand all facets of this instruction. You're fantastic! And I'm so thankful for your patient instruction with my clumsy self.

Love k

10:51 AM  
Blogger zzzzzoe said...

Tee hee, I'll try to forget that I'm also the *ONLY* yoga teacher you've ever had...

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help me Dude, I'm lost.

I was searching for Elvis and somehow ended up in your blog, but you know I'm sure I saw Elvis in the supermarket yesterday.

No honest really, he was right there in front of me, next to the steaks singing "Love me Tender".

He said to me (his lip was only slightly curled) "Boy, you need to get yourself a shiny, new plasmatv to go with that blue suede sofa of yours.

But Elvis said I, In the Ghetto nobody has a plasma tv .

Dude I'm All Shook Up said Elvis. I think I'll have me another cheeseburger then I'm gonna go home and ask Michael Jackson to come round and watch that waaaay cool surfing scene in Apocalypse Now on my new plasma tv .

And then he just walked out of the supermarket singing. . .

"You give me love and consolation,
You give me strength to carry on "

Strange day or what? :-)

11:34 AM  

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