I continually ask myself and reconsider what I’m actually doing and teaching others to do in asana. I often refer back to the great teachers on what they have to say. Beyond the mechanics of making shapes, there is, for me, a profound process under way.
Erich Schiffmann teaches that “yoga is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are. It is also a way of learning to be centred in action so that you always have the clearest perspective on what’s happening and are therefore able to respond most appropriately.” He continues,”when you experience yourself in stillness – that is, when you give your undivided attention to experiencing the truth about you – you will experience the conflict-free, calm, dynamic peace of perfectly centered abundant life energy.”
The use of yoga in this way for me is very simple and specific. I practice vinyasa flow yoga, moving at a moderate pace so each movement is conscious and therefore not powered by mindless momentum. I breathe in rhythm. I match repetitive movement to breath. I hold static shapes while maintaining an internal energetic movement and rhythm. When I hold to the discipline of this practice for a period of time, I begin to break through the layers of mental noise and physical tension and touch into what Chogyam Trungpa refers to as ‘basic ground.’ This is the “fundamental state of mind, before the creation of ego…[where] there is basic openness, basic freedom, a spacious quality; and we have now and have always had this openness.” I do not create space, I do not make myself more flexible in body or mind, I work through barriers that prevent me from experiencing the natural state of openness.
And to be fair, this is quite hard to stick with. Particularly with some tough postures thrown in that require more than just an attitude of ‘letting go.’Of course, there is value and need to rest, but before I get to that point, I need some fire and heat. Perhaps I lived in New York too long, but a practice for me that only focuses on softness, letting go, and embracing love and joy is gonna leave us pretty ill equipped when life throws shit in our faces. We also need to up our ability to meet challenge.
So, I practice and teach poses that make me sweat, that are complex, that require discipline and endurance. I challenge myself to find the breath, the focus, and ultimately the softness within often strong challenge. As Pema Chodron instructs, “to stay with that shakiness- to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge – that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic – this is the spiritual path.”
My yoga practice is tough and demanding because that’s a major component of the experience of life and we need processes to work with and through it. And as Ani Pema teaches, it is often in the darkest places where ‘things fall apart’ that we have the opportunity to ” let the energy of the emotion, the quality of what we’re feeling pierce us to the heart” and awaken compassion and kindness.
Chogyam Trungpa continues that “when you don’t punish or condemn yourself, when you relax more and appreciate your body and mind, you begin to contact the fundamental notion of basic goodness in yourself.”
All of this is not going to happen in a single downward-facing dog pose. However, it is the cumulative effect of this type of practice that for me helps me deepen my meditation practice, enrich my experience of life, and prepare me to manage and reduce my suffering through life’s inevitable pains and griefs.
As I lie down in savasana and my experience of body begins to dissipate into the mat and the space and people around me, I have a taste of the basic ground of openness, the basic goodness of myself and others, and I can meet my day and whatever it may bring.