Start Where You Are
The amount of ancient literature available on yoga is staggering enough. Add to it innumerable commentaries, and it quickly becomes overwhelming to someone just starting out. Each tradition or style has its own take on what constitutes proper practice and some of them can be quite inflexible when it comes to adapting traditional precepts to the modern age. So where does someone new to yoga start?
Start where you are! And keep it simple. Begin with some exercises (asana), deep breathing (pranayama) and relaxation. As you progress, incorporate meditation (dhyana) into your practices. Each time you feel ready or inspired to dive a little deeper, do it! Relax, you have literally an eternity, and allow yourself the adventure of discovery! As your awareness naturally expands your practice will naturally refine itself. Trust the process!
As you encounter techniques and ideas that are helpful to you, integrate them into your life and practice. If they cease to be effective, drop them and don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal. No effort in yoga is wasted, the results are simply proportional to the quality and quantity of energy invested. Remember, the practices we undertake should transform our lives for the better and help us to become happier, healthier and more loving human-beings. If your sincere, you’ll know what is helpful and what isn’t.
Our Sixth Sense, Is Our Common Sense
Most modern books on yoga often dedicate a paragraph, a page, or even an entire chapter to cautions and considerations for beginning with postures, breathwork or meditation. Various authors give various reasons why you should be super careful and find a teacher. It is usually in the form of “without the “super-vision” of a teacher, yoga practices can be dangerous”. Of all the reasons why, though, the one they often neglect to mention is that they need students in order to earn a living as a yoga teacher. So to suggest that yoga can be learned with a book or DVD, on your own with a sincere intention would be totally out of the question. Well guess what? You can learn yoga on your own. Seriously, it isn’t even that hard.
I know that it is possible to learn the essentials of yoga practice on your own because that is precisely how I began my own practice 20 years ago. By the time I began attending classes, I was already practicing hundreds of postures, breathing exercises, meditating, chanting and singing, even researching Sanskrit! As a matter of fact, with the exception of a handful of classes taught by a handful of teachers, most of the classes I attended weren’t much more than a space to practice some postures with other interested yogis and yoginis. Don’t misunderstand me, practicing yoga together with others is fun. The point is simply that, if for whatever reason, you can’t attend classes (too expensive, too shy, time constraints, family, work whatever), that you don’t use that as an escape or excuse not to practice.
So how are you supposed to know whether you are doing a particular posture or technique correctly? Common sense. You can explore almost any technique if you go slow, use common sense and be honest with yourself about how it feels. If it feels good it is probably is. If the pose or technique causes tension and pain, it isn’t right. Simply back off or change the pose.
Whether you’re learning to get into that pretzel pose you saw on an advertisement in a magazine, mastering the breath of fire without hyperventilating or being able to meditate in Lotus posture, try to understand where you have to be in your practice to achieve that. The following sections contain some basic tips to approaching poses, breathwork and meditation when learning on your own.
Tips For Beginners Learning Asana On Their Own
Let’s start with asana! If you are trying to learn a posture, ask yourself which muscles need to be strong and which ones need to be long to do the pose. Next, ask your self which other poses, movements, or stretches (even if the technique comes from a discipline outside the repertoire of yoga) will help you to achieve the pose you’re learning. Then, slowly work toward achieving the pose by focussing on related postures that strengthen what needs to be strengthened and lengthen what needs to be lengthened.
For example, if you want to get your legs behind your head in a variation of Durvasana. There is no way around it…you are gonna have to activate your booty chakra! You’ll would need to focus on gaining flexibility in all the muscles surrounding your hips. You never want to create any imbalances so make sure you address the front, inner, outer and back of the thighs equally. While working your way up to the pose, never push yourself more than is comfortable. There is no prize for who can learn the most postures in the shortest amount of time. The mistake of turning a healthy determination into an impatient “force my way to it” type of ambition always results in injury (a torn or strained muscle). And injury, in the end, will make achieving the posture take even longer because you have to figure in the amount of time it takes to recover from your stupidity and arrogance. I did that a lot when I started out. It was often my ego wanting the high of attention, reverence, or affection…..just one more inch and I’ve…..I am so cool….almost there……snap and OUCH! So take it easy and be willing to enjoy gaining physical health slowly.
Tips For Beginning And Learning Pranayama On Your Own
Pranayama, which encompasses the various breathing exercises common to many yoga “styles”, is also relatively easy to learn on your own if you take it slow. Start out by playing with the proposed technique incorporating several breaks (it should never be exhausting). Once you feel more comfortable with the breathing you can begin with a few rounds and increase your intensity and duration gradually over time. The measure of progress should be by feeling. Be reasonable, if it doesn’t feel right, stop. If you feel like you are stuck at an impasse, then go take a class (for fun) and ask the teacher about it afterwards. If they don’t know how to advise you, find somebody who does or let it go. These techniques are simply a means to explore your body, your breath and your mind. The individual techniques, themselves, aren’t important. It is how and why you practice them and how present you are when you practice them.
Let’s take the example of a six breath per minute, deep breathing cycle (the average person takes closer to 16 breaths per minute). How do you start? Slow. If you haven’t noticed this is a mantra throughout my posts. Start slowly with deep, even and relaxed breathing without counting rounds or duration. This will allow you to get a feel for how you actually breath and give you the chance to adjust your breath according to how it feels in the body. Once you become accustomed to breathing “slower than normal for you”, begin counting the breaths and playing with the numbers until you get the 5/5 or 4/6 rhythm of 10 second breaths comfortably. Soon you won’t even need to count anymore. Once you can accomplish a single round of the desired rhythm, length and depth, you can start to work on duration. Start where you can and add time in small increments each week. In yoga you only get hurt when you aren’t paying attention to what you doing.
Quick Word About Meditation
Meditation is a simple subject, but its a tricky one. If I were to give a student advice about how starting meditation as an absolute beginner, I would suggest simply learning to sit absolutely still for longer and longer periods of time. Seriously, just pretend you are a statue, keep your eyes open if it helps you stay awake, and see if you can work up to sitting for an hour without moving…..it isn’t easy. This will teach you to sit still regardless of physical or mental distractions and discomforts. Once the body is quieter (and the mind is quieter because our little high maintenance inner drama queen has finally chilled out) try to sit with eyes closed, watching what your mind and how it talks endlessly to itself about anything. Let your thoughts do whatever they’re doing, coming and going, you just watch. Don’t get involved in any particular thought just stay with your simple innate sense of being here, sitting in a body, present. Once you are able to sit consistently, with eyes closed, alert, a little calm distance between you and your thoughts, sensations and emotions, the real work of meditation is much easier. So try to keep it simple. Be present. Aware of your body, mind and emotions but uninvolved.
The Purpose Of Practice
Practice is the transformative aspect of yoga. Without it our understanding of yoga remains merely conceptual.
Thinking about an apple tree doesn’t bear the actual fruit of an apple to eat no matter how vividly we picture it. Similarly, each of us has to cultivate the tree of practice for ourself. Starting where we are, we place the seed of practice into the earth of our daily living. If we water and nourish it, it grows. If we prune it carefully, it yields a healthy crop. Just like a tree, our practice is met with the storms and droughts of life, undergoing many “obstacles” to growth along the way. If we can find the determination to practice again and again, no matter how bad the storm or how long the “drought”, then our practice can become truly useful and profound for us. As the poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, better known in the west as Rumi, wrote:
Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving — it doesn’t matter,
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
Come, come again, come.
The What, How And Why Of Meditation
Dhyana, or meditation, simply means to see reality as it is, not how we would like it to be. It is essentially an art of honest reflection and contemplation based in experiential observation. That said, there are many different types of meditation practice.
The type of meditation practice we will be exploring in this article, is the practice of intentionally observing the interaction between the body and the mind. That is, between the sensations present in the body and how the mind reacts and interprets those sensations. A certain determined poise and equanimity is required here. This is because when the mind is concentrated on observing any experience, the experience tends to intensify. And when observing the myriad ways in which we create and perpetuate suffering in our lives through the development of habitual craving and aversion toward pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, feelings and situations, the experience can reach intensities that can send a meditator packing.
This type of meditation is usually practiced formally, sitting upright with crossed legs on the floor. It involves remaining conscious of the dialogue that ensues in the mind in reaction to the sensations present within the body. This is the kind of meditation practice that makes people say, “Meditation is so uncomfortable, every time I try to concentrate I can’t because my knees hurt or my legs fall asleep or my back burns between the shoulder blades and my mind, oh don’t get me started…that thing never shuts up!.”
Because of this, many people think that the technique is too difficult or doesn’t work for them. Unfortunately, it escapes them that there is a good reason why this particular form of meditation is done in this particular way. It is supposed to be uncomfortable!
Now I know this sounds masochistic but hear me out. It is supposed to be uncomfortable because those unpleasant sensations will cause the mind to react with aversion and escape. That means the process of pain becoming suffering (psychologically) is not turned into an abstract concept, but rather, is put into a living context. This enables us to observe the process as it actually occurs. The method is based upon the simple observation that: when we get what we want we want more, that doesn’t happen and so we become unhappy; when we don’t get what we want we become unhappy; when we don’t want something and manage to avoid it, we expect to be able to avoid all the things and situations we don’t want all the time, and we can’t, so we become unhappy; when we don’t want something but we get it anyway we become unhappy. Silly isn’t it?
We are often dissatisfied with our lives and ignorant of the process of habitual reaction that is causing our unhappiness. We don’t see reality as it is, we try to make it into what we would like it to be, and when we can’t, we escape into a world where we are the heroes (or martyrs) of our own private mythology. This process accumulates over time and results in blind reactions to bodily sensations of pleasure and pain that increasingly unconsciously influence how we think and feel.
But by consciously observing this process instead, choosing, with calm determination, to “watch without reacting”, not wanting to change anything about the experience, the mechanism is disrupted and the mind slowly begins to free itself from the clutches of its habitual patterns of destructive behavior. The result is increased happiness, patience, peace and an ability to handle the ups and downs of life gracefully.
That said, I would still like to express something to you before we move on. If it is a bigger bite than you can chew, don’t worry about it. Just keep up your practice, the moment will come of its own.
Every form of yoga practice, regardless of what it is, is preparatory. The same is true for Buddhist yogis. All practices are preparatory precisely because they are practices. There is still a practitioner, a persona, who must practice something in order to attain or achieve something. It is a just a game that we play in order to develop our ability to stay present with what is, as it is. To come to the final seeing, nirvana, enlightenment, what ever you want to label it, the identification of your essential Being with mind/body personality must be recognized as inherently limited, thus false. That is, once we have learned to watch the play of the body/mind without constantly getting caught up in its dramas and stories, we can begin to distinguish between the storyteller and the one to which the stories are told.
Asana as meditation
That brings us to the yoga postures as meditation. I often hear yoga teachers and practitioners talk about yoga postures and meditation as if they were two separate disciplines. When I ask them how they meditate the answers usually involve some form of visualization, chanting, relaxation, intentional breathing exercise or a combination thereof. When I ask them how they practice asana, their answers are just as diverse.
Some people focus more on movement or balance, others on relaxation and flexibility. Some practice asana first and then meditation in the same session, others enjoy meditating in the morning and practice asana later in the day or in the evening. Yet asana doesn’t have to be different, or practiced separately, from meditation. In fact, asana is the perfect medium through which to practice meditation.
To practice meditation while in asana, we apply determined, calm, equanimous observation to the physical sensations and resulting mental dialogue inspired by the asana in which we are engaged. For the same reason that sitting for hours with crossed legs on the floor becomes uncomfortable and, thus, offers us a chance to watch the inner drama of desperate craving and aversion (desperately craving for the pain to be over and the pleasure of comfort to return), the challenges that asanas present us also activate our habitual reaction patterns, creating a similar inner theatre.
Over time, we get better at being patient observers. Difficult asanas become easier, and can be performed with a greater sense of inner poise. Our practice becomes more peaceful, our formal sitting meditations more profound and eventually that patient and peaceful awareness spills over into every aspect of our daily lives. Suddenly washing dishes, traffic jams, waiting for the bus, even being fired from a job becomes meditation. I know it sounds crazy. 20 years ago I would have said the same thing. But now I am on the other side of that process and can only challenge you to find out for yourself.
As I mentioned at the end of the previous section, these types of meditative exercises begin the process of unifying our seemingly fragmented lives and personalities into a single graceful movement of awareness. Once the noise and distractions of craving and aversion are transcended ,through simply seeing and understanding what is happening, the still center from which they are witnessed becomes naturally self-evident. That doesn’t mean that thoughts and personality never assert themselves as ego again, they do. Your just not interested anymore. The drama doesn’t hold your attention. The result is sat-chit-anand (true, conscious, joy of existence). And to me that sounds rather like the definition of another Sanskrit word we are all familiar with yoga.