In the West we have become experts in the practice of yoga, if not the physical practice of yoga postures. So much so that we sometimes forget to start with the basics, how to practice yoga?
Yoga is not a sport, nor is it a simple physical activity. Although some postures require “knowledge” or technique to perform them safely, it is not an athletic competition, nor a search for perfection of postures. Nor, although its therapeutic benefits are many, is it a treatment or therapy. Yoga is an inner work that requires our involvement. As my teacher reminded us, yoga begins when the therapy ends.
So, in front of a yoga class, where do we start?
How to practice yoga?
- The attitude
- Attention or attentive observation
- The sthira sukha
These four approaches are what will bring us closer to the practice of yoga. The one that starts on the mat and continues after class. We will continue to apply attitude, breathing, sthira shuka, attention throughout the day. To integrate slowly, serenely, the changes and benefits that appear during the practice.
When practicing yoga we work both the physical body, the breath, the emotional body as well as the mind. They unite, they merge. But for this to happen, a correct attitude towards the practice is important. If we face the practice of yoga as a challenge of personal improvement, we run the risk of falling into the feedback of our ego. If we do not trust ourselves or the teacher, the practice will be empty and we can even harm ourselves. Yoga gives us this opportunity to observe our patterns and tendencies, whether they are physical, emotional or mental, but for these to arise our attitude must be open, respectful and humble.
The practice begins with our attitude, with yama and niyama, the philosophical principles of yoga that give us recommendations about our relationship with others and with ourselves (do not harm, do not lie, detachment, etc.).
Gestures and attitudes
We can help each other with small symbolic gestures that will bring us closer to this attitude towards oneself and towards others. An attitude towards inner discovery.
- Leave your shoes at the entrance to the yoga center or classroom. Never practice with shoes. This is a gesture of humility, of detachment. Leave behind your day to day, to start barefoot, connected and more present your practice. Something of you stays at the door, your masks, your shells, so that you can practice from what you really are, without make-up or frills.
- Respect your classmates, their space. In a shared practice you are not alone, you merge with your peers to be part of something else.
- Practice without expectations. Open yourself to what may happen during the practice. It won’t depend on the teacher, or the room, or the quality of your mat, but on you.
- Follow the rhythm of your breathing, it will mark your practice. Do not force or imitate others. Practice according to your state at all times, respecting yourself and stopping when you need to.
- Watch yourself without judging. We tend to be our toughest critic. If we observe a trend, a pattern in our practice, in our attitude, we don’t have to want to suppress it, nor do we have to justify it. Understanding who we are and how we are is the first step in wanting to change something. But this change must take place in a holistic way and not on the basis of denial.
- When you close the practice leave all the material, yours and the shared in an orderly way. Do not expect someone to clean and order for you. The state of the students can be evaluated according to how orderly the blankets are when they leave the room. If you can’t spend a minute folding the blanket you used, what benefit have you gained from practicing yoga?
Observation is part of the yoga game. This requires focused and present attention. To be able to put all our intention, capacities, mind and senses towards the same objective and in the present moment. It is not something difficult or impossible, but something that we have forgotten we knew how to do.
At some point in our lives we have surely been able to be so focused on something that we forgot to eat or sleep. Even when we were in our activity, we stopped hearing external sounds, perceiving the passage of time, or realizing that the temperature had changed. When we are totally centered, totally focused, our senses are picked up. The external no longer exists and we can focus only on one point without any distraction. This capacity for innate mindfulness in each of us is cultivated and magnified in the practice of yoga.
Our over-stimulated mind, demanding novelties, changes, will play against us. We will also learn to observe the mind. Not to leave it blank, but to observe our thoughts and tendencies. Attention at every moment. Full attention.
The Sthira sukha
Patañjali describes in his classic text the Yoga Sutras (formed by brief aphorisms or slokas that describe the practice of yoga) how one should practice asanasana. It does so in only 3 slokas, out of a text of almost two hundred. This indicates the relative importance of the postures in the whole yoga practice.
“sthira–sukham–āsanam” – The posture is comfortable and stable. Yoga sutras of Patañjali, II.46
- sthira – firm, hard, compact; strong, patient quiet, resolute; persevering, firmly attached to sustainable, permanent; secure, established.
- sukha – easy, pleasant, happy n. joy, happiness, pleasure; comfort, prosperity.
- ās – to sit, to sit; to meet; to sit, to stay; to reside; to continue, to practice; to be [abs.] | to lead to sitting
Asana, is the posture of the body that helps us to be established in a position. The seat of the body. The sthira sukha is the yogic, physical and mental concept of firmness, balance, comfort and observation. Only when we establish ourselves in asana, when we apply the right and necessary tension to maintain the posture, but we stop fighting, doing, to start feeling from the comfort, begins the authentic practice of yoga.
The whole practice is sthira sukha, whether we are in sirsasana (over the head) or in apanasana posture (face up on the floor with knees hugging the chest). Then the breath will flow freely without obstacles and we will approach the state of yoga.
Once settled in our posture, with this firmness, balance and attentive observation, the breath should flow smoothly and deeply at the same time. Thanks to breathing we will obtain prana, the vital energy, and we will connect more with our state at all levels. Breathing will act as a bridge between the layers of our being. We observe the mind. As we focus our attention on breathing, we feel not only the physical body, but we enter the rest of bodies: energetic, emotional, mental, causal.
Eventually we will be able to apply pranayama to each posture. To be more present thanks to the breath, which coordinates our movement in the case of dynamic and fluid practice, or to help us enter and internalize in the case of keeping the postures in static.
Finally the posture
When we have the right attitude, the present attention, apply the sthira sukha and observe the flow of breath, we will practice asana. Posture. Each posture has a purpose, and even the same posture in different practices is used for different purposes. It is not a question of doing the postures right or wrong, but of adapting the posture to our needs and our practice.
Then we can go deeper into them, in the alignment, the body, the strength, the balance, so that the postures become the tools that will bring us closer to yoga. But before worrying about whether the foot is open or closed, we must pay attention to our attitude and presence.
Each practitioner should find their own practice. How the master T.K.V. Desikachar reminds us:
“Although there are many positions, we don’t have to do them all. We must plan a practice, in which we meet our own needs, and through which we can discover the qualities of asanasana (sthira sukha). At the same time we must prepare for other aspects of yoga, such as sitting comfortably and taking a deep breath. Yoga Conversations T.K.V. Desikachar
In summary as we have seen before to practice yoga we begin with our attitude, attention or attentive observation, sthira sukha and breathing. All this applied to our practice so that it stops being physical and begins to bring us closer to the state of yoga. The state where our mind is able to go to a point without any distraction. Where we are centered, attentive and relaxed at the same time.
It doesn’t matter what kind of yoga we do, but our attitude or our intention to practice yoga.
Teacher of Hatha Yoga and Pranayama
Yoga para la calma mental (silviagallegoyoga.cat)