Monday, April 20, 2009

"Tiny Yogas" - Yoga for everyday

I can't remember where I read the term "tiny yogas" (or else I would credit it), but I love the phrase. These refer to the many ways we can apply what we learn in Yoga to our everyday lives.

The physical applications of this are obvious and you can be as creative as you want! Practice tadasana while waiting in line at the bank. Try your triangle pose (utthita trikonasana) when you get home from work and you feel a bit stiff. Use parsvottanasa (standing nose-to-knee stretch) to stretch out your hamstrings before a hike or a walk. My personal favourite (as my housemate will testify) would be Warrior III while brushing my teeth!

But the asanas are only the beginning. So I want to refer back to my last post about balancing energy, and bring the theory off the mat. We don't only benefit from having balanced energy when we practice our physical Yoga, but being aware of your energy and balancing it in your everyday life can have a positive impact on ordinary situations.

As an example, let's imagine Yogi Jane, who is facing a difficult situation at work. Her boss calls her into a meeting and lays on her a huge task, that will require immense time and resources, that has to be done yesterday, that will require her to drop what she is doing and work around the clock to get it done. Even though she privately thinks that what he is asking is unreasonable (it makes her stomach churn!), she acquiesces. As she drives home that day, she thinks about the task ahead and her stress level rises. When she gets home, her housemate Sarah asks her how her day was, and Yogi Jane explodes into a long tirade against her boss and this task he has set her. No matter how Sarah tries to comfort her, Jane's stress levels don't abate. Finally, Sarah's patience is exhausted and she heads to bed. Jane is left feeling unsatisfied and negative, and her stress keeps her from sleeping well.

Sound familiar? Now let's look at the situation from an energy perspective. When Jane acquiesces to her boss despite her reservations, she is using only softening energy - bending or complying to the situation. The 'hard' or muscular energy in the situation isn't dissipated - and it turns into stress, which then overflows into stress, and impacts other situations in her life (her relationship with Sarah). The imbalance between Jane's softening and muscular energy causes her to experience the situation negatively, and she ends up the worse off for it both professionally and personally.

So, what could Yogi Jane have done differently? Imagine that when her boss comes to her with his demands, Jane takes a deep breath and activates her muscular energy - her willpower. She actively resists the instinct to give into her boss' demands. This has an instant physical effect - making her posture stronger and more self-confident. Instead of agreeing immediately, tells her boss that she thinks his proposal is unreasonable. Then, she balances this resistance (her muscular energy) with some soft energy, and proposes some alternative scenarios that could achieve the objective within the time and resources available to her and her team. Together the two of them come to a compromise that meets both of their needs. Coming home to her housemate Sarah, she shares the story of her problem and how she resolved it and then the two relax into a nice quiet evening.

Perhaps this is oversimplified, but the concept remains. Just like in each and every Yoga pose there are areas that need muscular energy and areas that need softening, the same can be applied to situations we confront. Different contexts require different balances - but learning to apply the right mix of 'hard' and 'soft' energy to the situations in our lives can help us bring the mindful, calming influence of Yoga off the mat.

Practicing 'tiny yogas' - applying the principles of Yoga to an action or an activity in your day, is a rewarding way to begin exploring the path of Karma Yoga - Yoga by action, if you will. In the next post, I'll explore this concept more fully and also touch on the fundamental precepts of the 'Yogi code of ethics' - the guidelines (do's and don'ts!) that Yoga lays out for how to live a fulfilling life.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sun and Moon: Masculine and Feminine Energies

The Yoga we are most familiar with - the practicing of physical poses or asanas - is often called Hatha yoga. In Sanskrit, Ha = sun, Tha = moon. Together, Iyengar defines hatha as "force or determined effort". Combined with the meaning of yoga (to 'bind, join, attach', and also 'union' or 'communion') we reach the overarching view that the practice of hatha yoga is a joining or balancing (of the sun and moon energies in the body) by determined effort in order to achieve union or communion. (To what is up to you!)

The concepts of sun and moon elicit in us a reference to masculine and feminine. Hatha yoga, is about disciplining the body (and mind)'s energies. The masculine energy is linked to the God Shiva, and is called the Prana (masculine). The feminine energy is linked to the Goddess Shakti (Shiva's consort) and is called the Aapana. Together they form the Kundalini, which is like a spiral of energy that flows the length of the human spine. This accounts for the focus of Hatha asanas on the spinal column - it's also why it is important to perform poses on both sides of the body (balance).

In theory when we practice Yoga we are trying to join the masculine and feminine energies of our body, thus becoming 'whole' and achieving "a poise of the soul which enables one to look at life in all its aspects evenly." (Mahadev Desai as quoted by Iyengar in 'A Light on Yoga'). These energies flow through our subtle body (our non-physical or psycho-spiritual body... it's complicated - look it up!) by means of channels called nadis. The nadis run all along the body, connecting at 6 special centres of energy called chakras. But now I'm getting sidetracked.

I recently parcitipated in an Anusara Yoga workshop in which the Teacher discussed this balancing principle. He discussed masculine energy as muscular energy. It is that energy which is powerful, energetic, and giving. When you push up from plank pose (kumbhakasana) to downward-facing dog (adho muka svasana), that would be masculine energy. But once you arrive in the pose, you invoke your feminine energy to soften the upper back and the shoulders and sink gracefully into a deeper stretch. The feminine energy is what allows us to be creative, countering the strong but rigid masculine energy with a gentle touch that says "what if...?".

What amazes me is that in my 7 years of practicing Yoga, I have only just discovered this. How did I miss it? It's fascinating (to me!) that in Western Yoga, which is so female-dominated, the feminine principal of Yoga seems to play second fiddle. Is this because the main styles of Yoga we practice today were male-initiated? Or is it because Western society is full of those rigid, energetic masculine principles? Because we are so focused on the individual, or on attaining instead of letting go? One example is our typical Yoga mat - straight and narrow. Why did it take me 7 years of Yoga to hear a Teacher say: "go ahead and go outside your mat". Simple, yet it can change the whole way you practice Yoga. It feels like coming home.

From this we learn a valuable lesson. Yoga is neither masculine nor feminine but both. It is strong yet soft, rigid yet fluid, it is fixed in a moment but flexible and changing always. Somewhere in there is a balance - a moment when time stops, when the ego dissolves, when the Yogini or Yogi just is. And that is Yoga.


Om Shanti

I'm reading a wonderful book at the moment by Lama Surya Das, an American Buddhist monk. In the chapter on generosity, he outlines the four traditional ways for sharing the Dharma - whatever wisdom is yours to share. They are:

1. Share generously of yourself.
2. Engage in meaningful discussions with others about what is of true benefit to them.
3. Encourage others to implement and internalize what they have learned.
4. Lead by example.

This blog is the first: sharing generously of myself.

I am embarking on a journey: I am training to become a Yoga teacher. Well, lets be truthful: I already teach Yoga. But I am doing this training to feel worthy of the title Teacher - to truly deepen my knowledge of Yoga philosophy and practice as well as of the way Yoga works on the human body.

So, last week I was accepted to my course of choice, and received already my self-study assignments. Namely, these are to read and reflect on three classic yoga texts:
  • The Bhagavad Gita
  • The Yoga Sutras
  • The Hatha Yoga Pradikipa
I'm starting with the Gita, considered one of the most important classical texts in Yoga philosophy. As Swami Chidananda says in the foreword: "Within its eighteen chapters is revealed a human drama. This is the experience of everyone in this world, the drama of the ascent of man from a state of utter dejection, sorrow and total breakdown and hopelessness to a state of perfect understanding, clarity, renewed strength and triumph."

If you can assimilate the lessons (implement and internalize - no 3 above) of the Gita: "Light will fill the heart and mind. This is the Gita."