03 Apr Getting along with home practice (part two)
Three is the magic number…
Just some random thoughts here that might help you as we head towards our third week of home practice…
Some ways in which the number 3 can keep us steady on and off the mat. In no particular order (it’s been that kind of day)!
Are you struggling to get yourself on the mat? Three practices a week is what we suggest to people when this is happening. If you tend to leave gaps between practices – see if you can commit to three next week. Get yourself into a routine. Try Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then tell yourself to rest at the weekend. You might find that by Sunday you’re itching to get back on the mat in which case…yayyy…add a fourth!
With really regular practice you’ll start to see things changing. Tight spots will soften, strength and stamina will improve and the sequences will become easier to remember.
It’s absolutely fine to do three Surya Namaskar B (the second round of sun salutes) instead of five. If you feel nice and warmed up after three, crack on with the standing asana. This is particularly beneficial if you’re finding practice long, tough or tiring.
“Three strikes out”. Some of you have heard me pinching this handy phrase from the baseball rule-book when asked how many times (per practice) we should try difficult asanas.
I cap it at three attempts for myself. There’s always tomorrow. And the day after that, and the day after that. When a posture is really tricky it can can get under our skin. It can get into our heads. This serves to show us how conditioned we are by our desires or attachments. ‘Achieving’ is drummed into us at such an early age. At school, then at work, even at sport. Remember how the coach always used to say: it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part (even though no one really believed it). Joking aside, on the mat it’s very important to practice without attachment to results. Trying something challenging three times is good as long as you can keep your sense of humour intact (as well as your body). If challenging parts of the practice are a preoccupation then perhaps it’s time to step back, to try less. Asanas don’t really improve, they change. The simple act of practice can allow these changes to evolve naturally over time. If you can find a balance between ‘putting in the work’ and ‘letting things happen’ then your practice space will become a true refuge from all the expectations of the outside world.
The last three postures of the finishing sequence are the most important! Don’t skip ‘em. Ever! When we were beginners, we learned the beginning and the end of practice. This was with good reason. The finishing poses consolidate the work of whatever series we are working on. Practice simply isn’t complete without them.
Right in the middle of those three seated postures , like the filling in your favourite sandwich, is Padmasana aka “lotus” pose. The lotus symbolises enlightenment because it grows in muddy water. The stems find their way to the surface of the water and carpet the murky depths with stunning flowers. Another, lesser known translation of padmasana is “perfect pose”. It’s not about ‘being perfect’. The practice of Yoga never asks you to do that. Sitting cross legged, with the spine long and the breath steady is the perfect way to practice what the Yoga Sutras call contemplation and withdrawal (what we might call meditation). When things get rough, finding a quiet place to sit and breathe is a way out of the storm.
Talking of the Yoga Sutras…
Patanjali’s teachings are well known as the source of Astanga (the 8 limbs of yoga) but can you name the three actions of kriya yoga?
In chapter two of the Sutras (2:1) Patanjali refers to three vital acts of a yoga practice. They are Tapas (often translated as discipline); Swadhyaya (self – study) and Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion to the divine). You may recognise these three. They are a subset of the second limb: five Niyamas or aspects of ourselves we should cultivate. The other two are Saucha (cleanliness) and Santosha (contentment). There is some debate amongst scholars of the Yoga Sutras as to why these three Niyamas are given a separate billing. I have found the most helpful explanation in BKS Iyengar’s excellent commentary, Light on the Yoga Sutras. He points out that in Patanjali’s time, a person was seen as the sum of three constituent parts: The body, the mind and the soul. Each Kriya represents one of these aspects. Tapas is for the body. Translated literally, it means “burning away impurities”. It has elements in common with Agni, the digestive fire of Ayurveda. Iyengar calls tapas “a burning desire to purify the body”, which is a great way to look at it. Swadhyaya is for the mind. The translation “self study” is open to all sorts of interpretations and in Patanjalis time it referred to the study of sacred texts. Remember that the subject matter of many texts was the self, so a helpful version of Swadhyaya for the modern student might be “keep an enquiring mind”. Ishvara Pranidhana is for the soul. Devotion to God is the literal translation but in a world of many faiths (and none) you might find yourself asking which God? The answer is: whichever one works for you. In chapter one of the Sutras Patanjali defines Ishvara as a supreme form of consciousness, unconditioned and timeless. You don’t need to be “a believer” to practice Ishvara Pranidhana and, whenever I’m asked if atheism is a barrier to practice I say no. Yoga is a journey within. If, as Patanjali suggests, you put your body, mind and soul into that quest, you’re on the right track.
And finally…The main reason that three is the magic number for Astangis…
Three places of attention (the Tristhana) transform what could otherwise be a purely physical asana practice into a moving meditation. Tri means three (as in triangle). Sthana is an interesting word because it can mean ‘place of offering’, like a temple. But it can also be used in a wider sense. It is the root of the modern word ‘Stan’ which in many Asian languages means ‘country’. Pakistan is one of these. I visualise the tristhana as three bases or stands. Imagine a tripod on which to fix your asana practice (the way a photographer might steady a camera). Then you have a useful image to work with.
The bases of the tristhana are: Posture itself (asana), breath and visual focus (dristi).
But don’t forget: in our practice all asana are linked by specific movements matched with the breath (vinyasa). The vinyasa link all three aspects of the tristhana. This is because each and every movement has a prescribed inhalation or exhalation and every held asana has a prescribed number of breaths. All vinyasa and asana have a set dristi or place to look at.
This is how we learn every part of every series, and it’s done that way so we can always connect with the tristhana. It’s not just a form of meditation, it’s a stabilising influence on our practice.
Take yourself back to your first classes. In the beginning we learn quite simple postures and vinyasa so that we build our practice on very steady foundations. Over time, the vinyasas might become more complex and the postures more challenging. At this point we need to make sure we are not pushing too hard or forcing ourselves. The best way to ensure that this isn’t happening with any asana is to ‘check in’ with the other two constituent parts of the tristhana: is the breathing steady and can the gaze be held? In this way the breath and the gaze act as safety valves. Focusing on how to breathe, where to look and applying that to the memorised vinyasa can also stop us from micro managing our practice by thinking things like, “I should go deeper here” or “this pose could be better”. The longer I practice and teach Mysore classes, the more I’m convinced it is thoughts like this which hurt us (and not an incorrectly placed foot or a slightly bent leg here and there). One of the biggest misunderstandings about Mysore practice is that it is learned or ‘perfected’ posture by posture. In fact it is taught and understood breath by breath.
Walk into any Mysore room and the breath is the biggest sound, with good reason. It’s the most important part of what we do.
The technique is deliberately simple. All breathing is done through the nose. The glottis is closed slightly, so that the breath has a soft, hissing quality which is felt at the back of the throat. Inhalations and exhalations are regulated to make them equal in duration and intensity. This is worth going over while we are practicing at home because we can get into some unhelpful habits. It’s easy to overemphasise exhalation, especially when bending forward. Most of us have a tendency to shorten inhalations when an asana is difficult or intimidating (think of Navasana or Urdvha Dhanurasana, aka back bending). Steady breathing can soothe our passage through difficult parts of the practice. We can take this skill off the mat and in to daily life. When we are agitated by difficult or scary situations the breath has a tendency to become rapid, shallow and irregular. It’s an involuntary response of our autonomic nervous system. Habitually slowing and regulating our breath can delay or even change this default setting, whatever comes our way.
There are nine dristi in this practice. They are:
1 nasagre (nose); nabhi (navel); brumadhya (between the eyebrows); padagre( foot); hastagre (hand); Angusta (thumb); parsva (right side); parsva (left side) and urdvha (up).
Although they all get used at some point in all the series, some are much more prevalent than others. The most frequently prescribed dristi is the nose. This is a good place to look if you want to make sure you are gazing, not glaring. If you stare too hard at the end of your nose you will almost certainly go cross-eyed. Softening the eyes and ‘following’ the nose will be far more comfortable.
The visual aspect of tristhana works in two distinct ways, just like the breath. On the mat dristi can help with balance. We can illustrate this by returning to Navasana. Looking at the top of your feet rather than all over the place will greatly steady your ‘boat’. Dristi also has a powerful affect on the mind by honing our concentration. In his excellent book ‘One Simple Thing’, NYC teacher Eddie Stern notes that wondering eyes often accompany wandering thoughts. Searching for the answer to an internal question can make us involuntarily look up or down, even if the answer is right in front of us. Perhaps even at the end of our nose!
One more thing worth noting about the Tristhana. Conspicuous by their absence are the words Ujayi Pranayama and Bandha.
You might be surprised to discover that ‘breathing with sound’ is not exactly the same as Ujayi pranayama (victorious breathing) which is widely associated with Astanga. Ujayi breath is a very fixed technique and not suitable for everyone. For example: A student prone to overheating might need a softer, quieter breath than someone who finds it hard to work up a sweat. Actually many of us would benefit from putting more emphasis on slowing and regulating the breath than creating an overt sound. Elongating the breath will also give it some resonance without deliberately applying further intensity.
Whilst we deal with omissions, you may also be wondering why the Bandhas or energetic locks (often mentione alongside the breath) are not listed as part of the Tristhana. The Bandhas are an important part of practice but they evolve over time. They are highly unlikely to be developed in beginners and, like Ujayi Breath, they are not always appropriate (expectant mothers should not use them, for example). The best way to view the three bases of Tristhana is as a small set of foundations and not a long list of techniques.
Right! That’s enough from me today. Stay safe, stay sunny and remember. Three is the magic number…