Recently two close friends have expressed their deep suffering to me. Both of them seem deeply trapped in the boxes of their own structure. Though they are versed in the tenets and principles of yoga, their practices seem to remain external to the source of their struggles. As yoga becomes more widely practiced, and there are so many names for "types" or "styles" of yoga, so many studios, and classes offered through gyms and community organizations, this is bound to happen. As with all activities, one can study almost endlessly and participate in the activity without letting go, squeezing what is learned into the structure that is already there. It is both dangerous and liberating to allow the structure to shift and integrate the new level of understanding. In Kripalu yoga, where I gained my certification, it is not about any set sequences or required practices, but about the inquiry towards radical self acceptance. For me, radical self acceptance is the cessation of suffering and the offering of one's energy as part of the world, rather than separated from it.
There is so much difference when I practice on my own and when I take a class. The external direction of a class is so helpful to draw attention to unusual and revealing aspects, giving a carefully organized sequence of events based on well known and understood processes of the body and mind. It is this that I offer as a teacher, and I benefit from so many times as a student myself. This was not just true at the start of my yoga journey, but is true now and probably will be at every stage of my practice.
Along with classes, I encourage each person to approach their own practice with curiosity and patience. This seems to me to be the path to understanding oneself fully and integrating what we are into our daily lives. One way is to choose an asana and just explore getting there, being there, and where it goes. Another is to try following the sequence you remember from classes and see what your body remembers, allowing yourself to spend more or less time on the way, adding what your body asks for, and giving yourself permission to breathe all the way through. An exploration can focus on a particular theme - for example, working with twists, or adding in asanas to sun salutation sequences to build strength, or focusing on energy and breath relationships through pranayama using bellows breath and kapalabhati followed by soothing nadi shoduna.
I feel deep compassion for my friends. So many times I, too, am feeling trapped in my own structure or that of the relationships I have created, or the mindsets I have taken related to the world around me. The structures within which I can feel so stuck are some that have served me in the past but no longer do so. The suffering my friends feel is the life guard's warning flag to indicate the strong rip tide current. It is not the rip tide itself, nor the life guard. And yet, it is as though they are watching the life guard waving the flag without understanding the signal itself. As long as the focus of their attention is on their suffering, it is the suffering they experience. Like swimming into a rip tide, this is exhausting and fruitless. No strategy seems to work, no amount of strength seems to end the travail.
Turning attention towards the causes of suffering allows us to understand that the current is there, a defined and clear circumstance. Once you see it there, you do not have to choose to swim against it. As with self knowledge, one can use energy to swim across the narrow band of the rip tide through to the other side, or if exhausted, even allow the tide to carry one until its strength is dispersed. The part of the self that pushes into that tide and fights and struggles, suffers and feels hopeless and defeated, lost and overwhelmed is a part of the self that can be seen for what it is. This strategy for dealing with the situation as it is perceived -- the current is terribly strong I must swim against it with all my might -- can be seen for what it is.
Letting go is the deepest part of practice. Seeing one's own structure is beyond the strategies and the tides: the fear, the uncertainty, failure, shame, loss, the defined and limited self. The choice is there to get out of the rip tide. Choosing to swim against it is perhaps the most painful choice and will continue to cause the pain until the swimmer sees their choice.