Saturday, October 9, 2010

At the Beginning, Give It a Minute

Vinyasa is great fun and good to get energy circulating. You can work through the breath, move in the flow of energy, stretch and build muscles, surprise yourself and find yourself moved by the sequence of events. Vinyasa in sanskrit, means "to place in a special way." It combines movement, energy flow, and placement. Lots of yoga studios offer Vinyasa flow as a way to release from the constraints of the judging mind and the stagnation of personal patterns, as well as to unblock the lines of energy so that the final cool down and relaxation are that much deeper.

Vinyasa is hard on a body with physical constraints (think Carpal Tunnel issues, tight hamstrings, back trouble or knee replacements), and especially for people who are new to a yoga practice. It can be a struggle to keep up, to find your way, even to get the breath going in and out as instructed. Not knowing what is coming next or how to align oneself can make it impossible to use the prop that protects or enables. That initial scramble can sort out quickly for some, and be a source of serious injury for others. It can feel 'hard" in a way that is not inherently part of yoga. "Hard" in a learning curve kind of way. "Hard" in the "I am not good at doing this" kind of way. The newness of the postures and the constant movement can make modifications tough to figure out, adjustments hard to fit in between the instructions, and understanding of the basic principles a little vague. Of course a good teacher helps with all of this to some degree. For more experienced practitioners, Vinyasa can ratchet up into more and more physical challenges integrated into the flow, pressure to keep up, try the "harder" variations and, occasionally, emphasizes personal expression in the flow that can be more involved with ego than with cultivating nonjudgmental awareness and the foundational breath. Again, good teaching can help draw a student's attention back to the practice and out of the performance of Asana.

Figuring out a posture from the inside takes time. It is very different than learning a series of dance steps. One doesn't always need to be negotiating all the details, yet there are depths of understanding that only come with time, time in the pose. Take a simple pose, like Balasana (Child's Pose). This is very often offered as a "resting" pose, yet is difficult for many people and as with so many Asana, offers a very deep practice. The hip creases are drawing back, pelvis lifting, spine curving; knees are deeply bent, tops of feet press into the floor, while the shoulders are spreading open, the heart widens as it sinks, the ribs center pulling back towards the spine, and the third eye rests on the earth. Breath is into oneself. What's so simple about this? For some, the bend is beyond their capacity in the knee or spine. For others it is the internal quality of breath in the ribs against the thighs, the leaning of the heart inward that brings the emotions forward. Perhaps it is the openness in the back ribs, the breath ballooning over the kidneys that shifts the attention, or it could be simply feeling the earth below you, supporting your shins that lets the tension release from the back of your neck. Where does the mind go? Perhaps it begins with making all the little tweaky adjustments of ankles or shoulders, but if you stay there a minute other experiences begin, and perhaps your attention will shift.

Passing through Balansana for a moment to catch your breath is a wonderful thing too, like that moment when you take your shoes off after being in them all day. But in every Asana there are hidden treasures, secrets about yourself, illuminations about existence itself that come with time, time in the pose. So if you feel you are struggling and thrashing about in Vinyasa classes, give yourself a minute in your own practice or find a class that can slow it down for you. Spend a few breaths -- perhaps starting with 3 -- in each aspect of exploring Asana and your strength, flexibility, awareness and inner sense of alignment will catch up to you. Take that sense of balance back to Vinyasa class and see what a different experience it can be.

As a student once said to me, "There is just so much to think about all at once, including wondering what I am thinking about!" Letting this go, allowing the experience to get beyond thinking into experiencing the moment itself, is possible in one Asana or flowing through a Vinyasa. Try different approaches until you find the one that gives you the time you need to integrate and align yourself safely.

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