Saturday, June 9, 2012

Escalating Practice: Encouraging or Lost in Ego?

It is nearly impossible to ignore the sparkle of doing more, the allure of the challenge in the physical asana, or the hierarchy of yoga classes and practices deemed a "higher level." We all see yoga in the external images, those crowning aspects of back bends and inversions that seem so graceful yet unapproachable to so many of us. Without exception, we can find ourselves in classes with bodies that seem more able than our own, or at the very least, we know of such classes labeled "advanced." Is this how we deepen our practice, inspired and driven beyond our current limitations? If not for setting a goal of building strength, or gaining flexibility, or holding steady through that moment when we want to give up, how else do we get beyond feeling weak, inept and unsure of ourselves?

The way I see it, the very first commitment we make to our practice is a step beyond this allure of escalation. Embedded in that first commitment is an inkling of non-dualistic thinking: that even with our flaws and weaknesses, strengths and proclivities, we can experience the truth of this moment and release our judging mind into the role of observer/witness. Even as we struggle in the first moments of a meditative centering, even as we worry about our tight hamstrings in a forward fold or weak abdominal muscles or sore wrists or tight lower back or whatever it is, we can begin to see it as it is and with a focus on this inhale and exhale we can allow ourself the experience of observing as our own awareness begins to broaden. This is the heart of practice at any stage, after any number of years. If you began the practice as an accomplished athlete in perfect physical form, you would still run right up against this greatest challenge: to be fully present in a broadened perception with a focus of awareness in this moment.

And so it is that I find myself too, right in the middle of standing on my head, and up until a specific moment, my energy is flowing freely and I am observing an array of sensations, including an openness and startling ease. Then, in an instant, my attention turns entirely to counting my breaths, and my mind establishes a goal -- that number of breaths that would put me in the "I DID IT" category. My experience of the moment is hijacked into holding on tight, counting my breaths and encouraging myself to just keep going until I reach that magic number that I've set myself. I hold on for that accomplishment and when I do release from the posture, I pause, observing the flow of energy in response to the asana, the sweep of the experience and my breath in that moment.

Is it any surprise that my practice was to see the grasping at the goal, after experiencing a new level of openness in the asana? Not at all. This is the essence of the practice itself, declining the invitation to escalate into a physical competition, inviting the increase in awareness of what is actually happening, and as always, seeing the dualistic way of thinking/being and not getting lost there. The significance in the number of breaths I remained in headstand is indeed in the experience of that gripping, my fear reaction to the openness in the pose, that by its very nature challenged everything about the status quo of my conditioned ways of seeing myself in the world. So much benefit in perceiving the choices of where we turn our attention! So much freedom comes in those choices!

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