Thoughts on Deepening an Authentic Yoga Practice
Authentic yoga practice is an exploration in relationship. One who is practicing yoga as sadhana (rather than yoga as entertainment) has a relationship with their teacher, a relationship with the practice method or tradition, and most importantly a relationship with the self.
Ultimately, the real work of yoga is to deepen and strengthen these relationships. A solid and stable relationship with the teacher and with the tradition of practice are essential factors in a healthy and transformative yoga practice, but ultimately those relationships are meant to serve as the foundation and support for the deepening of the practitioners’ relationship with the self. A deepening of practice always involves a deepening of relationship.
It can be helpful to keep this mind when we are seeking out ways to deepen our yoga practice.
There are many yoga experiences for sale these days, and many of them are marketed very well. These experiences may include some or all of the following: A famous and charismatic teacher (or several famous teachers); a certificate of completion, perhaps conferring one with the title of “teacher”; exposure to new postures and/or innovative techniques, knowledge, information, tricks, etc; a paradise like setting; and perhaps supplementary forms of quasi spiritual entertainment.
These types of yoga retreats and events may look exciting and feel stimulating, but when considering this kind of experience, I feel it is important to ask oneself if it will really deepen one’s practice – if it will really strengthen one’s relationship with a teacher, a tradition, and with oneself – or if it is simply a quasi spiritual form of entertainment, yet another distraction in the world of commodities competing for a piece of our increasingly weakened attention span.
It is common Western thinking that deepening comes through accumulation. The more we can accumulate, the more we have, and the more we have to offer.
A quick glance at the website of an average Western yoga studio (and Eastern studios which mimic the Western yoga studio model) will exemplify this type of thinking. A popular studio usually offers classes in a number of different styles or forms of yoga. Something is there for everyone, and the potential student is welcome to choose whatever suits their particular mood: Hot or cool, fast or slow, gentle or vigorous, etc. Glancing at the teacher roster will usually show a large number of teachers. The biographies of the teachers usually include a list of several different styles of yoga that they have “studied” and an even longer list of well known teachers that they have “studied with”. There are even multidisciplinary teacher training programs where over a span of one month, potential teachers are “trained” in several different styles of yoga, by several different mentors, and then left to decide which particular form they want to start teaching.
It is increasingly rare to see a yoga school which gives thorough and structured instruction in one tradition or system of yoga, and even rarer to see a teacher’s biography which states something along the lines of “I am qualified to teach yoga because I spent 20 years practicing under Master teacher X and went really deep with him”.
In any long term relationship, we need to continue to adjust and recalibrate in order to keep it healthy. The same goes for a long term relationship with a teacher and a tradition of practice. This commitment and constant adjustment and recalibration can be a strong stimulus for healthy self evolution, if done with intention and awareness. Ultimately, this provides a stable foundation to take us deeper into relationship with ourselves and to evolve into healthier and more functional people.
A relationship by definition involves an interaction or exchange between two entities. If we are having a “relationship” with ourselves, and deepening that relationship through yoga practice, it implies that there two different aspects of ourselves that need to communicate with each other.
Canadian author Matthew Remski recently wrote an article in which he attempted to define the concept of “meditation”. Part of his definition included:
It can be helpful to view meditation as the gradual process of improving numerous layers of internal conversation between the “feeling-self” and the “conscious-self”
I found this to be quite helpful in clarifying my own concept of how we use yoga practice to deepen communicate with ourselves.
Modern human society has created the possibility for our conscious minds to exist almost entirely in a world of ideas, conceptions and creations. We really don’t need to feel very much, if we prefer not to. Much of the conceptual world of the conscious mind makes little or no sense to the innate intelligence of the feeling body – yet we have trained ourselves to stop hearing the feeling body as we drag it along through the conceptual universe the mind has created.
Only in times of extreme pleasure or extreme discomfort, when the feeling body shouts out so loudly that it can no longer be ignored do we start to listen. Even in these times, that listening rarely represents healthy discourse or dialogue between the conscious mind and feeling body. Usually it involves doing the quickest and easiest thing possible to satisfy the cravings or remove the cries of pain of feeling body, so that it retreats back into the shadows and we can return to our fabricated mental world of ideas and concepts.
My various practices have evolved and intertwined over the past 15 – 20 years to the stage where they are united by one process: To improve the communication and deepen the relationship between my conscious mind and my feeling body. In other words, my practice is a vehicle to deepen my relationship with myself.
The different forms of formal practice that I take on a daily basis – including vipassana meditation, ashtanga vinyasa yoga, pranayama, the Buddha’s pancha sila or Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas (the practice of investigating the ethics of our relationships with the world), dietary observations, etc. – are all different lenses through which I examine and tinker with this central theme. Each of these practices is necessary for me, as any one of them alone will not suffice to cover the entire field of my own experience, my own feeling body.
Just as “science” is divided into separate categories of exploration, such as physics, biology, chemistry and psychology, so that the entire field of publicly observable, objective reality is covered, so the different spiritual practices of seated meditation, asana, pranayama, ethics, diet, etc. are all there to cover the entire field of the introspective, subjective reality of the feeling body.
According to some interpretations of the Buddha’s teaching, the unconscious mind is constantly in contact with the sensations of the feeling body. Not only that, but the unconscious mind is constantly generating a reaction of craving or aversion to the sensations of the feeling body. We remain mostly unaware of this ongoing process of reaction to sensation, but it’s long term effects become deeply embedded in our psyches. These reactions are the foundations of all our mental complexes, habit patterns, tendencies and the general issues that most people are aware to some degree that they have and that perhaps they should “work on”. The Buddha termed them “sankhara” (in the Pali language) and Patanjali termed them “samskara” (in Sanskrit). According to both teachers they are the source of all our suffering, both internally and externally as we reflect them into our relationships with the world.
The first step to working on these reactive habit patterns is to become consciously aware of them. The most effective way to do this is to go straight to the source where they are generated – the interaction of the mind with the feeling body. The essence of the Buddha’s vipassana practice is to be aware of the feeling body without generating any reaction to it as continuously as possible.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha claimed that if we can stay aware of the sensations of the feeling body and we manage to not generate any reaction of craving or aversion to those sensations and feelings and we can do this continuously, without interruption, not missing that awareness for even a moment, then we will become fully liberated from all of our sankhara patterns (enlightened) within a period of 7 days to 7 years. Whether it takes 7 days or 7 years would depend on the level and degree of accumulation of sankhara patterns, which is unique in each individual.
It may sound fairly simple to become liberated. We just have to do one thing for somewhere in between 7 days and 7 years. Unfortunately, observing the feeling body objectively is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it is epically hard work.
Any authentic practice that takes us deeper into this experience is not likely to be an easy sell. It is an immense challenge to face what is happening inside without flinching or turning away. Yet, my own explorations have led me to believe that this is the most direct way to becoming the most consistent, integrated, functional and meaningful beings that we can possibly be. It is really the only way to strengthen and deepen our relationship with ourselves. It is the most honest communication there is.
Once the conscious mind and feeling body have learned how to communicate with each other more harmoniously, we start making healthier life choices on all levels, from what we choose to eat and how we spend our time, to how we tend to react and interact on a deeper level with everything around us, including other beings.
I have observed these benefits grow in myself over 15 years of steady and consistent practice. It is my understanding of what Sharath Jois often refers to in conference as “the yoga happening inside you”. While I do have doubts and reservations about whether these benefits can be extrapolated to the Buddha’s definition of total liberation, I have no doubt that the benefits exist and continue to increase with long term practice.
Yoga and meditation practices that are for sale are often touted as bringing about “bliss”, “peace”, “happiness”, etc. There is little doubt that a deeper sense of contentment, consistency and functionality should be the long term results of these practices. We may very well also experience short term effects that can be both blissful and intoxicating as we practice.
However, for one who is practicing authentically, by which I mean using the practice as a means to deepen their awareness of and communication with the feeling body, there is soon enough going to be some unpleasant experiences and feelings to encounter. In fact, this can sometimes be the dominant experience for extended periods of time along the way.
All of our negative and unpleasant sankhara patterns need to come into the light of the conscious mind, via the feeling body. We need to see them and look them in eye and learn how to be completely comfortable and OK with them. Only then will the patterns weaken and begin to dissipate.
The good news is that we don’t need anything aside from our own steady awareness to achieve this. We don’t need protection or help from deities. We don’t need mantras, blessings, incense or prayers. We don’t need shaktipat. We don’t need a body worker or an exorcist. It’s all within our own reach – all we have to do is be willing to know and feel our own sankhara patterns completely, by using an authentic practice to take us there. Then, the transformation happens naturally, without force or being contrived by the conscious mind.
Once we’ve created non reactive union between the conscious mind and the feeling body, the realignment happens automatically. For 99 percent of people, having a stable relationship with one tradition and one guide will also be a necessary support network to this work.
This is simple, but epically challenging. Human beings are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. So, if we are engaging in a practice that brings us into conscious contact with some potentially unpleasant experiences in the feeling body, our natural instinct will be to run away. It requires comprehension of the process, determination, focus and faith to stay with it and override our instinctual response to avoid. We also must do this in a balanced way, encountering only as much as we have the capacity to process and integrate into our lives. Not so many people are willing to do this deeper work, which is why spending 20 years with a master teacher in one particular practice remains an uncommon phenomena.
When people are working authentically and they do start to encounter deeper layers of themselves through practice, I have observed that there are three things that tend to happen:
1. Stop practice – turn away and repress sankhara patterns.
This is the most common occurrence. Stopping practice can mean quite literally quitting. Stopping Ashtanga (or whatever practice it may be) and moving on to another form of yoga or practice.
But, it can also manifest in subtler ways. For example – a teacher holds a student on a particular posture because it is not yet mastered there is still some deep work to do. The posture is challenging as it is bringing up some unpleasantness in the feeling body and the mind is reacting to that. The student decides that he has had enough of this particular teacher and moves on to find another teacher who is less demanding and allows them to avoid, modify or even skip that posture. The student hasn’t quit Ashtanga, but they have succeeded in avoiding the most transformative opportunity in the practice.
Other practitioners manage to bash their way through the practice without feeling themselves at all. Rather than using the practice to deepen their sensitivity towards their feeling body, they actually numb themselves as a way to “get through it”. Or, they turn on the TV, play music, talk, etc. These are all ways to avoid the real work, the introspective encountering of the self through the practice. One is going through the motions physically, but they are not really practicing.
2. Use practice to feed and deepen sankhara patterns.
This is also a regular occurrence. Those with self-deprecating and self abusive tendencies can find very fertile soil in the Ashtanga practice to make these sankhara even deeper.
The model Ashtangi with the perfect physique and beautiful practice becomes an ideal that the conscious mind of the student attempts to embody, denying the reality of their own feeling body as they try to bash it into their vision of perfection.
The yoga selfie era of Facebook statuses and Yoga Journal covers has contributed much to this unfortunate phenomena. As a result, eating disorders manifest or are worsened, knees and backs are forced until they break, and the rift between the conscious mind and the feeling body becomes wider and wider.
Or, those with self aggrandizing tendencies can also find fertile soil to deepen their patterns. The strength and energy generated by the practice are channelled into becoming even more manipulative and controlling. Once these types of people become teachers with other students looking up to them, the effects can become outright disastrous, for themselves and for the other lives that they succeed in damaging. There are too many stories of abusive and scandalized teachers and gurus. This is not an uncommon path to take either, unfortunately.
3. Quietly observe, and keep practicing.
One can cultivate patience and objective observation. Whatever the feeling body is telling us, we listen. We try to listen as clearly as possible. And we accept what it has to say to us. And with that sensitivity, we continue our practice with awareness and allow the changes to manifest naturally.
Having a clear understanding of what we are really doing with the practice, combined with faith, focus, humility and patience, along with the support and guidance of a good teacher and a healthy tradition can allow us to gradually work through all the sankhara patterns that practice exposes us to.
This is difficult, it requires a real willingness to adapt and change. It requires humility and it requires surrender – to our tradition, to our teacher, and above all to our own feeling body. Those who do take this path become very grounded, balanced, functional and compassionate practitioners and teachers whose lives are greatly enhanced by what they do.
No one is perfect, and even with the best intentions, we all end up falling into category 1 or 2 from time to time. It is another reason that the support and feedback of a healthy practice community, a good teacher, and a lot of self reflection are necessary. If we have these supports and this intention, and we persist, then we will succeed in practicing authentically and the practice will be a support to help our lives become the best that they can be.
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