I ran into a friend in a yoga class today. After class, we started talking, and as chats in yoga studios often go, we got to the nitty-gritty pretty fast. She asked me why I practiced. What did yoga do for me? I’ve been pondering this very question all week as I spend time thinking about this blog and brainstorming about how I am going to bring the mass of swirling yoga-thoughts into focus. Amazingly, instead of coming out with a ba’zillion ideas all jumbled together, my reply came out in one sentence: In yoga, I practice listening to what I’m feeling.
Right now, my yoga practice is all about improving my self-awareness. This talk of self-awareness isn’t some annoying, new age idea, either. I’m doing it because I really need to. Lack of self-awareness has caused some big problems in my life lately and I’m not interested in reliving them. Believe me. So how does self-awareness in yoga work? I’ll tell you what my wise teachers suggest and where this practice begins for me:
On the mat, begin to tune into the breath. Notice the quality of the breath without changing anything. This observation period isn’t about improving or judging or the breath, it is just taking the time to feel and notice in the present moment. Is the breath shallow? Is the inhale longer than the exhale? Does the belly rise and fall with the breath? Does the ribcage move? How does the breath feel as it comes into the nostrils and into the body?
Just by noticing, we may start to change the way we breathe. That’s okay. Notice that, too. A shallow breath isn’t a bad breath. It is merely a shallow breath. Call it what it is. When we can notice without judgment, we have information that we can use. After we understand our starting place, we can decide where to go because we know where we are coming from. Perhaps we breathe into the front, sides and back of the lungs. Maybe our practice could use a belly breath.
The asana has become the place where I practice having breath-awareness and I notice feelings that arise. Having information about myself and how I’m feeling can help me with the next step of deciding what to do about it. In an asana practice, the work can start with the body and the breath. It turns out that it is a good way to approach my more elusive emotional responses to things, too. Eventually, the assessment gives information that isn’t complicated or clouded by our emotions, judgments and internal filters.
There’s a sutra for that: Patanjali’s Sutra* 1.16 When an individual has achieved complete understanding of his true self, he will no longer be disturbed by the distracting influences within and around him.
*Patanjali wrote the yoga sutras a few thousand years ago. The sutras are one liners about the yogic path and they are so amazingly pertinent to the human experience that there is a lifetime of study and reflection that could come of the text. There is a sutra that offers insight into almost any experience, struggle or desire. I really like Mr. Desikachar’s interpretations of the sutras from his book The Heart of Yoga, Developing a Personal Practice.