From Pain to Bliss (Sort of)
I have been revisiting B.K.S Iyengar’s book “Light on Life”*. It’s a book that I think everyone should read as it dispels many of the assumptions new, and seasoned, practitioners have about the yoga practice -- how and what you should practice, how and what you should feel in poses, and how and what you should try to attain as a yogi living in the world.
Iyengar, although there are innumerable pictures of him in extreme poses, is not a fan of extreme poses and he spends much time educating the reader about the difference between practicing from the external body vs. the internal body, working with expansion, and working towards self awareness. I’ll share what this means to me, what I’ve experienced and continue to experience, the choices I make and knowledge I try to employ as I practice.
For me, the external body of skin, muscles, bones and brain, are the entry points to my internal body from breath to stillness, heart to soul. The health of my external body is just as necessary and valuable as the health of my internal body and I do not deny or ignore either. The asana practice helps keep my heart beat steady, my blood pressure in check, my spine fluid, my limbs and joints flexible, and my bones strong. Asana builds a strong home for my internal body. The breath (pranayama) and meditation practice of yoga helps bring my mind inward, encourages me to practice self-awareness and let my body and brain work in communion to support my internal body. I cannot speak to yoga’s ideals of eliminating emotional disturbances or reaching enlightenment -- maybe next year -- but for me, the moments of bliss, and serene silence I have experienced in many poses is worth the effort of the practice. Which leads me to the value of effort.
One of my teachers often says to practice with effortless effort as Mr. Iyengar teaches. I think many of us hear “effortless” and lose all hope as we struggle to lengthen our hamstrings, mold our bodies over blocks, and squeeze our bellies as we twist. Let’s be clear, yoga is effort! At the beginning especially, yoga is not light and effortless as you struggle to figure out what the teacher is asking of you, where to put your feet, how to move your heart forward, and what it means to turn from your kidneys. There is pain in your body and your brain as you struggle to understand and to move. At the beginning, or after a period of inaction, there is exertion and sweat and you cannot magic your way through this time. Poses are not easy, breath is not smooth and you are looking outward, self-conscious, and not inward, self-aware. You must not give up. Learning and change is a slow, methodical process but this time is precious because it teaches you to be truly present and self-aware, to work from the inside out, to analyze your pose while you’re in the pose, and to listen to your body not only your brain calling again for both your body and brain to work in communion. Practicing only from your brain invites injury as you struggle to push or pull a rigid joint or stuck muscle asking your inactive body to suddenly move like a dancer, ducklings struggling to become swans. Practicing in communion means your brain understands a request and then asks the body to collaborate on the action. Both work together to determine if an action can be done and how to safely do it. The result of this collaboration is effortless effort. Effort, asana, that is practiced effortlessly, to your limit where your body can be safely aligned, and your brain still and silent. “What we are really doing is infusing dense matter with vibrant energy. That is why good practice brings a feeling of lightness and vitality.”*
In my personal practice I first employ action -- I fiddle about, align, center and expand, body and brain chatting, but then I employ stillness -- mind quiets, body is stable, and I feel the pose. If I move too deep, push too hard then I’m not practicing self awareness, injury will occur and stillness will be elusive. I’m no longer practicing yoga. I must choose to listen to my body too find my own safe limit, effort, so I can also find my bliss, effortless action.
The asana practice is a life practice to both sustain your body and mind, and the breath and silence practice is a life practice to sustain your spirit. The bliss and serenity of both practices can translate into bliss and serenity of a life if we are willing to honor and support both our external body and internal body.
* B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom”