On Asanas: Building a Sustainable Practice

For last week’s teacher training homework, we had to read a passage in B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga about considerations for successful practice of yoga asana. Reading “Hints and Cautions for the Practice of Asanas” reminded me of my ideal practice day, when my breath and movements are perfectly linked and my mind is alert without being full of distracting thoughts. The reading also helped me understand why my practice is subpar on “bad” practice days.

My practice is least effective on days when I refuse to put down the anxiety of the day ahead of me or stress of what’s past. First, this violates pretty much every yama and niyama (negative self-talk violates ahimsa, stealing energy from my practice to fuel abstract anxieties violates asteya, giving into negative thought patterns versus activating mindfulness techniques violates tapas, etc.), but it also inhibits my ability to retain an alert yet passive mind. When I’m too distracted by thoughts about things off my mat, only half of me is present.

When this happens, my physical practice suffers immensely because there’s no connection between my body and my mind. I find balance poses to be especially difficult, and because I’m too distracted by mental stories of anxiety and I forget to breathe. When I come to the mat with a busy mind that I am unwilling to quiet, I am already in a state of imbalance. Rather than breathe into that imbalance as a way to recenter myself, most of the time I continue to let my breath be stolen because I wrap myself into thought patterns of not being strong enough or worthy enough to pursue a better practice.

My best practices give me a feeling of unity with the energy of the universe (or God), and my worst feel like going to church but spending the whole service on my phone. I’m getting a lot better at practicing awareness when I come to the mat with a busy mind, but it can still be tough to challenge my thought patterns and recognize that I have plenty of ways to move past the mental business of before and after class to remain present and reach that feeling of unity.

The poses have always been comparatively easy for me, because most anyone can make a certain shape with their body. What’s been more difficult is reaching that mental peace, and what I’ve found is that what mental business steals from me first is what I need the most to return to the yoking of my body and mind: my breath. A simple thing I try to do when I’m in a challenging posture or notice myself getting distracted by self-doubt is to breathe deeper until the moment of challenge passes.

It’s kind of like the scene in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt where she talks about how you can do anything for ten seconds. When I breathe into spaces of challenge or breathe to restore the connection within myself so I can connect with the universal energy around me, I try to focus just on each inhale and exhale and let thoughts about how long I’ll be in the pose, or what I need to do after class, or that shitty thing that happened before class, pass across my mind’s eye (kind of like how water would flow off my shoulders in a perfect plank pose).

I wish it were as easy to practice all of this as it is to think about and write about. You would think something as essential as breathing would not be lost so quickly, but it’s funny how stress and perceptions of inadequacy are so quick to steal such an essential, life-giving action. I’ve tried to bring breath to challenging situations outside the studio, which was really important in the last week as I signed a lease to move, prepared for a surgery, and dealt with an incredibly busy work life. All good things, but overwhelming and breath-stealing if you aren’t careful!

It’s funny to me that asana comes before pranayama within the eight limbs of yoga, because I find it difficult to practice postures without a strong foundation of breath, just as good breathing is near impossible if I’m not coming to the mat with a mindset rooted in the yamas and niyamas. This week, I recognized that a lot as I let myself get distracted by thoughts about what limitations I may or may not have after surgery to remove the tumor in my side…and then, I ended up not having much physical limitation at all after a couple of days of serious rest.

I want to say that I know better than to think about how not indulging those thoughts would have prevented me from stealing from my practice last week, because indulging those thoughts is just stealing from my current moment. I’m still learning, and still need that conscious pause once I recognize that stealing is happening…but at least now, it’s becoming easier to recognize when I need to breathe to find my balance again.