“Your skill in yoga has little to do with your degree of flexibility or where your edges happen to be. Rather, it is a function of how sensitively you play your edges, no matter where they are….The practice becomes one of being relaxed and willing at your deeper edges; and this isn’t necessarily easy.” Erich Schiffman
The holiday season here in the New Haven and Connecticut Shoreline areas is a challenging time for anyone seeking to keep some time for their practice of Yoga and meditation. At times our practices wanes to the degree that we may be forced to take a “withdrawal” from the reserves of calm and peace we have been able to create through our practice during less hectic times.
In my post on November 11th I discussed the mental approach to practice that invited you to bring a greater sensitivity and compassion to your physical Yoga Asana practice. Utilizing this mental approach may help enhance the dividends of your practice off the Yoga mat, helping deepen our reserves of calm amidst the storms of busier or more stressful times. We can learn use the challenges of our lives such as those encountered at this time of year as opportunities for continued growth and evolution even when formal Yoga and meditation practice time is reduced.
Below I will describe some specific categories of the challenges and limits we encounter in the Yoga asana practice and what is can mean to your life to encounter them with consciousness and acceptance.
Yoga practice guided by the experience of working the at the “Edge” allows us a way to experience our movement to and through personal limits as a metaphor for life in a larger context. In doing so we come to understand a way any limit in our lives approached consciously can lead to greater balance, growth and enlightened living.
In our practice on the Yoga mat the main category of limits we experience are:
Anatomical limits: pertaining to muscle length or physical strength, experienced most immediately and concretely through individual muscle tightness or laxity, musculoskeletal pain, as well as the overall stability and weakness in our Yoga postures.
Physiological limits: Weak or compromised metabolic, respiration and other somatic processes. Experienced through the messages of burning muscles, shortened breath, fatigue or low energy and feelings of depletion.
Mental limits: manifesting as scattered attention, poor or rigid focus, anxiety, fear, doubt, anger, self aggression and frustration. Any unconscious reaction, even the positive experiences and emotions such pride and bliss can limit our ability to experience the present moment in our time on the mat.
We meet all these forms of limits in some manner each time we do Yoga. With skillful practice, they will recede over time in response to our efforts as we build up the corresponding faculty. With this development our resilience may grow and our ability to tolerate and thrive in challenging times can be enhanced.
To help assure this and avoid the common pitfalls of Yoga practice, I believe it is important to understand that mental limits can be the most subtle and vexing hindrances to our practice. Paradoxically, these places where our individual mental limits exist are the places in which we can enrich our lives in ways beyond imagination. Mental struggles in our practice both contribute to and are often a response to our movement into our anatomical and physiological limits. For example, anxious thoughts tighten muscles; the experience of weakness or breathlessness can reinforce fear or negative self-judgments. As products of our conditioned mind, mental limits arise anytime we move beyond our comfort zone and move into the “edge” of our habitual experience. They are our “knee jerk” thoughts, attitudes or feelings that arise in responses to unknown or uncomfortable experience. Unaware reactions to our mental limits can thwart us in our practice and rob us of the joy that we can receive from Yoga. At any point along the path failure to deal with all that arises when confronted with those “deserted areas of the mind/body” that we rediscover in Yoga practice can undermine motivation. In the worst case, this process leads us to sabotage efforts to transform and can defeat our Yoga practice altogether.
As an antidote to this I invite you to mindfully “play the edge” of your limits in your practice. This certainly does not mean moving full speed ahead in all cases. Though our commitment needs to be nurtured to remain consistent and strong, there is no hard and fast rule of what to actually do in any individual moment of your practice.
Perhaps this holiday season your Yoga practice may be reduced due to other commitments and your energy level not what is usually is when you do get to the mat. Honoring the ebbs and flows of practice is essential to remaining connected to it. We open heartedly receive our experiences as it is, without clinging to any external image of what should be happening; becoming more “relaxed and willing at [your} deeper edges”. Difficult and imperfect as this process is, it is a powerful way to transform our lives at the ”edge” that is inherent within each new and challenging life experience.