Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad
Mind in Asana (Page 2)
An Interview with Joel Kramer
Let's talk a little about your theory of how the mind influences the body in asana.
I have found that the essence of yoga is not physical flexibility, but the quality of mind you bring to your practice. For example, the mind is very much attached to making progress, to getting better. But after you've made some initial progress in yoga, you come to a point where the body has to stop and assimilate it. You hit a plateau. Suddenly, you have to put in the same amount of energy just to maintain a certain level of proficiency. Of course, at this point the mind starts losing interest, and you back off, do yoga less or even stop doing it altogether ... until your body begins to complain and you feel motivated to put more energy into it again.
In other words, you continue on the same old treadmill.
Yes. And it's the attachment to progress that causes this cycle. I'm trying to teach people that part of the game of yoga is figuring out ways of keeping yourself turned on so that the practice stays new and fresh. For example, someone can be in a finished asana that is aesthetically quite beautiful, yet they may not be doing yoga at all. Whereas another person may be far from the completed pose but is much more in touch with their body and what's happening there. As I've said, I feel that yoga is a process. In some ways, the accomplishments are like the froth on a wave. They have their own beauty, but they're relatively insubstantial.
So the mind does have a direct effect on the way we do postures.
Definitely. In fact, the real limits in yoga are not physical (Of course, the body has its limits, but that's not the issue.) The real blocks are the limitations in the mind. We've already seen how the mind can limit our movement in relationships; it has the same effect in asana. For instance, think about the reasons you come out of a posture when you do. Maybe you're bored, you feel you've done your duty, you've held it as long as some book says you should, or whatever. If you look closely, you'll find that the first thing that tires in a pose is usually the mind. The quality of attention weakens first. You begin to treat the body casually, and then the body becomes tired. To build endurance in yoga, you must build the capacity to be in the body and attentive to it for longer periods of time.
Let me give you another example of the role mind can play in asana. As I do yoga in the morning, I may watch my mind say to itself, "I want to be at least as flexible as I was yesterday. Hopefully more so, but certainly no less." The mind approaches an asana with a set of expectations with a remembered level of flexibility that it wants to match, feeling good if it reaches it, better if it surpasses it, or a little turned off if it doesn't quite meet it. The mind can't help doing that, because the very nature of thought is comparative. But if that becomes the total way you approach your practice, you run the risk of ignoring the feedback of the body while unconsciously pushing toward an image. And that image limits you and causes you to tighten.
There seems to be a paradox here. We talk about yielding to the body's native intelligence, but we've also seen that much of what happens in the postures is controlled by the mind.
It's not really a paradox. At times the mind controls the body; at other times the body takes over. But at still other times there is total movement, with the body and mind working together. This point, which involves a fusing of body and mind through the breath, has a special energy, a special quality to it.
And you can reach this point by focusing on the breath?
Yes, because the breath is one of the systems that both functions automatically and can be controlled. You've heard teachers say, "Breathe into your shoulder,'' and you think, "How in the world does one do that?" It's not that you're breathing into your shoulder - you're breathing into your lungs, obviously - but through the energy of the breath and the focus of the mind, you can channel and maneuver energy into different parts of the body. In some ways, the breath is like a miniature universe,involved in a process of expansion and contraction, stretching and relaxation. Once you learn how to use the breath in the body, you can relax into a posture, acclimatize, adjust - and come out of the asana fresh and relaxed.
One of the techniques you're well known for is "stretching in the nerves." What does that mean? Can you give us an example?
Ordinarily, when we're stretching, we're reaching for an elongation in the musculature. But there's another kind of stretching, neural stretching, that doesn't require great extension or flexibility. It involves using the muscles to move through the nervous system, actually channeling energy in a certain direction through the body.
For example try this: Extend one arm parallel to the floor. Focus your attention initially into the upper part of the chest and into the shoulder and then begin to move it slowly out along the arm. Sort of squeezing the the bicep and the back tricep and locking the elbow, p-u-s-h energy down along the top of the arm and into the elbow. Keep breathing. Now move the energy into the forearm, squeezing the muscles of the forearm, using the wrist as a focus, continuing that movement outward and down the arm. Now move the energy from the wrist into the fingers of the hand, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g outward. What we're looking for is almost a feeling of vibration movingdown the arm, like feeling the whole arm at once Now relax. The actual movement of the arm in this extension was no more than an inch or an inch and a half, but it took real attention to feel that line going. This is what I call stretching into the nerves when you're using the muscles to pul1 the energy of the nerves downward and outward.
This technique doesn't improve flexibility per se, but it does begin to give the body the assimilative capacity to integrate flexibility through increased neural strength. Working with lines of energy also makes it increasingly difficult to injure oneself, because injuries are usually the result of reaching for flexibilities that the body is not ready for.