Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad
Playing the Edge of Mind and Body - A NEW LOOK AT YOGA (Page 2)
Joel Kramer Yoga Journal, January 1977
Yoga is the process by which I find out the nature of my binds and keep in touch with those aspects of life that limit freedom. I have found that a synthesis of two traditional approaches of Yoga is the most direct route to this exploration. Hatha, the physical Yoga, and Jnana, the mental Yoga, both deal with discovering the limits that conditioning imposes. No conditioning is just physical or just mental. How we think is a part of how we feel and, of course, how we feel influences the thought process. The term 'conditioning' here refers to habits of the mind and body which are programmed in through experience. This includes genetic conditioning which is also programmed in through experience, although the experience is of a different order.
Yoga then is the exploration of one's total conditioning, Hatha Yoga using the body as the doorway, and Jnana Yoga using the mind. I am not presenting conditioning as a new villain to be conquered. Conditioning is part of the organizational principal of universal energy which builds patterns and systems that are the stuff of life. Conditioning is a fact which actually aids the movement of life, for without it there would be no life. At the same time conditioning is a hindrance to freedom since habits also constrict by channeling the new into old patterns, by creating and reinforcing the tendency to go on automatic which limits awareness, and by creating attachments to familiar pleasures and securities which block real change. Freedom does not lie in negating or overcoming the fact of conditioning which is impossible, but rather in springing, in the living moment, from those patterns that limit the field of what is possible.
In Hatha Yoga what is possible in any posture is a function of your conditioning (including what you ate yesterday). If instead of trying to force yourself into the idealized final position, you use the posture to explore the limitations imposed by conditioning, there is automatically a relaxation in mind and body. The postures then become highly refined tools to approach the edge or limit that binds you. Awarely playing at the edge of conditioning changes the field of what is possible.
Yoga is a process of opening, of moving beyond the physical and conceptual limits of conditioning. Experience by its nature conditions, so that moving out of it is an endless process. There is no mastery of yoga since one can only master that which has an end. The concept of opening, however, can slyly become just another idealized goal to be achieved. Actually, awareness of the tendency of the very nature of thought to stop process is part of what Jnana Yoga is about.
A key to the process of opening that keeps you truly opened is what I call 'playing the edge.' The body's edge in Yoga is the place just before pain, but not pain itself. Pain tells you where the limits of physical conditioning lie. Since the edge moves from day to day and from breath to breath (not always forward), in order to be right there, moving with its often subtle changes, you must be very alert. This quality of alertness which is a meditative state is at the heart of Yoga. A great danger in Hatha Yoga is going on automatic so that the postures become mechanical exercises, bringing with them dullness, fatigue, and resistance to doing Yoga at all.
Just as the mind is more elusive than the body, so the edge in Jnana Yoga is not as obvious as in Hatha. The habits of mind that have accumulated over time continually reinforce themselves. Habits of mind are repetitive ways of thinking about things and of structuring the world in such mental patterns as beliefs, values, fears, hopes, ambitions, self images, images of others and of the universe itself. For instance, whether I view the universe as either basically benign, malevolent or neutral (indifferent) seems to be an abstraction far removed from daily living that I might seldom overtly think about. These world views, however, are the basis of common attitudes (idealism, cynicism, skepticism) which are patterns that color all perceptions by monitoring what comes in, and directly affect day to day life.
How does one play the edge of thought? In Hatha Yoga, the Yoga is in the quality of attention to the physical system so that one learns to listen to what the messages of the body are saying. The muscles, tendons, nerves, glands, and organ systems have their own intelligence and information processing networks that can be tuned into and learned from. Playing on the edge physically sharpens the ability of the total organism to interpret and integrate this information. Thought also manifests in systems which are set ways of thinking about a particular segment of one's life. These systems are sometimes in harmony with each other but often not. Each role or pattern in one's life has a thought structure or system that gives life to and perpetuates the behavior.