Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad
Playing the Edges - Yoga & the Athlete (Page 1)
by Ian Jackson, in reference to Joel Kramer
I was sitting on the floor, gingerly testing a sore hamstring. I had hurt it the night before in my eagerness to be at a peak of flexibility for a long-awaited yoga workshop. The teacher, Joel Kramer, was reputed to be one of the most adept hatha yogis in the world. Considering the focus of his discussion, it was very timely for me. While listening to him, I was aware of the sore leg, and that I had started yoga to avoid injuries. As he began his presentation, I immediately liked him. He looked around the room as he spoke. His natural and open eye contact made me feel part of a personal conversation with him rather than a student listening to a teacher.
“I would like to introduce you to a way of doing yoga that may be different from what you are used to,” he said.
“In order to be sure that yoga does not become mere calisthenics, there must be a certain quality of awareness, of mind. Without this, there is no yoga. The focal point is not the gaining of any ends or results, but rather the quality of awareness in the doing.”
I thought about the focal point of my yoga practice since studying with Iyengar and Rishi. Although the sensuality of the stretching was still there, the structure of the asanas had become more important. I had not wanted to admit it to myself, but I had been feeling very discouraged by the great gulf between what I was supposed to be doing with my body and what I was capable of doing. Sometimes, my practice had felt like work instead of play.
“People starting into yoga often get the idea that it is the achievement of certain kinds of flexibility which opens up energy centers. And that is true, to an extent. For me, flexibility comes only as a byproduct of exploring areas of tightness. Ambition tends to make us tighter. Striving for flexibility can bring flexibility to a certain degree, but in the long run it is detrimental to the total well-being of the person. As soon as we drop the ambition and get into exploring our tightness, the conflict between what we are and what we want to be dissolves, and that brings a physiological relaxation.”
I thought back to my racing ambitions, and the havoc they had wrought in my life. Yoga had somehow seemed inherently safe, so totally out of contact with the competitive spirit that it was a guardian against the excesses of ambition. Now I wasn't so sure about that any more. In all honesty, I had to admit that I had brought the competitive spirit into striving for perfection in the asanas. In spite of warnings from Iyengar and Rishi, I was doing my yoga with a striving mind instead of a receptive body.
“If you approach your yoga as a way of tuning into your body/ mind feedback system, you can very quickly learn to be your own teacher. Teachers come and teachers go, but fundamentally one is always with oneself. You must not accept me as an authority just because I have a certain way with words and certain levels of flexibility. Take what you can from my presentation to open up doors for your own inner exploration. You are never really in touch with yoga until you learn to do it on your own. Teachers are useful guideposts, but if you accept a teacher as an authority and obey blindly, that puts you out of touch with yourself.”
I knew what he said was fundamentally true. For many months now, I had been going to Felicity's class or to a teacher training session at least once a week. Regular feedback from a teacher kept my practice from becoming sloppy. There seemed to be more to learn all the time, a steady progression into ever finer precision of structural adjustment. But in spite of these advantages, I much preferred practicing yoga alone, choosing my own pace and my own sequence of asanas. I knew that outside guidance had helped me tremendously, but perhaps I was now ready for more independence.
“In my yoga, the breath is the controlling factor, the inhalations and the exhalations. Beginners usually try to do the asanas with the mind. They have in mind an image of the positions they want to get their bodies into, and they try to force it.”
How well that described my own beginnings with Hittleman’s book! I recalled the agony I had senselessly endured in trying to reach what I thought was the proper body position.
“What you will see is not the way I work when I am alone. Usually, I stay with each pose longer, and my breathing becomes much deeper and slower. There is nothing magical about the degree of flexibility I have attained. It came naturally as I continued to play the edges over the years. As the edges got further out, I had to start using these advanced and intricate poses. The easy poses simply were nowhere near my edge anymore.”
“One of the secrets of continued exploration, especially as you get very flexible, is always to spend a few breaths away from the edge. Even though you know you have the flexibility to hit it hard, don't. Begin at the beginning every day; approach the edge slowly, with the breath.”
And with this Kramer cut short his introductory remarks. As he took off his shirt and pants, he seemed already to be internalizing, to be withdrawing into his body awareness. He was wearing brief swim trunks, and although his muscles were not bulky they were extraordinarily well defined. His movements had that relaxed fluidity that I have come to associate with all people who have been into hatha yoga for some time. He began.with the headstand, breathing deeply and evenly as he moved into it. From the basic headstand, he moved through a cycle of variations, twisting his body to one side and the other, then folding his legs into the lotus pose and twisting again.
His breath grew steadily deeper, and it became obvious what he meant when he said that he let the breath control rather than the brain. It was his breathing that moved him. When twisting, for instance, he would go a little distance on the exhalation, hold on the inhalation, then move deeper into the twist on the next exhalation.
Using this method, he began to do fantastic things with his body, working into poses that I had only seen photos of up till that time. There was a quality of great power and grace in his every movement. He executed the most difficult and intricate poses with consummate ease. As I watched him, I sensed that he was letting himself be moved, rather than exerting the effort to control. Seeing his demonstration tied it all together for me.