Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad

Playing the Edges - Yoga & the Athlete (Page 3)

by Ian Jackson, in reference to Joel Kramer

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"The effort of goal striving actually works against us, because it tightens us. As we try to become something, that very effort actually clamps the tissue. Part of the learning in yoga is learning about this, tuning in to when the mind and body are doing this. The fact of the matter is that most of us are ambitious, and when we first begin to do yoga, we bring that ambition to our yoga. I am not saying one should try to get rid of ambition, for that is just another ambition. What I am saying is that when one becomes alert to the nature of ambition, one sees its destructive qualities and its binding nature. When one sees this clearly, ambition becomes less interesting. Yoga can teach you about this in a very intimate way, both physically and psychologically.

If this were all that yoga had to offer, I thought, it would be more than enough to recommend it to any athlete. With this kind of sensitivity and awareness, sport becomes play. All energy and no effort. Tuning in to how effort tightens the tissues can work on a day to day training basis, or on a stride by stride racing basis. When effort comes in, the joyful play of energy goes out. When force is applied to the body, it becomes dull.

What Kramer had to say about energy and effort reinforced my own hard-won insights about the racing obsession. And as he discussed the psychological aspects of yoga, he expressed the same ideas that had occurred to me when I discovered Wilhelm Reich and Ida Rolf.

“There's nothing mysterious about tightening. It's something you do to yourself, over the years. All the daily irritations, frustrations and anxieties accumulate in the muscles, and, as you condition yourself with habits, they also get etched into the body. ”

“Most of us take our psychological problems, put impressive sounding labels on them, and in one way or another forget about them or make them unreachable. But if there is a problem in me, it is in me, in the nerves, in the glands, in the response repertoire of the body. To learn about this is to see that the division between the mind and the body is not real. The mind and body are not two separate entities, but rather two aspects of one energy system.”

“The conditionings, the traumas, the hang-ups, call them what you will, actually live in you. They don't live in a name or in a psychology book, but right in the tissues, in the nerves, in the musculature, in the way the body holds itself. You really learn about this in yoga.”

I thought back to the emotional patterns touched off by certain asanas, and I wondered how much of my growing sense of decisiveness and clarity was due to the release of emotional problems stored up in tight muscles. I also thought forward, and wondered where this release was going to take me.

Every day brought new surprises. My life already seemed to be going wildly and beautifully out of control. The more I shrugged off ideas about how I should feel and act, the more I expressed how I actually did feel, the more I appreciated the free flow of spontaneity and openness.

Kramer's ideas about the spiritual aspect of yoga also struck a responsive chord in me. The spiritual aspect had always made me a little uncomfortable, because I couldn't really get into it. I couldn't meditate, or at least I couldn't do what I had been led to believe was meditation. So I got deeply into my body. When people asked me if I meditated, I told them, “Not in the usual sense, but I do meditate in the asanas. For me, a heavy three-hour session is a three-hour meditation on the body.”

But I got the impression that no one was buying my version of meditation. It just wasn't “spiritual” enough. I found myself getting defensive about it. When people kidded me about how much I was into my body, I'd just laugh and say, “Why not? It's the only home I have.”

“There is a great deal of confusion about spirituality in yoga,” said Kramer. “Most people who consider themselves spiritual seekers are looking for greater depth of experience, more profound insights, higher realms of consciousness. In short, they want deeper, richer, and if possible, longer lasting experiences. After we have collected many of the so-called mundane experiences, like college, psychotherapy, groups, sex, drugs, the whole gamut of it, we hear about spirituality and we say, 'That's for me!' Spirituality is painted as the experience to end all experiences. That's quite enticing, you know. But seeking more experience is just another self-centered activity; no matter how profound or spiritual the experience is said to be. Spirituality comes in a different way from seeking greater depth of experience. ”

"If you read the great spiritual books of the world, you find they all say the same thing. There's really only one place to look, and that's within, within you. For the universe displays itself within you. And nobody can do that for you. Nobody can guide you as deeply within yourself as you can. Nobody has that inner touch. Nobody can play your edges for you.”

“Yoga, spiritually, mentally and physically, is a way of playing with the edges or frontiers of one's being. Real adeptness in yoga: lies in how awarely one plays with the edges. In the body itself you experience your edge as a special quality of sensation, generally right before pain. It is difficult to describe since it is a non-verbal experience, but it is not difficult to discover for yourself. The feeling of energy is the key. By the feeling of pain, I mean discomfort which the mind seeks to escape. Thus, if you push past your edge into pain, attention has been removed from yoga.”

“Many of us approach yoga like puritans,” he said. "We go under the saying 'no pain, no gain.' The pain makes us feel that we are doing something good to ourselves. But real yoga is not a play with pain. Pain blocks the necessary quality of attention. If you try to ignore it, then you are operating out of greed or ambition. Of course, you can learn from that, because that's where you pull muscles. You see, greed lives with you for a while.”

Yes, greed was still living with me. I thought back to the physical breakdown following my long bout of overtraining. Greed lived with me for months after that. Greed for goals is basically the same, in yoga and running.

“If your images of what is structurally correct become goals you strive for, they can be destructive. This is a difficult point, so please don't jump to conclusions about what I mean. Structures can be useful toys to play with. The danger comes when the toy becomes the final authority so that one forces oneself to the structure, ignoring one’s edges. This is the stuff of violence.”

“To get into any asana is to play with structure, to some extent. Structures tune you into the feedback networks. To be involved with hatha yoga is to be involved with structures. The destructive element comes in when the structure becomes the goal that you're shooting for.”

“Take the image of correct structure in the headstand, for instance. To try to force yourself into the correct image is to lose the quality of exploration. Rather than using an image, I work with the muscles and bones, and let them be the guide through feedback. The spine should be straight in the headstand, not because anyone says so, but because your body tells you so.”

“The body tells you through feedback. I tune into the pressures on the spine. I tune into the point of contact on my head. I play with gravity as it works through my body. When my headstand is weightless, with no strain, then I know it is right. Only through the process of internal play, a continuous readjusting, does the body get a chance to tell you that the spine is straight.”

“A natural tendency of mind is to get oriented towards results, goals. I don't think you should resist this tendency, because resistance is just another goal. Remain aware of it, and through that quality of awareness you leave yourself malleable.”

“For me, the interest is in the inner feel of how the musculature works and where the greatest efficiency in the stretch is. If your interest is the efficiency of the stretch at the instant, then really there isn't any goal involved. And when your interest is in the maximum efficiency of stretch, automatically the proper structures come. In fact, this is how the structure of the asanas evolved over the centuries.”

I translated this into running terms. If your interest is in the running itself ("On action alone by thy interest"), on the rhythm of the arms and legs, the body carriage, the breathing, then you are running in the living instant rather than in some future race.

“One of the little tricks of yoga is generally to do your weak side first. You might find, for instance, that your triangle pose is much better on the left side than the right. If you do the strong side first, you have an unconscious tendency to try forcing the weak side up to the same standards of accomplishment. So you push yourself, and as you push, the muscles clamp down.”

“If you do the weak side first, it is easier to devote more energy to it. You get frustrated when you do it after the strong side, and you tend to spend less time with it. Moreover, if you do your weak side first, you can always do it again after you have done your strong side, to bring a balance.”

“We are tempted to go for our strong side because we have been conditioned to go for accomplishment. It is un-American not to go for accomplishment, but it is also un-Indian and un-Chinese too. It's "But if you strive for accomplishment, then you tend to ignore pain. Pain can mean many things, but no matter what it means, you risk pulling muscles if you try to push past it. You can take risks if you want to, but why not use the pain as a sign that your attention is wandering and your body is complaining. Then you can back off and begin to play with it.”

“In some ways it's like a flirtation. It's like flirting with the edges of oneself. And that flirtation must have a quality of attention if it is to open up the tissues. If I'm not right here - now, if I'm off in some image of what I want or in stoic endurance of the pain, then I cut myself off from the exploration which is yoga.”

“Yoga is learning to play with feeling. Yoga is feeling. Although the books don't write it up this way, it is probably the most sensual activity you can engage in.”

“Pain can turn yoga into a chore or a discipline in the destructive meaning of the word. Destructive discipline is doing stuff you really don't want to but think you should because you're hungry for the goal it's supposed to take you to. I think this kind of discipline is a form of self-abuse.”

“The root meaning of discipline is to learn. Simply to learn. To be truly disciplined is to be totally involved in learning. If your yoga becomes a chore or a play in pain rather than an exploration, then you're going to find yourself not doing it. "I'm not interested in Yoga as a chore. I'm interested in it as a mode of play, a really intimate way of playing with oneself. The whole secret of yoga is just doing it for the sake of doing it. No goals, no objectives, no gains, no losses. Once the mind gets into that perspective, there is an automatic release of tension.”

“It's really very simple. You've just got to dig it. If you don't dig it, it doesn’t happen. That's the way it is. You’ve got to love doing it. And by love I mean a quality of passion, a quality of abandonment. It is the doing of it that is the heart of yoga.”

Kramer began to prepare for a demonstration of postures. As he unbuttoned his shirt, he continued to speak.

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