Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad
Yoga as Self-Transformation (Page 1)
For thousands of years, yoga has been a tool to open the mind and body, bringing transformation. At its core, yoga is a process that involves confronting your limits and transcending them. It is a psychophysical approach to life and to self-understanding that can be creatively adapted to the needs of the times.
Yoga transforms you by opening up the physical and mental binds that block your potential, limiting your life. Transformation is a process that brings newness and interest. You might think that changing deeply could make you so different that you'd lose touch with those you love and even yourself. Actually, the transformation that yoga brings makes you more yourself, and opens you up to loving with greater depth. It involves a honing and refining which releases your true essence, as a sculptor brings out the beauty of form in the stone by slowly and carefully chipping away the rest.
Doing yoga brings many concrete benefits: it's a powerful therapeutic tool for correcting physical and psychological problems; it retards aging and keeps you opened sexually; it gives strength and flexibility for other physical activities; it can enhance your looks, posture, skin and muscle tone, and vitality; and it can give your life a sense of grace and overall well-being.
At its deepest level, yoga involves generating energy. Energy is often thought of as a mysterious force which is either there or not, and out of your control. But through yoga, you can actually change its quality and generate more of it, by enlarging the body's capacity as an energy transformer. Everyone has experienced different qualities of energy.
Sometimes "scattered" or agitated--you're off in different directions at once. Yet, at other times, you may also have great energy and be very focused and calm. Yoga involves learning to generate energy, and also to focus it into different parts of your body. This enables you to break through physical and psychological blocks, increasing energy, which allows new interest to come into your life. At any instant, the quality of your life is directly related to how interested you are in it. Yoga involves far more than either having or developing flexibility. Being able to do complicated postures doesn't necessarily mean you know how to do yoga. The essence of yoga is not attainments, but how awarely you work with your limits - wherever and whatever they may be. The important thing is not how far you get in any given pose, but how you approach the yogic process, which in turn is directly related to how your mind views yoga.
There are different basic frameworks of mind - what I call "headsets" that people bring to yoga. One involves viewing a posture as an end to be achieved, a goal: how far you get in the posture is what counts. Another one views the posture as a tool to explore and open the body. Instead of using the body to "get" the posture, you use the posture to open the body. Whichever framework you're in greatly influences how you do each posture.
Approaching postures as goals makes you less sensitive to the messages the body is sending. If your mind is primarily on the goal, the gap between where you are and where you want to be can bring tension and hinder movement. You push too hard and fast instead of allowing your body to open at its own pace. Paradoxically, if you're oriented toward the process instead of the end results, progress and opening come naturally. Postures can be achieved through struggle, but the struggle itself limits both your immediate opening and how far you ultimately move in yoga.
Valuing "progress" is a deep part of our conditioning. It's natural to enjoy progress, but problems come when your yoga is attached at its core to results, instead of to the daily process of opening and generating energy. This attachment imposes one of the real limits to your yoga. Many of you have probably noticed how your yoga is cyclical, in the sense that you're into it, then out of it, then into it again, and so on. One reason for this involves being subtly hooked into accomplishments. When you're improving, it turns you on, and you're motivated as long as you continue to improve. When you "plateau" - as we all on occasion do - you need all the energy it took to improve just to maintain where you are. If your main incentive is progress, the lack of improvement can cause you to lose interest. Consequently, you may do less or no yoga until you close up and your body complains. Then you do yoga to feel better, and again you improve until once more you hit a plateau.
The quality of mind that you bring to yoga is of utmost importance. In fact, most of the real limits that you confront in yoga live in the mind, not the body. People think they are limited by their body's endurance - that tiring is purely physical. I have found it is usually not the body that tires first, but rather, the mind which loses the stamina required for attention. When your mind tires, your attention wanes and begins to wander, and sensitivity to your body's messages diminishes. You treat the body with less care, and this tires it more quickly. Yoga involves a balance between "control" and "surrender" - between pushing and relaxing, channeling energy and letting go, so the energy can move you. I have found there are basically two personality types in yoga. I call them the "pushers" and the "sensualists." The pushers are more into control and progress - the sensualists into surrender and relaxation. As yoga truly means balance, if your tendency is to push, you must also learn to let go, relax, and enjoy the sensuality of the stretch. If your tendency is to relax, and be "laid back," you must learn to experience the turn on of pushing your edges and using control to generate energy.
The art of yoga lies in learning how to focus and generate energy into different parts of the body, in listening to the body's messages (feedback), and in surrendering to where the energy leads you. The body's resistance should be respected, since it is useful feedback. Trying to conquer resistance and push past pain is actually another form of resistance - resistance to your own limits, to what and where you are now. When you change your focus from "resisting resistance" to channeling energy into where the limits lie, your body can follow its own flow and open on its own, with minimal resistance. Trying forcibly to push past your limits actually creates more resistance and tension, whereas surrendering to the posture ultimately draws you into far greater depth. The body will tell you when to move and deepen if you listen to it.