Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad
Yoga as Self-Transformation (Page 3)
Joel Kramer Yoga Journal May/June 1980
Doing yoga in the morning puts you in direct touch with how you have been treating yourself on the previous day. You learn to read subtle differences in flexibility, endurance, and energy. The body has its own intelligence, and being able to listen to and learn from that intelligence is an essential part of yoga. Through this paying attention, yoga can align and remold the structure of your body according to an inner sense of what it needs.
Techniques of Yoga
Yoga, both as an accumulated body knowledge and as an art, involves learning and refining technique. Teachers are useful in helping expand your technical repertoire, which in turn enhances your potential for creative self-expression in yoga. Technique enables you to work the body in deeper ways, and it also helps hone focus and attention. However, it is important to keep in mind that although technique has its own aesthetic quality - its own beauty - it is a means for transformation, not an end in itself.
Attention & Focus
The essence of yoga is focus and attention - attention to breath, to the body's messages, to energy, and even to the quality of your attention. Over the years, I have found that the way I do yoga is continually changing. Deepening your practice is not so much learning to do more advanced postures, but rather increasing your understanding of how to do yoga. Precision in technique can make yoga, even in very basic postures, more focused and exciting, and can deepen your understanding of what yoga is about.
Learning to do yoga is, among other things, learning to love doing it. Not necessarily all the time, but as a general presence in your life. You can love someone who on occasion frustrates or angers you, yet the love remains underneath. If you've been doing yoga for some time and you don't love doing it, this in itself is an indication that the way you are approaching it should be questioned. At any place in a posture, are you turned on, interested in being there? If you find you're not, this most likely means your mind is somewhere else.
Perhaps you're stoically enduring the pose so you can feel you've done what you "should" or "what's good for you." You could also be struggling to achieve the final goal, which may be a completed posture, or yesterday's level of flexibility. If your attention and interest are not in the body, you are not fully present in the posture.
Attention in yoga involves letting go, a relaxation that surrenders to the "what is" of the posture. Here you are alert and watchful, but not passive. It's the body that "decides" when to hold, when to back off, when to deepen, and when to come out of the posture.
Yoga develops the ability to focus energy into specific areas, which generates energy whether you're stretching or relaxing in a pose. Learning to focus energy with great depth and precision is a vital part of yoga that is often not emphasized. This ability does not depend on flexibility, but rather on a quality of mind that is able consciously to sense the body for tightnesses and blocks, and then focus into them.
By "attention" I mean a broadening of the spectrum of awareness, which occurs when the mind lets go of control and direction. "Focus" is more one-pointed than attention and, of course, involves control. Although focus and attention are different, they are intimately connected. It is through being attentive that you learn where to focus, and deeper focus brings a capacity for a greater attention. This is another way that yoga plays between control and surrender.
Breath is the fuel of life (traditionally called "prana"). In yoga it serves as a bridge between the mind and the body, since it operates on automatic and can also be consciously controlled.
Breath is a cornerstone of technique. Learning to use it effectively is a key to deepening your yoga, since it directly increases stretch, strength, endurance and balance. I use a variation of "ujjayi," which is deep-chest breathing that lengthens the breath through glottal control. The pull of lungs across the glottis on inhale and the push of lungs on exhale help you move in the postures and deepen them, while at the same time relaxing you. In postures that involve folding, compacting, and forward-bending, you move and stretch on the exhale while holding and relaxing, or aligning on the inhale. Conversely, stretches that expand the lungs and chest are done on the inhale, relaxing or aligning on the exhale.
Breath itself is an interesting lesson in control and surrender. By using breath, instead of the mind, to guide and control movement and stretch, the body can let go, surrendering to the posture more easily. When breath and body are coordinated, so they are moving as one, energy flows into the musculature, totally changing the quality of yoga. The proper use of breath gets you out of your mind and into your body, bringing a grace and sensuality to movement impossible when the mind is in control. This way of using breath gives a relaxed and centered attention to the whole organism, and can also be used to focus energy into different parts of the body.
Another important dimension in yoga is learning how to "play the edge." The body has edges that mark its limits in stretch, strength, endurance, and balance. The flexibility edge can be used to illustrate this. In each posture, at any given time, there is a limit to stretch that I call the final or "maximum edge." This edge has a feeling of intensity, and is right before pain, but it is not pain itself. The edge moves from day to day and from breath to breath. It does not always move forward; sometimes it retreats. Part of learning how to do yoga is learning how to surrender to this edge, so that when it changes you move with the change. It is psychologically easier to move forward than to back off. But it's as important to learn to move back if your edge closes, as it is to learn to move forward slowly as the body opens.