Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: The Quest
Everywhere I went the search continued. Four years in California. I looked in the sea. Seven in Colorado. I looked in the mountains. In 1974 I even traveled to India for six months and looked there in the cities and the mountains. The pretext for the trip was to cover as a photojournalist for East West Journal Kumbha Mela, a huge spiritual festival held only once every twelve years on the banks of the Ganges River. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus from all over India make a pilgrimage to Hardwar, a small town north of Delhi, and all try to bathe in the Ganges at the same auspicious moment. I was in India to search. Photographing and writing about monks, mystics, and myriads of spiritual sojourners was just a way to validate my own ethereal wandering.
One evening in the swarming marketplace of Bombay, weeks before I was due in Hardwar for Kumbha Mela, I was hard at work on my search. In Bombay at night, small fires of burning dried buffalo dung are omnipresent, and a hazy yellow-orange curtain hangs over the churning sea of night life. The smell is intoxicating. And the dark, turbulent mystery of a Far Eastern city at night was irresistible to a young photojournalist.
I was so curious to find what I was looking for. I was so innocent. When those two polite gentlemen in the open-collared white shirts and loose jackets, with armloads of books on their hips, wanted to talk politics, I thought it might lead me to the answer. I was compliant. They said all Americans only wanted to stay in the Taj Mahal Hilton and have toilet paper and sheets and didn't have a clue about Indian life.
That's not me! Let me show you some of us care, some of us are down-to-earth, I thought. "Let's sit in this brightly lit tea stall," they said. I'm thinking, Gee, yes, let's sit in this quaint little shop with the pictures of Lord Ganesha, the elephant god, on the walls and discuss the socioeconomic implications of Third World countries visited by First World tourists! Yes! Almost as good as Paris cafés in the thirties with Chopin and Liszt.
When the picture of Ganesha and the clock next to him started to melt visually down the wall, I realized instantly I was in trouble. As a voice audibly said, "Get out of here now!" I jumped up, knocked over my chair, and lurched out the door. I did get out, barely. Even as I escaped into the taxi, which miraculously appeared out of nowhere in front of the tea stall, a hand reached out unsuccessfully toward the cab door to follow me into the covering darkness of the backseat. The cab pitched forward and we bumped off toward my destination. Where was this search to end?
I sat all night on a veranda overlooking the Sea of Bombay, in shock. Searching the string of pearl lights along the harbor, encircling the city, I wondered what in the hell I was looking for. I watched the lights melt and drain into the sea and then rebirth themselves as fireworks. What was in that lime drink those men insisted I drink instead of chai, the ubiquitous tea served in India? And the voice I heard? What was that, and where did it come from? Perhaps it was Lord Ganesha the Elephant, patron of travelers, and favorably regarded in Hindu mythology as the remover of obstacles. Alone, out at night, in Bombay? Are you serious? What was I thinking? I wasn't thinking. I was looking for God.
God had very nearly let me get offed that night. It never fully dawned on me until I returned to New York City five months later that I had been drugged, almost kidnapped, and very nearly ended up a casualty of the white slave trade. I came within microseconds of disappearing off the face of the known earth. Things never seem real till you live them. You can cry and sympathize and shake your head, but whether it's a movie or TV news about a hijacking, a bombing, or an earthquake in San Francisco, it isn't real. It isn't real till you feel it, smell it, taste it, live it.
What was I looking for that night in Bombay? The same thing I had been looking for as long as I can remember. The same thing all of us seek in one way or another. The "answer" to life, whatever that might mean. The "truth." The reason for living, dying, or being "here" at all. What is the point to it all? I guess I expected to turn a dark corner and stumble upon a soul preferably a good-looking male, someone like Christ or Buddha who would materialize a couple of bananas and show me the secret to life.
Well, it didn't take long to realize that if what you are looking for is someone to pull out a couple of wrist watches from his sleeve, then that is what you will find, and that being impressed with magic tricks is a serious deterrent to the genuine search for truth. Finding the truth takes hard work. I finally found what I was looking for in February of 1981 in New York City.
From California to Colorado
As a philosophy and comparative religion major at Syracuse University in the early sixties, it seemed only fitting for me to move to the West Coast for the early seventies. It was the early days of the human potential and New Age movements, and California was the epicenter. I was taking pictures and working as a biofeedback researcher in Los Angeles, studying the brain-wave patterns of meditation. One day while walking across the UCLA campus, where I was taking an anatomy and physiology course, I literally stumbled up some steps. I sat down for a few moments to compose myself and noticed a flyer advertising a yoga course on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. I took the course.
It was okay it wasn't what I was looking for, but it was okay. Other people in the course got all fired up about the guru who taught the course and the wild breathing we did, and they joined on changing their names, their dress, their eating habits to become enlightened. I thought this guy was reasonable, but no enlightened master. I finished the course, said thank you, and went back to my search. It was 1971 in California. If you were an introspective type, except for the smog it was heaven on earth. Over the years, I continued to study yoga and everything else California had to offer, taking a variety of courses and workshops.
After I returned from India in 1974, I moved to Winter Park, Colorado, to continue my quest in a more environmentally friendly milieu, and began to teach yoga. Naturally, I taught skiers. I worked with the ski patrol, the ski school, and the handicapped-skiers program. By routine yoga standards, my class was pretty conventional. Oh, perhaps it was a bit more energetic than the average yoga class because we were all skiers. Most of us skied every day from nine to five, and we were used to being in motion, training. We didn't rest between postures, the way you do in many yoga classes. But basically, from a physical standpoint this was a (shudder!) "stretch" class.
I was able, however, to utilize many of the techniques I had learned while working in the field of biofeedback. So we did lots of visualization and progressive relaxation in class. We did autonomic training, which consisted of repeating phrases like "I am relaxed, I am calm, I am at my center." Most of the students in my class were also competitive skiers, so during racing season we would practice a technique called Visual Motor Behavior Rehearsal, or VMBR, as it was called. This was a visualization technique where you would simply rehearse an event, such as a ski race, in your mind step-by-step before you actually did it.
The classes were fun and popular, and pretty soon just about everyone in this mountain valley was onto my yoga program. When the U.S. Nordic Ski Team came to town for a few months to train at Devil's Thumb Ranch (an international cross-country facility in nearby Fraser), it was only a matter of hours before Marty Hall, the coach of the team, ran into a local skier who told him about the yoga classes. Marty called me up to see if I could do a session for the team.
Well, I guess I was a little overenthusiastic, or these kids were tighter than average, because the day after their first class, Marty called me again to say that everybody on the team was so sore they couldn't walk, much less ski. That night while reading a book of Zen stories, I came across a proverb that said "Only when you can be extremely soft and pliable can you be extremely hard and strong." It didn't sink in right away, as Zen koans, or teaching puzzles, tend not to. But a few weeks later, one morning on waking I saw the letters THE HARD & THE SOFT laid out on the side of a mountain in my mind, like the HOLLYWOOD sign in L.A.
The Hard & The Soft became the name of my yoga program and the underlying philosophy for everything I either entertained or actually experienced from that moment on. Every challenge in life seemed to me to be a question of finding the balance between hard and soft in any given situation. The men and women on the ski team came back to class. We did a little stretching, but mostly I did visualization and VMBR with them. They loved it. But thinking back to that first experience, wasn't it odd that here were world-class athletes, yet they couldn't move outside the range of their specificity of training without being incapacitated? What had caused them to get so sore?
Well, for one thing, although they were very fit, they were also very tight. Tight in the back, the shoulders, the thighs especially, and the ankles. They were all hard and no soft. No wonder they all got injured so easily and frequently, I thought. When they fall, there is no "give," no malleability. They tumble through an unaccustomed range of motion, and something tears as a result of being so tight. I tried to visualize what the stretching had done to them. The muscles didn't want to stretch, and had resisted. The muscles were used to contraction, not surrender.
For another thing, all they did was ski. They took the same biomechanical path through the woods, day after day. I had asked them to take a different route. They had used new muscles in new ways, and were feeling the effects. Third, I had given them too much too soon. And last, it seemed to me that if the muscles had been warmed up a bit, they might have been willing to stretch a little more easily.
These were some of my first musings about the role of heat in yoga, the importance of what twenty years later would be called "cross-training," and the significance of balance between hard and soft, or strength and flexibility. I realized that no matter how fit a person might be at his or her particular sport, he or she had to ease into activities that were not muscularly familiar to avoid strain, soreness, or even injury.
In my classes, I began to introduce beginners to the work a bit more gently. Instead of drop-in classes, I started to offer yoga "semesters," where the intensity of the class increased progressively as the course went along. I encouraged students to start at the beginning and slowly accustom themselves to the practice. I began to be more sensitive to the temperature of the room. I always tried to turn the heat on before class so that the room was at least 70°F for practice which in Winter Park, Colorado, in the winter, was always welcome. The Hard & The Soft yoga system was evolving, but still not where I felt it should or could be.
By 1980 I had pretty much taught yoga to everyone in Winter Park. After seven years in the mountains I was restless and hungry for cultural stimulation. I was hosting a talk show on public television in Denver on Friday nights and thinking about moving to Denver. I thought, "Well, if I'm going to move to Denver, I might as well move back to New York."
The Search Ends
Just about the time I started giving energy to thoughts of returning east, I received a call from the Jain Meditation International Center in New York City. They invited me to conduct a yoga teacher-training program at their center in Manhattan. I had returned frequently to New York over the years to study Jain meditation and was somewhat familiar with their organization. So in the autumn of 1980, I traveled back to the East Coast, planning to spend a few months and see what evolved.
It was here, in February of 1981, that I walked into a Saturday morning yoga workshop and experienced a totally unique form of yoga unlike anything I had ever seen in my ten years of prior training. The workshop was given by a dark-haired, bearded American just recently returned from India. His name was Norman Allen, and from the first moment I saw him, I had the feeling I had met him before.
The first half of the program was a demonstration. Allen and his student, a woman in her early fifties, began to practice. They started with warm-ups, or Sun Salutations, as they are called. I was familiar with Sun Salutations, but these were different from the ones I had been practicing and teaching. They then began to flow though a series of yoga postures or asanas, as they are called in the yoga language of Sanskrit going from one to the next without stopping.
I was completely riveted by this youthful man in his forties, doing yoga in front of me. I could hardly believe this was yoga. This was stronger than any other yoga practice I had ever seen, and it looked like what I always felt yoga was supposed to be: a balance between strength and flexibility. Hard and soft. I knew immediately it was something I had to learn. It motivated me in a way no other yoga training had.
I had never seen such strength, grace, and fluidity in a yoga practice before. Every posture was connected to every other posture with movement. The whole practice flowed along like a dance. The minute I saw this form, I knew that I had found what I had been searching for all these years. It looked familiar to me, like something I had lost and then found again after a long time. And in the second half of the program, when we began to do the practice itself, it felt as though I had come home.
The Eightfold Path
The particular yoga practice I watched that Saturday morning was called astanga yoga, named by an Indian Brahman and Sanskrit scholar whose teacher purportedly recovered the lost form from an ancient manuscript he found while traveling through India. In Sanskrit, the word astanga means "eight limbs," from the two root words ashta, meaning "eight," and anga, meaning "limb" or "part." It refers to the classical eight-limbed yogic path as described in the famous Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the primary text of the science of classical yoga, written (according to most estimates) between 400 and 200 B.C. by the great Indian philosopher and spiritual leader Patanjali. Patanjali did not "invent" yoga, but rather collated and systematized existing techniques and knowledge, giving Yoga credibility as one of the six orthodox schools of Indian philosophical thought.
I was familiar with most of the postures Norman Allen was doing and teaching. It wasn't the postures that were new, different, and captivated my attention. What was it, then? I slowly realized that there were a number of aspects to this practice that made it distinctive. One was the vinyasa, or connecting movement between the postures. Another was the sequential linking of the postures or as it is called in astanga yoga, the "series."
Then there was the strength of the postures, the powerful breathing technique that accompanied the practice, and the resultant "heat," all combining to make this form unique. Also, the emphasis wasn't on how flexible or weird you could look. The emphasis was on strength and constancy, on concentration and flow. Watching Norman do his practice was like watching an Olympic gymnast work out. As he moved effortlessly through an awesome and challenging nonstop series of postures, his body began to glisten with sweat, which poured off him throughout the entire routine. I had never seen anybody continuously sweat while doing yoga before.
Finding the Form
Norman Allen had gone to India in 1971 on his own quest. One day on the beach in Goa, he happened to see a young Indian man doing a totally awesome yoga practice, unlike anything he had ever seen before. After watching respectfully for several hours, Norman approached the yogi and asked him where he had learned yoga.
"From my father, Pattabhi Jois," was the response.
"Where is he?" asked Norman.
"In Mysore," came the answer, "but don't bother going to see him, because he wouldn't teach you."
"Why not?" Norman had asked.
"Because you aren't Indian and you aren't Brahman," was the answer. Of course, Norman went immediately to Mysore, sat on the senior Jois's doorstep for weeks, and steadfastly asked to be taught this incredible yoga form, only to be ignored.
According to doctrine in the Hindu caste system, Brahmans, or the priest class, are the highest station and associate socially and professionally only with other male Brahmans. Jois was raised as a traditional Brahman and had never even taught this system to lower-class Indians, much less any foreigners. Jois spoke no English and could only have looked at this crazy American on his doorstep with bewilderment.
Apparently, Norman was not willing to be chased off, because he continued to sit there. Eventually, Jois relented, perhaps disregarding old dogma, or perhaps concluding that this persistent spirit, being American, must be Brahman, and agreed to teach him. Perhaps Jois even thought nostalgically back to the way his teacher, Krishnamacharya, had met his teacher before him going off to the mountains in the north to find this yogi of whom he had heard, and then sitting on his doorstep and refusing to eat until the sage agreed to take him on as a student.
Norman Allen was the first foreigner and American to learn astanga yoga from Jois. He went on to become a serious and uncompromising yogi, mastering all four series of the astanga form, spending a number of years in India learning the native Kannada language that Jois spoke so they could communicate, and taking a master's degree in Indian studies from a local university.
The Yoga Korunta
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (Pa-TAH-bi Joyce) is a renowned Sanskrit scholar and yogi in India who came from a prosperous Brahman family in the southern city of Mysore. As a young man, Jois was surrounded by the lingering aroma of the still-plentiful sandalwood trees of southern India, and he was schooled, as are all good Brahman boys, in the ancient texts and scriptures of Indian philosophy. As a college student in the 1930s, his mentor was the renowned Sanskrit scholar and elder yoga teacher Krishnamacharya. Jois was an eager and dedicated yoga student. He spent years studying the rigorous path of a young Brahman priest, and became one of Krishnamacharya's leading students and disciples.
Krishnamacharya spent much time traveling throughout India as an invited guest, giving lectures and demonstrations on yoga. During one such tour, Krishnamacharya supposedly traveled to Calcutta, and while doing research in the archives of the National Library, came across an old manuscript, the Yoga Korunta. The manuscript was bound together, written on some kind of leaves, and as he started going through the crumbling pages, he discovered a lengthy and intricate description of a system of hatha yoga, written in Sanskrit by an ancient seer named Vamana Rishi. You can easily imagine the excitement of this Sanskrit scholar, finding an ancient Sanskrit manuscript with much of the work intact. It would be like a team of archaeologists uncovering a dinosaur with all the bones in place!
Sanskrit is generally regarded in both Eastern and Western thought as the most ancient of any human language and the oldest continuously used language on the planet today (at least as far as it can be determined). Even though Sanskrit is commonly associated with India and its ancient history, there is a common bond between our modern European languages and Sanskrit.
Sanskrit was the precursor of Greek and Latin, and many, many Greek and Latin words have roots in Sanskrit. It is still uncertain, though, as to whether the European languages were actually derived from Sanskrit or whether they go back still further to a common source. For many years European scholars attributed the presence of Sanskrit in India to an 1800 B.C. invasion by seminomadic Aryan tribes from the steppes of southern Russia. These groups were believed to have spoken an archaic form of Sanskrit. However, that theory has recently been challenged by some Eastern scholars and the American Sanskrit scholar David Frawley, who believe that Sanskrit actually originated in ancient India and was in use before 6000 B.C.
The form of Sanskrit that has been used for the past 2,500 years is called classical Sanskrit. According to another American scholar, Vyaas Houston, in his Sanskrit and the Technological Age, the standards and style of classical Sanskrit grammar were set down by ancient grammarians who had the difficult task of organizing and codifying a scientific approach to language. All classical Hindu writings and much of Buddhist and Jain literature are written in Sanskrit, and it has long been a primary language of religious scholars in these traditions.
Thus Krishnamacharya, as a renowned Sanskrit scholar, could easily look over the Yoga Korunta manuscript and estimate the age of the work from the grammatical style. According to his evaluation, the manuscript itself was about 1,500 years old, but the style of the language used derived from an oral tradition predating classical Sanskrit, and possibly going back as far as 5,000 years.
The Yoga Korunta manuscript reportedly consisted of hundreds of stanzas of rhymed, metered sutras, or phrases, much like the Yoga Sutras. A separate stanza dealt with each movement, or individual posture, and explained how to get into the posture, how to get out of it, how many breaths to take in the posture, and the total number of movements required for completion. In addition, there was specific information on the breathing and so-called secret techniques for enhancing performance, concentration, strength, and so forth.
The asanas, (postures) had been known over the years and handed down from teacher to student through a variety of traditions. Each yoga school had its own way of doing the postures, and a recommended grouping. But this was the first time that a manuscript had ever been found explaining in detail not only the postures, but all the connecting movements and the correct order of the postures as well.
According to Pattabhi Jois, Krishnamacharya recited these slokas, or verses, from the Yoga Korunta to him, and he faithfully recorded them. Jois subsequently became the primary proponent of this system from the Yoga Korunta, naming it astanga yoga, as he believed it to be the authentic and original asana practice as intended and known by Patanjali.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yug, which means "to yoke or harness." Since 500 B.C., yoga has traditionally referred to the art of "yoking," or hooking up, the lower (or individual) consciousness with the higher (or universal) consciousness. Over the centuries the word yoga has also been used to mean "union," and often refers not only to the union between lower and higher levels of consciousness, but union between mind and body.
Practice of the physical exercises the yoga asanas is generally referred to as hatha yoga. Hatha commonly means "force" or "forceful," but the word also has a deeper esoteric significance. The two component roots of the word, ha and tha, are often defined as standing for "sun" and "moon." I like to think of yoga as also referring to the union between these two basic energies of the universe the solar or contracting energy, and the lunar or expanding energy.
These two forces can also be understood in terms of direction. One moves toward you and one moves away from you. They are the same energies that hold the planets in place and your organs in place. They are also called the male and female energies, the yang and the yin, or the pingala and the ida, as they are named in yoga. You could go on forever citing the two polarities in the universe and their expressions. I call them hard and soft. Simple. One makes you solid, strong, focused, grounded, powerful, effective, and unyielding. The other makes you fluid, gentle, expansive, compassionate, sensitive, spacious, and yielding. We all need them both in varying amounts from moment to moment. It depends on what is appropriate at any given point.
All I know is that the minute I saw this form, it reached out and grabbed my attention. And whether it came from an ancient manuscript as sacred as the Dead Sea Scrolls, from an ancient culture like Atlantis, from outer space, or from somebody's imagination, didn't matter in the least to me. I didn't know it at the time, but here was a 5,000-year-old tradition come to life in front of me in twentieth-century New York City. There was something very exciting about that day and that discovery. I had been wanting something stronger in my teaching. I had always taught a somewhat vigorous yoga class, especially when I had been working with skiers. But still, something had been missing. That missing "something" was here in front of me.
I began to study the astanga form with Norman Allen at 6:00 A.M. the day after I first saw the practice, and every day after that for nearly two years. I practiced in earnest with this man, and then one day he moved 6,000 miles away from New York and I never saw him again. I eventually tracked down his teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and over the years I spent many months studying with Jois directly, and slowly learned of the origins of this unique yoga form.
More than anything physical, what I learned is that you start slowly, do what you can, go one day at a time, and appreciate the moment. You build strength and discipline the way you build a sand castle: a couple of grains at a time. I guess, now that I think back on it, what really captured my heart about astanga was the discipline, or more correctly, the way in which this system enabled me to learn focus and discipline. It forced me to be constantly vigilant in practice, and over the years this began to carry over into all aspects of my life.
The way most yoga was taught in the 1970s and early eighties, a posture would be performed, followed by rest. Then another posture and more rest. It always felt to me as if the class would start and stop. You are at it for a few minutes and then the mind has its own free time. This is changing in the nineties in part because of the influence of astanga and in part because of the needs of the times but much hatha yoga is still taught in a fragmented way. You do some work and then you discuss it. This method is okay, even necessary, for beginners. But you don't ever really have the yoga experience (which is the sustained quieting of the mind, the literal cessation of mind activity or chatter) through these forms of yoga practice. Or at least I never did.
In this practice, however, you don't concentrate for a minute or two, then rest or space out. In astanga you are training yourself in mental endurance. You are training the body to build physical endurance in order to flow through the form without stopping. But more important, you are training the mind through continuous practice to stay focused for the duration and not break concentration. This was extraordinary to me! And many years later, after many thousands of hours of practice and much study of the ancient yoga literature, especially the Yoga Sutras, I would come to my own understanding of the authentic and original nature of this form of hatha yoga.
In 1971 my friend Edward Ruscha, the famous American artist from Los Angeles, gave me a painting of his called Focus, which still hangs over my desk. At the time, although my life wasn't in total disarray, I hadn't a clue as to the meaning of the word. It would be ten years before I realized the significance of that word in my life. Here I was attempting to learn something that, when I first saw it, seemed overwhelming, awesome. I wanted to be "there." But I really didn't know how to find the discipline to get there.
So I just started. I didn't start with handstands and headstands and back walkovers. I started with the warm-ups, which is the way you will start in chapter 3. Then I went on to the standing postures, which are the beginning of the Primary Series and the foundation of the Power Yoga workout. They follow in chapter 4. Like me and everyone else who studies this form, you will find that there are some postures that are easier than others and some that are more difficult. In the beginning you may struggle, but after time, as you learn the sequence and correct alignment, you will start to notice greater strength and fluidity, and better concentration.
The Early Days
A year after I had begun to study the routine of astanga yoga, I began to teach the form as I was learning it. This was the "real stuff," as Norman Allen had called it, or the "correct yoga method," according to Pattabhi Jois, and practicing or teaching anything else for me would have been a waste of time and unthinkable. The first place I taught the Power Yoga workout, as I eventually came to call it, was the New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC). At first I was afraid to call it yoga, for fear the word was too loaded with preconceived notions of pretzel positions and foreign-sounding words, and no one, at least not any runners, would come to the class. So I continued to call it The Hard & The Soft.
The NYRRC had just bought a townhouse on East Eighty-Ninth Street, near Central Park, and the first couple of years we held classes in the front room on the second floor of the club. The room was big enough to handle about twelve to fifteen people maximum, which was fine because when we started, there was plenty of extra space in the room. But slowly, people started to tell their friends and other runners about the classes, and by 1983 we had begun to spill out into the hall. As the classes continued to grow and we began to see more and more runners, I began to realize how desperately runners, and everyone else for that matter, needed this program. They were so tight! They were constantly injured not only from their training, but from tension, imbalance, and life in general. Many were actually disabled by their tightness!
In the early eighties, practically no one came to class unless they were injured. So in those days the Power Yoga workout was basically a rehab class for injured runners. Over the years I watched as people with joint pain, back problems, muscle pulls, tendinitis, strains, and sprains would come to class and begin to practice. Slowly their pain and injuries would disappear. I watched them increase range of motion, agility, flexibility, strength, lung capacity, endurance, and general body awareness. If there was ever any secret or miracle to the practice, that was it! From a physical standpoint, the bottom line was this: People did this and got better better in terms of healing and rehabilitation, better in terms of practice, better in terms of strength and flexibility, and better in terms of the elimination of pain. I thought back to my experience with the U.S. Nordic Ski Team and realized how great this practice would have been for them!
Order, Flow, and Heat
As the NYRRC wellness director to 30,000 international members, I've seen literally hundreds of so-called stretching programs, exercise devices, gimmicks, and the like come across my desk for sampling or evaluation over the years. Many include slick promises to increase speed, range of motion, strength, flexibility, and solve a vast array of ailments and injuries for all sports. For a number of reasons, no workout, no machine, no device nothing has ever come close to being as complete, effective, thorough, or well rounded as the form of astanga yoga.
First of all, the sequence of postures in the system is brilliant and extremely well balanced. Successive postures within the series are uniquely complementary, developing strength and flexibility both concurrently and alternatively. Astanga is the most sophisticated form of physical therapy I have ever been exposed to. I have analyzed in detail every posture in the Primary Series, or first grouping of postures, and have looked at each of them not only as a single unit but as a piece of a synergistic system. After many years of practicing and teaching this form, I am still amazed at the contemporary relevance of the practice.
Second, the idea of connecting postures together with movement and a unique breathing technique to keep the whole practice flowing and alive is completely original. This concept of uninterrupted flow, or vinyasa in Sanskrit, tied to an empowering breath, sets the practice apart from every other form of yoga. This is what starts and maintains the heat, which is what enables the healing and therapy to take place. Vinyasa, along with the particular breathing technique explained in chapter 2, and other "mindfulness" techniques explained in later chapters, is what makes this authentically yoga.
As early as the sixth century B.C. the word yoga referred to the spiritual endeavor of controlling or harnessing the mind. By all accounts, this requires dedicated practice and presence. Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras says that yoga is the suspension of the mind's waves or vacillations (vrttis), and that to learn to control these waves requires constant practice (abhaysa) and nonattachment (vairagya). Yoga isn't about fluctuation; it is about constancy and focus and being present in the moment. As long as you are practicing the postures, for example, and the breathing, you pretty much have to be focused on the moment and cannot be attached to a thought about the past or future. Once you stop and start in your practice, though, you lose concentration and tend to think more, which invariably takes you into the past or the future. So because of the uninterrupted, flowing nature of this practice, it is possible to actually experience the state of yoga through the practice of yoga. Constancy and focus are standard equipment. They are built into the training, which is the thing that is so ideal about this form. The practice itself compels continuity and attention, as you will see.
Third, whoever figured out that without heat, any attempt to stretch or realign the body was a complete waste of time, had the jump on current thought in the sports medical community by 5,000 years. As recently as 1980, I was practically the only one saying, "You have to be hot to stretch" (Axiom No. 1 of the Power Yoga workout). At that time, most people still thought that you did stretching to "warm up" for sports, not vice versa. The next step, which I propose in this book, is that not only do you have to warm up to stretch, you have to be warm while stretching and not only warm, but hot and sweating. This is accomplished by doing strength work concurrently and continuously along with the stretch.
I often tell people in my classes that for an active sports or fitness-minded person, the traditional "stretching" routines are the biggest waste of time imaginable, and that they might as well stay home and eat paper towels expecting to become more flexible. What?! People don't expect me to say this. Wait a minute, they think. Isn't this about stretching?
No. This is not about stretching. There is no study in the body of sports medical literature (that I have ever seen) that shows "stretching" does any good whatsoever. Why not? Because all the studies have obviously been done on some funky type of passive stretching, often done cold or on muscles mildly warmed by some previous activity. It just doesn't work, especially for athletic-type people.
Many professional athletes, for example both men and women have tried various "stretching" programs of one sort or another, only to end up injured or with a feeling of wasting valuable training time. Additionally, since stretching by itself sort of represents the "soft" aspect of training, it is often regarded as too "feminine" by the male coaches or athletes themselves, and not something that should be practiced by "real" men. This is probably good, because it keeps more tight male athletes from getting injured by trying to push themselves into doing something that they think is "good" for them.
It's funny. Most of us are way too tight, and we do seem to think we need to be more flexible. Ask practically anyone you know who is athletically active, "Do you stretch?" A few people will look proud and say, "Yes, I stretch religiously," and look all proud. But most will look guilty and say something like, "I know I should, but..."
We are on the right track with this. We are too tight and our intuition that we need to be more flexible is correct. It will help us to prevent injury. It will improve performance. But the stretching programs that have been available up until now are for the most part a complete waste of time and totally ineffective. To undo all the negative effects of our fitness quest shortened muscles, limited range of motion, and imbalanced or misaligned musculature it takes something more intense than just leaning up against a tree after we run or bouncing a little before we strap on our Rollerblades.
The major question then is, How in the world do you stretch intensely without injuring yourself? You do Power Yoga! Power Yoga is about strength. Flexibility comes as a result of the strength work. Axiom No. 2 of Power Yoga states, "Strength, not gravity, develops flexibility." And without the strength work, the heat is not there and, consequently, the stretch work is not effective, safe, or even possible.
All Sports Injury Is Caused by Imbalance
Obviously, the idea of a yoga workout specifically designed to build and maintain complete strength, flexibility, fitness, and health is unique in the world of sports and fitness today. But it is catching on like wildfire and is filling a tremendous gap. The answer to fitness and balance certainly isn't found in sports. Yes, sports are fun. They give us exercise. Most get us out of doors. Some are even good for us. But if you are considering taking up a sport to get in shape or lose some weight, or if you are already fitness-minded and working out regularly, you should know that, according to Axiom No. 3 of Power Yoga, "Sports do not get us in shape. In fact, sports get us out of shape."
Sports develop tight muscles and create imbalance because of repetitive training and uneven use of muscle groups, or the uneven use of one side of the body. Running, for instance, is great for the cardiovascular system. But it dramatically tightens the muscles at the back of the legs and does virtually nothing for the rest of the body. This intense shortening or disproportionate strengthening results in mind-boggling muscular and structural imbalance.
The harder you train, the tighter your body will become, and this is true of nearly any sport. One aspect of this tightening will be positive, especially if you are new to fitness or exercise. You'll probably lose a few pounds, burn a little fat, get a little fitter, and feel terrific about yourself. Another aspect, however, will be disastrous, almost guaranteeing that if you continue training without Power Yoga work, you will become injured and have to stop exercising for a period of time, or until you take up a "new" sport.
Invariably, a lack of awareness about either an existing imbalance or the need for total fitness training and what that entails is what ultimately leads to injury in sports. Axiom No. 4 of the Power Yoga system says, "All injury in sports is caused by structural and muscular imbalance," with the obvious exceptions of falling off your bike or getting hit over the head with a hockey stick. If you come into a training program with a structural imbalance that may have developed over the years from poor posture, an old injury, genetic bad luck, or whatever, this imbalance will definitely make its presence known sooner or later through your training. The same thing is true of developing muscular and structural imbalance as a result of training.
Because the old-fashioned stretching isn't something most people like, have time for, or find effective, many athletes watch at first perhaps with pride and then with remorse as their bodies get tighter and tighter. They enviously recall their pretraining days when they could still touch their toes. In the mornings they crawl from bed to a hot shower to their training clothes, perhaps downing an aspirin or two on the way. They prowl the streets in search of chiropractors, physical therapists, and orthopedists. They will only stop training when threatened with paralysis, permanent disability, divorce, or murder. And sometimes not even then!
And although chronic injury in most cases (see the Appendix) comes on slowly as the body goes further and further out of alignment, the day eventually comes when the imbalance breaks through as debilitating pain. And this is the point where we absolutely have to do something about the imbalance or face stopping our training. If we were paying closer attention, we might have been able to notice the slow, incremental decrease in our range of motion and agility that has come about from training. But generally we aren't paying attention, or if we are, we're looking the other way. We're focused on our training. We like being fit. We want to stay fit. Being fit makes us feel good. It's worth the little inconveniences, like getting tight! But all of a sudden, there it is: a very noticeable pain and (gasp!) an injury! Ah yes. Injury is a very effective means used by the body to get your attention.
Cross-Training Is Not the Total Solution
So how do you correct imbalances? Some try other sports. In hopes of reducing the injuries, they may begin to follow various types of cross-training regimens where they depend on other sports or activities to keep them in shape while the muscles needed for the primary sport rest or heal. "Well, if I can't run, maybe I can bike or skate or swim."
Training for other sports helps, but it is not the end solution. Even though it may help to counter the effects of sport specificity (training at only one sport), or allow you to continue one or another aspect of your exercise during injury, it is not the complete answer to injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, and balanced training. There are two fundamental reasons why it is not.
First of all and this is extremely important to remember discontinuing a specific sport or exercise does not fix an imbalance that has resulted from or been aggravated by that same sport! Rest may give torn connective tissue or muscle tissue a chance to heal, but it doesn't eliminate the source of the problem. Once you start training again, the same imbalance will cause the same injury over and over again. The tightness never goes away. Muscles don't get longer by themselves. For example, if you ran track in high school or college, and are now forty-five and haven't run a day since then, your muscles are as tight as they were the day you stopped running. You will have lost your strength or your running fitness, of course, but the muscles, unless you have done something about it, are exactly the same length as they were twenty-five years ago. And there is a good chance that if you developed an injury as a result of that tightness, when you start running again the same injury will return like a ghost to haunt you.
A good analogy for this might be to imagine you have driven your car over a major pothole and this has knocked the front end out of alignment. You continue to drive the car, not realizing that it's a little out of balance. Without your awareness, one of the tires begins to wear unevenly, getting thinner and thinner in one spot until, eventually, the tire wears through and one day goes flat! Uh-oh, you think. Flat tire! You are forced to stop driving, yes? So you sit for a while (you rest the injury). You put on a new tire (new tissue forms, the pain and inflammation are gone). If you start to drive again without getting the car aligned and correcting the imbalance, the new tire will begin to wear in the same place and eventually go flat, too.
I generally use this analogy in the first class of every Power Yoga session I teach at the New York Road Runners Club. Then I ask if anyone in the class has had the experience of developing an injury, resting, then resuming training and developing the same injury again. It's amazing. There are tons of people in every class who answer yes.
So what do you do? You straighten the frame! "Muscular imbalance and structural irregularities don't fix themselves" (Axiom No. 5 of the Power Yoga program). You have to do something about it. And that is what you use the Power Yoga workout for, among other things. If you carried a baby on one hip for two years, and now you are running and have a knee problem, it may take having another baby and carrying that baby on the other hip for two years to solve the problem. It might also mean doing Power Yoga for two years.
Second, no one sport perfectly balances and complements any other in strict biomechanical terms. Some sports complement one another well, like cross-country skiing and distance running; others not so well, like basketball and distance running. Some sports have a good direct muscular crossover effect, like Rollerblading and cycling, or climbing and kayaking. Others have very little muscular crossover effect, like cycling and running. Besides, most of us hate to shift our exercising priorities to the point where we would be backing off from the level of achievement that we worked so hard to reach. Only a program designed to specifically open, realign, and build power and flexibility will work effectively as an antidote to the negative effects of exercise and keep us on the road.
Even Iron Will Bend
If the fender of our car gets banged up, what do we do? We take the car to a body shop where the "body workers" will heat up the frame and then remold it to take out the dent. "Even iron will bend if you heat it up" (Axiom No. 6 of Power Yoga). In many of us who've been active exercisers for years, our muscle and connective tissue are starting to feel like the iron in our cars. The only way to get rid of a dent (unless you just want to hammer it out cold and some of you actually try that method!) is to heat up our frame and remold it.
Let's say we have a serious injury and need surgery. The surgery might repair a bone or reconnect a severed ligament or muscle, but it does not restore the tissue to the preinjured elastic, supple state. The "memory" of the injury will stay there forever until we do some body work.
More often our injuries are less traumatic. Yet we feel pain. So for relief many of us seek out a sports medical specialist or an orthopedist and expect some miracle. We might get some information about what specifically is wrong with us. Frequently, as is the procedure in allopathic medicine, the doctor will give us drugs, generally painkillers, muscle relaxants, or anti-inflammatories. Then what? We may get rid of pain, spasm, or inflammation. But something caused the pain, spasm, or inflammation. Did we get rid of the cause of the problem? Probably not. Surgery might correct a structural imbalance, but drugs rarely do!
Perhaps we stop all activity and rest. But Axiom No. 7 of the Power Yoga system states: "Stopping training doesn't correct an imbalance." It may give the injury time to heal, but as soon as we begin to train again, as I mentioned previously, the injury will come back. Why is that? Imagine misaligned moving parts rubbing against one another, causing friction, or what we feel as pain. If we stop exercising, the friction stops, so the pain diminishes and the inflammation subsides. But when we start things up again, the moving parts are still in the same biomechanical relationship to one another. And the moment we start using them in the same way, the rubbing starts and the pain returns.
You have to take out the "dent" to stop the rubbing! How do you do that? You have to get in there and knead it around like bread dough and work out the trauma. You have to take the tissue in every direction, both in a stretch and in a contraction. And in order to remold and reshape the tissue while you are doing this pushing and pulling, you have to heat it up. Without the heat, the realignment is not safely possible.
The Alchemical Process
The primary ingredient of the Power Yoga practice and what makes it so particularly effective as physical therapy is heat. Think of what a glassblower can do with a piece of glass tubing when it is heated. The glass can be shaped into swans, baskets, and unicorns. But imagine trying to reshape the glass without the heat? What would happen? You would end up with a pile of shattered glass.
The heat does more, though, than allow us to realign our frame without breaking. As the connective tissue becomes heated by our practice, it becomes less "solid" and more "liquid." We become pliable for reshaping. In this pliable state, we apply the form of the practice that begins the remolding process. Tight, "dead" spaces that may have been shut down and in shock for years begin to open up and allow increased circulation. Thus, old clumps of gnarly scar tissue, debris, and other by-products of the healing process get moved out, not to mention environmental toxins that accumulate in the body.
The practice can then undo the rigidity and create more space for intercellular fluids to circulate and bring in nutrients while carrying off toxins. So not only does the practice work on restoring function to an injured area and facilitating realignment, but it also works to detoxify the organs and tissue and revitalize the entire system.
When gold is mined it comes in the form of ore. It looks kind of dirty and not much like the gold we think of in coins or jewelry. In order to persuade the gold to come loose from its setting in the ore, we must heat it. Gold can only be purified in the presence of heat. In the same way, to develop the "gold" in ourselves, we must apply heat and cleanse ourselves of the unwanted "ore."
Every injury, whether old or recent, is embedded in "ore." The Power Yoga practice works to restore the gold luster of the tissue, joint, or bone by applying heat and helping the bodily systems of circulation and elimination carry off the unwanted elements.
It's funny how when something goes wrong with us, most of us expect medicine to make it right. Sometimes it can. But what we will learn with our yoga practice is that much of our healing potential is in our own hands, and our active participation is frequently the essential element in effective medical therapy and long-lasting health.
Machines Can't Replace Yoga
The primary series of astanga yoga in Sanskrit is called yoga chikitsa, which means "yoga therapy." The series is specifically designed to therapeutically align the body and protect and rehabilitate it from injury. Nothing else seems to work as well or in quite the same way.
For example, riding a bike for a while instead of running may allow a running injury to heal and enable you to keep up your aerobic fitness level. And although cycling is a great form of exercise, the act of the bike-riding itself isn't healing the injury. Or let's suppose you have shin splints. A sports doctor might suggest that you sit on the edge of a table, hang a bucket over your toes, and then do toe lifts with the bucket hanging on your feet. This will strengthen (tighten) the muscles at the front of your legs in the hope that you will subsequently get rid of the shin splints. But doing bucket lifts with your toes isn't healing the injury! In fact, now instead of just having tight calf muscles (which is almost always the primary cause of shin splints), you have tight muscles on both sides of the bone. Since muscles tend to work in pairs, and these two are now competing for power, neither of them can let go (or be flexible enough) to accommodate the strength of the other. So you are trying to solve the cause of the shin splints tight calf muscles by overpowering them with the muscles in the front of the legs. Oooooh!
Individual muscle strengthening can be effective in the context of an all-around fitness program. But according to yoga therapy, it is much better to do something that will stretch the calf muscles and strengthen the anterior tibialis muscles (the front of the shin) at the same time! The incredibly effective and unique thing about this system is that it works on the whole person, from the inside out, which is essentially different from the fragmented solutions offered by a wide range of products and services. The marvel of the Power Yoga program is its completeness, its simplicity, and its accessibility to anyone, anywhere, at any age. There is always a place for you to start.
A Place to Start and a Way to Continue
Doing Power Yoga is an ideal way to start a fitness program and an ideal aid to continue a sport or fitness program for life. It can be done on its own or as a companion to sport. It will slowly teach you discipline and self-awareness not rigid, unyielding discipline, but doable discipline. It will teach you to be hard with yourself as well as soft to work hard and sweat and to rest and recover. It will work on your body, your mind, your whole self.
However, you should know that it won't happen overnight. If you are in a hurry, you are in the wrong place. For one thing, and this is one of my favorite Power Yoga axioms (No. 8): "No matter how fit you are at what you do, when you start something new you have to ease into it." You are using new muscles in new ways, and you can't expect to perform at the same level as you do in your own sport. If you do expect the same level of performance, you'll either be surprised or sore.
Second, no matter how unfit you may be, you have to ease into a new training program. You can't try to make up for years of inactivity by rushing out and cramming all the lost time into one workout or trying to pick up where you left off years back. This applies in the case of illness or injury, too. Whenever you lay off training, whether for a week or a year, you have to ease back into it, not pick up where you left off.
So let it be clear that this program does not promise or even remotely hint that we can get you fit overnight, or from one-sided to balanced, injured to healed, unconscious to conscious, out of control to in control, sloppy to disciplined, or fat to fit in twenty-one days or less. This practice encourages you to begin slowly, practice regularly, breathe deeply, pay attention, and build on the small, gradual changes you observe as you progress.
There Is Always a Faster Boat
There is a wonderful story in the yogic literature about an eager student who comes to the shore of a river and is most anxious to get to the other side, where he believes the answer to life can be found. He sees a little rowboat go by, and eagerly flags it down for a ride. The people in the rowboat kindly stop and pick him up, and he begins to make his way across the river in the rowboat. A sleek and beautiful sailboat passes by. Captivated by the smooth efficiency of the sailboat and its progress across the river, and tired of the hard work of rowing, our friend gestures wildly to the sailboat to pick him up, and as it comes by, he jumps from the rowboat into the sailboat.
But shortly thereafter, the wind dies and the sailboat comes to an abrupt halt; now it is being carried downstream by the current, not across. Impatient with the turn of events, the student jumps to a motorized boat passing by that is obviously the best transportation to the other shore. But shortly after jumping onto the motorboat, he becomes irritated with the noise and fumes from the motor, and then doubly annoyed when the boat runs out of fuel. Now he looks around and sees that the rowboat, with its hardworking rowers, is steadfastly making its way to the other shore. Ahhhh. If only he had stayed in the rowboat.
Power Yoga Workout
One day in early autumn of '92, we received a call at our yoga center (The Hard & The Soft Astanga Yoga Institute) in New York from an enthusiastic triathlete in his mid thirties. He had just moved to New York from California and was referred to us by friends in L.A. I figured he was in a bit of culture shock and needed all the help he could get. He was mostly interested in the physical aspects of what this yoga program could do for him.
"A yoga system that builds strength?" he asked.
"Yes, strength and endurance," I replied. I try to keep it simple, especially when I'm attempting to tell an endurance athlete that yoga builds strength.
"Well, how does it build strength?"
Uh-oh! This could get complicated. "Through static muscular contractions and weight work," I explained.
"You use weights in yoga?!!"
Oh boy, now I've done it! "No, but you do lift the weight of the body and its parts, in various ways and combinations, which is similar to using the arms and legs to lift anywhere from ten pounds to your body weight." He was quiet for a minute.
"Is it aerobic?"
"No. Though the heart rate for a beginner at yoga might occasionally go up close to aerobic levels, it's not aerobic. I'm guessing that yours won't go up as high as someone who is not aerobically fit. The idea of yoga is to slow the heart rate and the respiration, as well as the activity of the mind. It's not supposed to be aerobic. Through conscious effort and concentration, you slowly learn control of the functions of the autonomic nervous system, like heart rate, muscle contractions, brain-wave patterns, etc. You then use that control to build heat and power."
"Wow! Sounds heavy!"
I guess I did go a little overboard for a first phone call. But I figured he was from California and could handle it!
He continued, "Didn't you say it builds endurance, too?"
"Well, how does it build endurance if it isn't aerobic?"
Good question. These people from California are hot! Okay, I think to myself. I'm gonna lay it on him.
"With this practice you are training the lungs to increase their volume and uptake while training the heart to increase its efficiency. Studies on advanced practitioners of this yoga system show that the resultant effects on the heart and lungs are very similar to the effects of aerobic sports the resting heart rate slows, the capacity of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the muscles increases, and the anaerobic threshold moves farther away."
Needless to say, it is incredibly difficult to try and explain this program to people over the phone. My favorite question to grapple with is the one that goes something like this: "Power Yoga? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?" Most people know that yoga is soft and relaxing. What most of them don't know is that it is equally hard and energizing. Yoga, when properly taught, should be a discipline that gives you the mental and physical strength to cope with and fight back the onslaught of a current environmental condition. Thus, yoga is very much about power personal power.
Although yoga has become a bit more mainstream in recent years, to many people the word yoga still tends to elicit rolling eyes and conjure up thoughts of hocus-pocus and impressions of strange sounds and incantations. In large part, this is because yoga has been proffered to the American public under such a wide variety of banners and causes. Many people do not realize that yoga is simply about learning to pay attention. And since it is through this practice of paying attention, as all spiritual traditions tell us, that life is lived most fully, more and more people are becoming able to see the relevance of such a practice in their own lives, and its compatibility with their own religious beliefs.
Once we actually begin this yoga practice and start to pay attention a little more closely, we begin to notice how much of the time we aren't paying attention and how much of our life passes us by in unawareness. We see for ourselves how the mind goes off and is pulled away from the present moment by a sight or sound. We begin to become aware of how much time is actually spent not here in the present moment, but off somewhere in the past or future. As a friend of mine used to say, "The lights are on, but nobody's home." We fret about how we could have done or said something differently. Or how we should do something in the future. This busyness of the mind in the past and future is a major contributing element to worry, stress, anxiety, and consequently, to tightness, tension, injury, and disease. Later in this chapter I talk about the techniques we use in this practice to control this tendency of the mind to drift off.
Astanga yoga and the Power Yoga workout is a method for developing mindfulness, and thus a tool for dealing with the stress and conflict of existence. It clears out the confusion and congestion of the mind and body. As you gain proficiency in the practice, it makes you feel in control, empowered as if there is something you can do to direct your life, rather than feeling adrift at sea, subject to the whimsical storms of life. It gives you a feeling of power. We're not talking political power here, or socioeconomic power, but power to liberate oneself from the grasp of stress, disease, inner enemies, and inappropriate behavior, and to see deafly. It enables us to slowly develop the personal power to take control of our own physical and mental wellness. But trying to explain what this practice will be like for you in two months or two years is like trying to explain to people over the phone what they will do in class. You cannot possibly "know" what the practice will be like until you start. I'm not sure I can tell you exactly why that is except by analogy. You can't put the top of the sand castle on until you build the foundation.
In this practice the focus, or discipline, happens mentally a beat before it happens physically. As a result of the breathing or the strength work or the heat or the eventual stillness in a posture, some small confusion or craving will clear. But not overnight or all at once. Only a grain of sand, a breath at a time. For one instant, the clouds part, and bang, the Grand Canyon comes into full, spectacular view, and whoosh, something releases in your body, some tangled old neuromusculature untangles, and life flows through anew. You feel it. But you can't possibly understand it until you feel it.
The Path to Mastery
Learning how to master something, whether it's the computer or the guitar, mathematics, dance, art, or any other endeavor in life, requires spending long periods of time on plateaus. You go along for weeks or months thinking you'll never get any better, but you plod along doing regular practice and paying attention (that's the key, I think). Then one day, when you least expect it, something changes and the gears grind forward a few notches, and lo and behold, you are suddenly on the next plateau! But plateaus can be boring for the mind that wants constant stimulation and entertainment. If we haven't been on the path to mastery, we don't realize what it takes to get good at something whether it's yoga, running a marathon, or playing the piano. The path of yoga is the path of mastery. I often describe this practice as an analogy for mastering anything in life, because it teaches you the discipline of working at something every day, without expecting immediate gratification.
Let's say we watch the New York City Marathon on television and see all those different types of people running twenty-six-plus miles. We're feeling a little lethargic and chubby and think, "Well, gee, if they can do it, I can do it." We go out and buy some shoes the next day, get some sleek-looking running tights, and off we go. But soon we realize that in order to get any good at this, or have it be effective for weight loss or fitness or mental de-stressing, or whatever, we need to practice at least four or five times a week. In the heat, in the cold, in the sun, in the rain, in the snow. Ugh! Maybe this running isn't so great after all. Maybe this isn't the right sport. Maybe we should try something else. A few weeks of enthusiasm go by and then the enthusiasm begins to wane. This is the first plateau. It's not so much fun. It's lonely sometimes. It's cold. It's (uh-oh, here it comes) boring! Pretty soon the running shoes are gathering dust in the closet.
By being in constant touch with your breathing, which is what you will be doing in this practice (see chapter 2), you are training yourself to be in touch with the process of life and growth to be aware, day to day, of the subtle tensions, toxins, tightness, and limitations of the body and mind. And to be mindful of how all of these change and move and evaporate. This gets you used to being on the plateau, which is a constant companion on the path of learning just about anything.
Some people come to my classes to learn to relax or be more flexible. They have been working at some job or training at some sport for twenty-five years. They are incredibly tight. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Their brains are tight. Perhaps some doctor has told them they need to relax or be more flexible. So here they are in class telling me, "My doctor says I need to relax." This always amazes me! My experience has shown me that it doesn't do any good to tell these people they are tight or that they need to be more flexible. They know they are tight! They know they need to relax! But they don't know how to be more flexible, either physically or mentally. They need to learn how. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the director of the University of Massachusetts Stress Clinic, tells a similar story in his book Full Catastrophe Living, "One man who came to the stress clinic ten years ago with back pain...was very stiff and his legs were as hard as rocks as a result of stepping on a land mine in Vietnam...his doctor told him he had to relax...it didn't do this man any good to be told to relax. He knew he needed to relax more. But he had to learn how to relax...Once he started [yoga], he was able to learn to relax, and his leg muscles eventually regained a healthy tone." Until these people begin to feel the process of letting go and opening up in their own minds and bodies, anything anyone says is useless. So they come to yoga class to learn.
I see the tightness causing them anxiety and the anxiety causing impatience and the impatience causing more tension. So I tell them to be patient, that they aren't going to regain their flexibility overnight. But often they don't really hear that. They are too busy mentally, looking around and comparing themselves to someone else in class. "Wow," they might think, while I am trying to explain the virtue of patience and practice. "Look at that guy! He is so flexible!" The following week these people haven't made any progress. They never heard me talk about patience, because they weren't "home" when I was talking to them. All they can see is that they still aren't as flexible or relaxed as this other person in class, and they get irritated. They then go off to the chiropractor or physical therapist or doctor to find out why they are chronically stressed, injured, or ill.
The worst thing you can possibly do is to look around and compare yourself to somebody else, whether it is in yoga or any other field of endeavor. It wastes energy, it saps your self-esteem, and it has nothing to do with your own path. As Kabat-Zinn says in Full Catastrophe Living, "It is impossible to become like somebody else. Your only hope is to become more fully yourself. That is the reason for practicing [yoga] in the first place."
Diana Vreeland, the longtime editor of Vogue magazine, was once asked if she ever worried about what the other fashion magazines were doing, and she remarked that she was too busy. She didn't have time to look left and right to see what everybody else was doing. She knew that nobody else saw what she saw. She just kept her eyes focused straight ahead on where she was going and what she wanted.
If you have a desire to be a master of yourself and anything else, you can put this book to very good use. Go through it one step and one page at a time, just as you are going through medical school or writing your thesis or running a marathon or building a business or painting a picture or photographing wildlife or dancing Swan Lake or composing a symphony. And slowly you will find yourself enjoyably learning how to build discipline and work on yourself every day. For those of you who have already realized this lesson in life, this will be a familiar process and a welcome tool to fine-tune all aspects of mindfulness, concentration, and practice.
The Real Stuff
The word yoga derives from the Sanskrit word yug, as I explained earlier, which means "to yoke, bind, join, or direct one's attention." It can also mean "union" or "fusion." Around the third or fourth century B.C., at the time of the composition of the Bhagavad Gita (probably the most famous of all yoga scriptures and an important text on Yoga philosophy), yoga generally referred to the Hindu tradition of spiritual discipline comprising different approaches to "enlightenment" or "self-realization."
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the complete definition of yoga in the second sutra of Book One is given as Yogas-citta-vrtti-nirodhah, or "the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind." Another translation might be "the selective elimination of mental activity in the field of consciousness." The word nirodhah means "cessation" and vrtti literally means "waves," or fluctuations of thought.
So what Patanjali is saying is that if you can learn to control the rising of the mind into ripples and waves, you will experience yoga! When the mind is free from vrttis, you will experience your true nature, which is joyous equipoise. You will then be free of the mind's perilous highs and lows and the commotion and pain of going from one extreme to the other. In the twelfth sutra of Book One, Patanjali goes on to say that there are two ways to get a grip on these vrttis: through practice (abhyasa) and nonattachment (vairagya). In the next two sutras, he defines practice as "effort or vigilance toward steadiness of mind," and says that the practice becomes effective when it is "well attended to for a long time (durga kala), without a break (nairantarya) and in all earnestness (satkara)."
In Book Two, Patanjali goes on to explain the means (sadhana) of the yoga practice. In Sutra 29 he details the eight limbs of the yoga path: (1) yama, which literally means "restraint" or "abstinence"; (2) niyama, or "observance" (There are five yamas and five niyamas, which I will list later in chapter 3); (3) asana, or "posture," which is what we will primarily be working with in this book; (4) pranayama, which, again, quite literally means "restraint (or control) of the life force," generally through awareness of the breathing; (5) pratyahara, or "withdrawal of the senses"; (6) dharana, or "concentration"; (7) dhyana, or "meditation"; and (8) samadhi, or "bliss, superconsciousness."
One of the things I found to be fairly unique about the astanga practice was the way in which each of the limbs is actually incorporated in some small way into the practice of the postures. For example, with the focus on breathing during the practice, you are actually able to experience the beginning levels of pranayama, or control of prana (life force) through the breath. You have to pay attention to what you are doing, so the senses begin to be drawn in or curbed, as Patanjali describes the process of pratyahara. The whole practice trains you in concentration, or dharana, which leads to meditation, or dhyana. Thus, this practice, certainly like none I had ever done before, actually gives you a tangible way to engage the eight limbs and develop the "practice," and "nonattachment," that Patanjali says is necessary to learn control of our mental activity and find peace of mind and equipoise.
As I have pursued my practice over the years, I have come to realize that this form, from the Yoga Korunta, or wherever it came from, has to be an original and very ancient form of asana practice well known to Patanjali and the rishis (wise men) who preceded him. This yoga practice is "practice." The vinyasa, or connecting movement, feels to me like threads, or sutras, hooking up the main verses, or postures. The practice does exactly what Patanjali says must be done to attain the yogic state of consciousness. There must be constant effort toward steadiness of mind, as you will see, or you don't get it! And one way of learning to control the mind's waves (vrttis) is through practice the constant, uninterrupted, vigilant practice of watching the mind and its activities (mindfulness). And that is exactly what this Power Yoga practice trains you to do.
The other way to control the vrttis, says Patanjali, is through vairagya, which means nonattachment or freedom from desire. Now, this covers a whole host of stuff, but one practical application of how this might get in the way of being in control of one's own mind is to think of vairagya as nonattachment to previous experience. In my classes people will often say to me, "I can't do that!" ! will say to them, "Forget that you think you can't do this! Breathe!" They will cling to some past notion that they are clumsy, uncoordinated, or slow, and as long as the vrtti from the past is there, the resistance is there, and the experience of yoga is not there. So I am saying to them, Forget that previous experience. Pay attention to your breath now. Be mindful. See what is happening here. Be willing to let that go. Be willing to take a risk here.
The mind generally gets attached through the senses, most frequently by seeing or hearing something. The vrttis are generally stirred up by the eyes and the ears as the mind goes out to satisfy its desires. We see or hear something we either want or don't want, like or don't like. We either crave it or run from it. Either way it is an attachment to a past experience. According to yoga philosophy, this limits our ability to appreciate the moment, realize the Self, and live life fully.
The astanga practice right away has a method to deal with these tendencies of the mind to avoid discipline and seek stimulation through the ears and eyes. The eyes are trained to focus in on a drishti, or "gazing point," and the ears are trained to listen to an audible breathing technique. Then, in addition, the nonstop organic flow of postures helps to keep the attention on the practice. The postures and the connecting movement between them are actual sutras, or "threads" woven into a magnificent tapestry. The practice feels to me like a Sanskrit manuscript following an "organic and logical development."
In an essay entitled "The Yoga of Learning Sanskrit," Vyaas Houston wrote that "Sanskrit is a perfect language. Its construction, from the placement of each letter of the alphabet to the building of words and their relationships, follows an organic and logical development. Anything that is missed is like losing supports for the floors of a building." It had long become clear to me, after many years of study of other schools of yoga, and many years of practice at astanga, that in the astanga sequence the placement of each posture followed an "organic and logical development." When I was teaching, I came to notice that if any student's attention lapsed so that they missed a critical piece of information, sooner or later I had to fill them in on the missing piece before they could be up to speed with everyone else.
Some people come to yoga for psychological or spiritual reasons to learn to relax or meditate. Some people come to yoga for physical reasons to exercise or fix an injury, to heal an illness, or to be more balanced, strong, and flexible. The few who come looking to learn to levitate or be psychic or see auras or whatever, I tend not to encourage. Instead ! ask them if they can touch their toes. They don't generally like that.
Whatever a person's reason for beginning the study of yoga, everyone must begin with the physical work. I am a great believer in reality. I think you have to be able to find your toes before you can find your aura or your astral body! So it makes sense to me that asana, for example, the third "limb," which works on healing and balancing the physical body through the postures, precedes dhyana, or meditation (the seventh limb), which is an extremely difficult discipline for the mind. Organic and logical development! Sometimes members of the yoga community, used to softer practices than the Power Yoga workout, will look at this practice and say, "Oh, it's so physical," implying that it therefore must be less "spiritual" than practices that cater more to esoteric pursuits.
This always makes me shake my head. The body and mind are inextricably linked whether we like it or not. We can't just hope to control our mind and ignore the body. If the body is out of control (or out of shape or alignment), the mind cannot possibly be in control. I have found through many years of teaching and practicing yoga that it is generally easier for most people to learn to control a particular muscle first before some remote, intangible portion of the brain or psyche.
Since many of my students are initially interested in the physical yoga therapy and the strength and flexibility aspects of the practice, as I imagine you are, a primary concern of this book is the early therapeutic stages of yoga that work on aligning, healing, and purifying the body. But essential to the body work is the attention of the mind. Without mindfulness, this isn't yoga.
So in the next chapter we start with bringing our toes together. This is not necessarily easy for many people. I have to bang up against their consciousness like a biofeedback device: "Hey, bring your feet together." Yoo-hoo, wake up. Feet together. Feet together. Is anybody home? Are you here? Being here is truly the first step to levitation.
Copyright © 1995 by Beryl Bender Birch