What does it mean to be a practitioner of Yoga? More importantly, what does it mean to be a GOOD practitioner? And in modern yoga speak, what does it mean to be "advanced"? I don't think most people feel comfortable calling themselves advanced, but many have a lofty idea that that is somehow the goal without really even knowing what that means. For some, this may mean wrapping your leg behind your head, balancing on your hands, or even doing every chaturanga demanded of you in a class. For others, it may mean somehow going beyond asana as if one could graduate from the petty physical practice to "living your yoga".
It will help for us to clarify what Yoga is to begin with. For the average Western practitioner, it refers to the modern postural practice we see in studios and gyms across America. In the East, Yoga refers to steadying the mind. If you were to tell most unassuming people in the West that you do yoga they will tell you how flexible you are! In India, they will tell you how calm and peaceful you must be. There is clearly some discrepancy. However, I do think that it's safe to say that even though most Westerners equate yoga with Vinyasa Flow, people inherently know that Yoga has something to do with making you more calm and peaceful. In a survey put out by Yoga Journal, 7 out of 10 people put down that the primary reason they practice yoga is for stress reduction. That's astonishing!
There are actually many ways outside of our Westernized modern postural practice that Yoga is traditionally accomplished. We could actually turn just about any activity into a yogic activity with the right mindset and technique because every moment is an opportunity for awakening. As stated by the authority of classical Yoga in his text the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines the practice as yogah chitta vrtti nirodhah, "Yoga is the stopping of the fluctuations of the mind" (YS 1.2). He goes on to say the goal as tadah drashtuh svarupe avastanam, "Then the seer abides in one's own true nature." (YS 1.3).
There is a Japanese Zen saying that what's important is not what we do, but how we do it. The attitude, right mindset, and focus will help to determine if what we are practicing is really Yoga. If Yoga is described as the practice of stopping the fluctuations of the mind, we can also say it is the practice of focusing the mind. A fair question we may ask ourselves is if our practice is leading to greater mental focus?
So, what exactly gets in the way of our ability to stay focused on our mat, or even our daily life for that matter. The truth is nobody shows up to their yoga mat with a clean slate. We show up with the sum total of all our life's habits and experiences. These very habits are the things that distract us both on and off the mat. The way we practice on the mat is a reflection of how we do everything in life. BKS Iyengar had said that Yoga does not create injury, our habits do.
If your goal is to continue practicing Hatha Yoga, or what is sometimes called modern postural yoga by scholars, will help to adapt the right mindset and internal technique to lead the mind towards greater calm and focus. It is said that setting the right intention at the start of practice is the most important step. This can be something quite specific, knowing that whatever your goal is requires focus. You can also simply make the intention to be more focused and present during your practice. With time and by regularly reassessing why you practice yoga, your intention will clarify itself.
Now in regards to how we practice, the importance of the breath cannot be overestimated. Think of the breath as your own personal mantra, your tool that keeps you anchored in the immediate moment. For, where else can your breath be other than in the here and now. Not only does focusing on the breath keep you anchored in real time, but the quality of your breathing has a profound effect on your mind. There is plenty of scientific evidence to prove the validity of how long slow breath effects your nervous system. The breath also shares a very special relationship with the Prana(vital energy of the subtle body). Without going into too much detail on Prana today, we can say that the Prana of the subtle body has a very strong relationship with the mind.
Now where does alignment come into the picture? I would like to replace the word alignment with "correct positioning". As Eddie Modestini is fond of saying, "Asanas do not have alignment. Human bodies have alignment". Positioning ourselves well on our bones in asana has a very profound impact on how we breath and feel the pose on a pranic level. If we position ourselves well in an asana, the pose gains the qualities of being "stable and comfortable" as defined by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras (YS 2.46). Understanding that the body is not necessarily independent of the mind, we understand that how we position the body will impact our mental focus. More importantly, when we are well positioned on our bones, it is much easier to feel ourselves from the inside. The inner body comes alive because we are no longer being pulled off center.
Through correct breathing and positioning, we are more able to feel our center within the pose. This is where we direct our attention to. The mind becomes quiet when we are centered. This is not something to be imagined or visualized, it is to be felt. There is an inner sensitivity that is gained and a natural drawing in. When the body is well positioned and our breath is allowed to deepen, we find that our breath moves much deeper than the upper regions of our chest. This place is said to be in the low belly and is precisely where our gravitational and energetic center resides. I believe this to be one of the biggest gifts that can be gained through a physical practice like Hatha or Modern Postural Yoga. But, it will only come alive if we allow it to. If we continue to practice yoga letting our habits run the show, we will only continue to get more of the same thing. If we practice yoga in such a way where we allow our body and breath to draw the mind in, we will feel more centered not only on our mat, but in daily life.
The title of this article is "Life as Practice, Practice as Life". Life and Practice are not mutually exclusive. Our life comes onto our mat. We must make a conscious choice to practice our yoga with intention and purpose. In turn, our practice will start to leak into our daily life affecting how we interact with ourselves and everyone else.
Wes Linch was introduced to Yoga and Eastern philosophy over 8 years ago in a desire to know more about himself. He quickly discovered the benefits of Yoga far exceed open hips. Wes is a Vinyasa Flow instructor, having received over 700 hours of training through Yogaworks and Yoga Sol. He completed a 6 month mentorship with Mynx Inatsugu and continued to assist her for a year. In 2011, Wes received Shaktipat by Shri Anandi Ma and began studying a traditional tantric lineage called Kundalini Maha Yoga.