by: John P. Rettger, PhD, RYT-200
With all of the recent dialogue happening about the New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” and the Equinox yoga video circulating on YouTube, I thought it was worth taking a pause and reflecting on my practice and teaching of yoga. When I first came to yoga, I was a student of psychology. In practicing yoga, it did not take long for me to realize that yoga was much more than the physical postures performed. My psychological background naturally led me to inquire more deeply into the āsana (posture) practice of yoga to understand the psychospiritual and transformational aspects of the practice.
In my personal practice, I typically set aside an equal amount of time for posture, meditation, and self-study (svādhyāya) and reflection. It is through introspection and reflection we can begin to articulate the psychological and spiritual significance of the physical practice. Working with the body on the mat leads to a far deeper awareness and exploration of the patterning of thoughts, emotions, and the various memories and mental images that arise in my post-āsana self-reflection time. By paying skillful attention to the arising body and mind phenomena in the practice, one can be alerted to body cues about impending injury, and come to a more full understanding of how our ego gets invested in physical performance and comparison with others. On these occasions we can develop a greater trust in the wisdom of our body to signal us to practice with more patience, more kindness, gentleness and ease.
Over the years, I have become more of a student of yoga, rather than just a student of āsana. In only practicing āsana (only one of the eight limbs of yoga), we may impose limitations on the true healing and transformative capacities of yoga. By practicing all of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Aştanga-Yoga, we can transform our minds, hearts, bodies, spirits and bring healing to the world around us. In integrating all of the limbs, I have come to learn how to become more accepting of my own limitations and temper my thirst for big postures and at times pushing my body beyond safety. Including the Yamas and the Niyamas (the first two limbs) provide us with a set of ethics helpful in promoting well-being and safety for ourselves and others. The other limbs of yoga include āsana (posture), prānāyāma (breath-regulation), Pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the senses from external objects), Dhārāna (single-pointed focus on a physical object), Dhyāna (steadfastness in meditation), and Samādhi (state of oneness with the object of meditation).
I do my best on the mat to apply concepts such as not harming (ahimsā) and contentment (santoşa) to build acceptance, gradualness and safety in my practice. When I become aware that ego has taken over, I gently remind myself that I would much rather practice a bit softer today in order to preserve my body tomorrow. Breathing deep into this self-kindness reveals to me how satisfying those moments are when I choose to ease into Down Dog, rather than pushing my body to flow through that one extra vinyasa. I have discovered that by integrating Patanjali’s limbs in āsana, the practice is suddenly something more wholesome than just the post-savasana glow or the satisfaction of an arm balance.
I have learned that every day on the mat is unique and my body invites new challenges and new discoveries. I am continuing to work on accepting that my body, while beautiful and full of surprises is mortal and physical, and as such it has natural limitations, it is continuously aging, and will inevitably experience tension, discomfort and physical death. At those moments of tensing, the practice then truly evolves into something amazing. In the space of tension, a deep breath in and a softening opens me up to true freedom, love, divine joy and liberation. Psychologically āsana has taught me acceptance. I have learned to accept my body where it is, accept others where they are and to celebrate all of the beauty vibrating in the yoga classroom.
I have come to see that āsana practice works like a magnifying glass hovering over the unconscious. Āsana not only magnifies and brings to awareness whatever is inside of us inviting our love and attention, it also ignites our commitment (tapas) toward healing. I am reminded of the words of the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” All of what arises in our awareness in yoga arises for our healing, our integration and health. They are divine offerings from the unconscious inviting us toward wholeness. Much like a precious diamond hidden below the earth, our own true and beautiful nature is often veiled by our own judgments and expectations. Thus the wisdom body reveals to us our very own hidden jewels and we learn to fully be with our emotions. We discover that whether it is joy, happiness, sadness, grief, or loss, it is tolerable and impermanent. It is through journeying with the pain that we can then behold the divine face of love and joy. The yoga practice teaches us how to be in loving communion with whatever is and how to respond to the demands of life with loving and compassionate action.
I would love to walk to path of yoga with you at one of my upcoming classes. Check out my schedule page to find a class near you.
John P. Rettger, PhD, RYT-200