Sankalpa, Proactivity And Letting Life Happen

Sankalpa– Determined decision, intention or wish. Traditionally one must repeat the Sankalpa three times in one’s mind at the beginning and the end of the practice. The decision should come to mind naturally, this is our internal simple wish.
Starting the year we tend to set ourselves goals, take decisions and make plans. Our practice supports this process, it also can assist us in pursuing those goals and actually fulfil our decisions and plans.

Even though I tend to preach to my students that the process is much more meaningful and fulfilling than the actual result, we also all want to achieve our personal goals and advance our practice on both physical and mental levels. Letting go does not mean to be passive when pursuing our intentions, it is just another component that supports the hard path towards any kind of success; this path must be a proactive one.

I tend to see new students surprised when they discover that Yoga practice is actually a hard work. People say things such as, ‘I heard Yoga is very relaxing’. Relaxation or stress-relief might be chosen as our final goal in practice, but there is a long journey to reach there. A journey which is not necessarily relaxing; it is a physical and a mental workout.

During practice our mind should be always alert and we must maintain full awareness of the movements of our body and our mind. It might shock a few dedicated practitioners but I don’t believe in practicing Yoga postures with closed eyes (except perhaps Tadasana Samastiti and Shavasana – final relaxation). Closed eyes encourage a relaxed and sleepy state of mind and distract us from focusing on the details of the pose we are holding. Even Shavasana is intended to be an alert pose. As I mentioned in previous texts Shavasana is a conscious relaxation. We want to find the centre between stillness and complete letting go or falling asleep.

To make a bit of order in all of this, we might look at our practice as any other process of goal setting, progress or change in our life. Say we start from some kind of a less desirable state that we are interested in altering. We then make a conscious decision to change, we work hard and pass through obstacles on our way and then eventually we achieve some kind of improvement or a more desirable state. At the last stage in this process we want to be at peace with our final achievement. We should let go of any attachment to it and accept the place we have reached. This kind of acceptance will only come after hard, focused, proactive work.

Similarly, we all arrive to our mat with some kind of a back story. Perhaps we are seeking to distress or make a change in our life. Maybe it is only a change towards higher physical ability such as improving our flexibility, strength or fitness level. When we start our practice we take Sankalpa – set an intention, a determined decision that we want to work with in our practice. This is a decision that comes naturally to our mind; it will always be something that we already carried with us from the world beyond our mat. Taking Sankalpa, however, is only the first step. We then must work really hard and practice with an alert, aware mind. We must practice with devotion, we must trust our teacher and yes, sometimes we must practice letting go or acceptance. We must focus on the process − it is not time to relax! We must be aware of all the little details of our body. When we are focusing on the little details, we are establishing a more delicate, sensitive relationship with our body -ꟷ the tool of our practice -ꟷ and thus we learn to use and control it in a better way. We finish our practice with some sense of achievement. As more we practice as more sensitive we become to the changes in our body and thus we notice more and more progress in it. This improvements might not be as visible externally but when we become better observers we need less advancement in order to be satisfied. A sensitive mind is more susceptible to happiness. We find more beauty and joy in things that first seemed insignificant and thus we start finding it easier to surrender and accept our practice and our life as it is. The result becomes more satisfying even if it doesn’t change.


More specific example can be observed in one of the most mentally difficult postures in our practice:   Pashimotanasana – sited forward fold. We sit down and begin the pose with some kind of preconception about our ability to do it, then we set ourselves a goal. I guide my students to aspire to move their heart forward, towards their toes. This is ironically an unreachable goal that allows us to explore this act of moving forward with devotion to the process and not the result. I guide my students to put maximum effort, look forward at the direction where they are going and recruit the whole of their bodies in order to move their chests forward. Then I tell them to reach as far as they can and release the head down. At this point there is no more movement forward, it is time to let go and accept where we are. If we want to move forward we need to lift the head again and reach for our goals. Serenity is part of our process, it supports the process, specifically at the stage of reaching our final result, but it is not what gets us there.

Yoga is not some kind of a magical path where we surrender and suddenly reach enlightment. It is a hard work and a journey full of challenges. But when our practice matures we can see the joy and the fulfilment that is contained in this beautiful process of growth. When we arrive in this state we don’t need the result anymore. And then, where ever we arrive as our final destination, we more easily find our acceptance and fulfilment. This place of maturity, however, will never come to us the easy way.

Another way to explain those processes is through the theory of the three Gunas. Humans, nature and all that exists within and beyond those notions is traditionally believed to consist of three Gunas, essences or energies. Those are: Tamas, Rajas and Satva. Everything contains a portion of those energies and every object or subject will incline at different times to one of those broad directions. In short: Tamas is heavy, grounding energy; Rajas is active, dynamic, moving; and Satva is calm, clear or harmonious. Usually as practitioners we will aspire to change into a state of Satva, harmony. Perhaps attempting to overcome some kind of heavy experience, for example: loss. Some practitioners will walk an opposite path: arriving to the mat with a very light, fluid mind they will seek Tamas, grounding and focus. In both occasions, as one of my teachers used to say, the path from Tamas to Satva or the other way around can only be through Rajas, action. There is no change without action. There is no progress by only letting go, we must make a decision to change and then be proactive and not just let life happen.

If I look back at my life I find so many of those processes of self-discovery. I had many failures and successes. Looking back I can see where a wrong approach to the process derived an unsatisfying result. At other times, I was mature enough to accept the result and find the joy in it, and thus I arrived. One example is my journey to Australia.

I grew up in a family of Russian migrants in Israel. Moving countries at a young age and going through the usual hardships of fitting-in in a foreign culture, I always felt displaced. I never considered Israel to be my home and always aspired to come back to Russia, where I was born. Every time I travelled back to my home country, however, I felt that the locals saw me more as a tourist rather than as one of them. This process of fitting-in or rather coming back home always seemed to me unsatisfying, it always turned out to be a failure. It seems to me now that I wasn’t focused enough at the time, on either direction. Years later I took a determined decision to move away. I moved alone to Australia where I had no family, connections or heritage. I worked hard to settle down, to make friends, money and grow my own business; I started completely from scratch. It was a very hard process that required me to be entirely devoted, it left no time for serenity. I had to be proactive and not just let life happen. I don’t feel like I reached my final destination yet, however, I do feel I have arrived. I am much happier and more satisfied then I ever was. Even though I have much less, I am in a much more harmonious, Satvic place in my life.

The way from Tamas to Satva is only through Rajas. The path from struggle to acceptance must be proactive. One must act to reach acceptance and joy. Must work and not only relax. Fulfilment lies more in the devotional journey than in its final destination. It is a misconception that all Yogis are so happy because they are so relaxed and know how to let go. No, our practice is a hard journey of spiritual awakening; a journey that it takes time to find the joy in. A process that must start from a determined decision to change and take responsibility over our life.

It is not too late to start this wonderful journey and there is no better excuse than the start of a new year!

Namaste!

 

 

Bindu, Discontentment and Craving for more


Bindu– The source of creation, is beyond the realm of all conventional experience. The storehouse of all previous life karmas, memories and desires. It is the ultimate source out of which all things manifest and into which all things return.

 

We always want more. Being human means being forever unsatisfied.

The Yogi take on that comes to this: the energetic layer of our body contains a little seed or a drop, somewhere close to or within the crown of the head. This seed is called in Sanskrit, Bindu. Bindu is the cause of the creation of meaning; it is what makes us remember our source of existence, our connection to some supreme divinity we not necessarily can grasp. It is a little falling drop of the universe which is contained within us and craves to comeback and connect with the rest of the universe beyond us. We don’t need to understand it in order to crave this process of reunion.

Bindu always reminds us where we come from and makes us want to come back there. Our mind, however, fails to interpret this craving. Thus we are continuously have the desire to move forward and accomplish something without being certain what exactly is this thing we want. This craving is what keeps us unsatisfied. We want a new car, a new wife, a better house, a prettier pigeon pose… But the tragedy is that no matter what we have, it is never enough; as we accomplish one goal we straight away start craving another. Our mind fails to comprehend that what we really want is already within us, we just need to let the union happen, to connect back to the universe around us. Reaching this kind of satisfaction is a life long journey to spiritual awakening, and it starts with the acceptance of our inevitable discontentment.  

This discontentment can also be explained as the god within us that wants to unite with the god beyond, or maybe our natural human arrogance. Contemplating upon the latter of those explanations, I conclude that a little bit of arrogance is crucial for us to survive. It is paradoxically the source of our Yogic humility and trust in the universe. A trust that comes from the belief that we are very close to or even contain some kind of divinity or a god, and thus we are part of something greater. It gives us a reason and a since of meaning.

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Bindu is ironically located so close to the skull, almost reaching to break free away from the physical body and out to the filled with abundance sky; it is so close to its destination. In a similar way, a newborn baby lies head down in his mother’s womb, aiming to break through the cervix. His Bindu leads him on the way to unite with the universe that is out there. Most of us succeed in this very first challenge of life, only to discover it to be the beginning of a much longer journey. A teacher once told me that a breeched baby, lies in the womb with his head up because he aspires to reach closer to his mother, or perhaps he is not yet ready to come out to the world and start his journey.

Therefore from infancy we learn that to get what we want, we must dive for it head first, leading the way with our hidden point of desire. When we are ready to conquer fear, we dive to the ocean head first; when we are ready for love we rush in it “head first” rejecting all hesitations.

In our practice, we want to go head down to a forward fold (such as Pashimotanasana) and reach our legs. We mistake our Bindu’s craving for spiritual awakening with the desire to reach palms to toes or head to knees. Even when I encourage my students to lead their movement from the heart or the chest, they struggle as their mind craves satisfaction. I remind them that this is a “forward” fold and not a “down” fold, that it will never be satisfying because no journey forward ever is.

We should surrender to the fact that we will be forever discontented. We should stop searching for satisfaction but rather focus on experiencing the journey that is given to us, to the fullest. Discontentment is also part of it, it reminds us that we are moving forward and not down.

Namaste!


Source used: Kundalini Tantra by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Bihar School of Yoga, India, 1984.

Shavasana, Serenity and Trust

Shavasana- Corpse pose. Full relaxation. A posture most commonly practiced at the end of a Yoga asana sequence. 

B.K.S Iyengar ꟷone of the most influential Yoga teachers in the worldꟷ prescribed in his famous book, Light on Yoga to leave 15-20 minutes for shavasana at the end of each practice. In this posture, as Iyengar writes, the practitioner should imitate a corpse. He should maintain stillness of both body and mind. The practitioner must remain in complete consciousness in order to learn how to consciously let go.

This posture is one of the hardest in our practice. Therefore it is not surprising that contemporary practitioners are drawn away from Iyengar’s instructions to it. Light on Yoga was first published in 1966 and it is considered to be one of the best written sources in the field; it summarises a lot of principles that were not published as explicitly before and many that didn’t take the written form at all for centuries.

Thus it seems right to assume that practitioners used to practice long shavasana at a certain age and time. So what is happening now?

I would love to share with you two very different experiences I had while teaching this pose:

1. Once I was teaching a class and have finished all of my planed sequence about twelve minutes before the end. Consequently, the students got the treat of a longer shavasana. I probably missed something or just changed my mind in the middle about what posture to take next, like always. Anyway, the time planning did not turn out perfectly. The class was taught in a gym environment where I am expected to give a maximum of 5 minutes shavasana at the end. We were on minute number 3 and I was already sure that all of my students are a sleep or just waiting for it to be over. I woke them up and ended the class few minutes early.  

2. Another time I guided a 3-5 minutes shavasana, at another gym, to the tunes of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonnet’, my favourite shavasana music. A student I haven’t seen before came over after the class and thanked me. She said that she experienced unique sensations during the shavasana; she described a vision of blue and purple colours and a floating sensation. She said it was a shame that we couldn’t have a longer shavasana, as the class is only 60 minutes long.


Through my ten-years-experience in Yoga, I have never practiced or guided shavasana for longer than 10 minutes. In more traditional studios an average shavasana lasts 5-10 minutes. After arriving in Melbourne I had to adjust to most local studios’ requirements of a maximum 5 minutes length relaxation. In some studios I was asked to guide a 3 minutes relaxation and then leave the room after the class to the use of students who wish to stay longer in shavasana. I frequently see students use the time of shavaasana to practice other postures, to get dressed or gather their things; sometimes students will thank me and leave the room during shavasana.

At the same time I must say that the requests for ‘hard’ or ‘advanced’ or ‘challenging’ postures only rise. Students enjoy me demonstrating a very tricky arm balances. They love to sweat and try new things. Binds, inversions and balance postures are gaining more and more popularity in my classes. It seems to me that contemporary practitioners are embracing the physical challenges of the Yoga practice. I even sometimes feel like I need to keep advancing my own physical practice in order to keep up with my students expectations. I should thank my students for the significant progress in my asana practice the past few years; I indeed am grateful for that. Asana is a major part of our practice and I always encourage my students to keep challenging themselves to find those postures that they still can’t do, rather than staying attached to the postures they have mastered. I preach it to my students but I actually feel that I have learned it from them more than from any other source.

I think that my role as a teacher is mainly to assist in guiding the student in the path he chooses himself. Many of us choose this challenging path of conquering the Yoga asana. We are a competitive, success driven society, we are up for all that is challenging and hard. So why aren’t we as driven to challenge ourselves and conquer shavasana? It is obviously harder for us all, this day and age, to let go and relax than to hold a dancer’s pose. Maybe we are actually avoiding the harder task of lying down with closed eyes and convince ourselves we are challenged more by standing on one leg.  

I sincerely think that the fault for abandoning traditional shavasana is mainly on us, Yoga teachers. We are not very good at selling this pose! And it is probably because it is so hard for us to conquer to. It is hard to practice and it is hard to teach.

As teachers, if we want our students to enjoy shavasana, we need to market it in the same way we market other more ‘sexy’ asanas. In my classes I started to approach shavasana as a challenging posture. It is not enough to say that shavasana is the time to ‘heal’ and ‘recover’ and ‘relax’. These are not ‘sexy’ activities and they don’t imply any benefit to our contemporary student’s mind. I rather started to present shavasana as the hardest posture in our practice, as the time to challenge our mind and not the body. It is a posture that has a goal, it is done for the body and not by the body. It is the time for the body to absorb all the benefits of the practice and to gain self-learning; it is a process in which the mind must not interfere. Shavasana is not a time to ‘rest’ it is a time to ‘practice’ stillness, presence, non-attachment to the ego.   

Shavasana is all about surrendering and letting go. As a teacher I guide the students to let go of all thoughts and sensations, and commit to not making this posture all about themselves, what would be serving only the ego. At the same time it is me who has to step back and surrender to the pose. I need not to interfere and let the pose do its own service to my students. I need to stop talking and guiding and making it all about me. I need to let go of my students and give them their space. In the case I described earlier (number 2) I have created a space for my student’s spiritual experience. Her experience could have lasted longer perhaps, however, it is only because I let her go she had the space for this experience at all. I stopped talking and guiding and gave her time to tune inwards where she found space for her own spiritual practice. This is why I believe that it is a good technique to leave the room during the shavasana or maybe enter shavasana with the students, setting a timer for myself. 

Shavasana is also a lot about trust. Trusting the posture, trusting the teacher, trusting the space. We enter shavasana ꟷa state of nothingnessꟷ and we trust that we will come back from it and not disappear. Otherwise we can stay only on the threshold of the pose. As a teacher, I must trust my students when guiding them through the pose. I shouldn’t assume that they don’t have a full experience of relaxation. I don’t know what goes through their minds and I should trust them that they practice the pose in the best way possible for them, on that particular day on the mat. I sincerely think that it is me who made shavasana boring that time I described, in experience number 1. I did not trust my students enough. Maybe somewhere I still feel like I am doing something wrong if I stop talking; a moment of silence still might feel like forever. Maybe I am also falling into this popular judgment that if a class or a posture is not hard or active it is not good enough, not interesting enough. Or this common, ego-driven misconception that if a class is harder, it is better. I don’t know if that is something that we ever grow out of. My students are definitely those who inspire me to keep up and improving in this layer of my practice as well.

There is so much of a Yogi mental practice I discovered as a teacher, so much processes to observe on myself while teaching. I encourage my students to observe themselves while practicing, and I join them in this process. The realisation that I can still feel like I am a practitioner, a student, even while I am teaching a class, fills me with joy and gratitude.

Namaste!