Going Beyond Our Limits

One of our Teacher training students Rachel discusses Yoga, practice and challenging yourself on and off the Yoga mat.

In a current YTT (Yoga Teacher Training Programme) with Nichi Green (The Yoga Space Leeds), I was presented with an assignment question surrounding ‘challenge’ and to discuss the below quote from BKS Iyengar. There is a real need for challenge, in practice and in living. Yet considerable risks prevail, when awareness and knowledge in self-care is lacking or absent. This is a subject of wide scope, yet got me thinking and continues to do so. Here’s a small portion of my perspective, experience and opinion; from practice, study and teaching.

‘The challenge of yoga is to go beyond our limits – within reason.”– BKS Iyengar, Light on Life.

The aim of Yoga is to ‘yolk’, ‘unite, and ‘attach’ our segmented minds, bodies and spirits to everything universally. To do this we must move through all areas of our being, as mentioned above the ‘dark’ and ‘light’ areas must be explored with a sensitive attitude to create a wholeness. This entails developing sensitivity to our inner landscape (mind body); so we can better integrate with the outer landscape of the world as ‘one’.

The practice of yoga is designed to challenge us, “but we must respect the present form of our body” (Iyengar), working to ‘challenge ourselves’ is a necessity to feeling fulfilled. I think discovering ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pains in the body, presents challenges in the asana for practitioners, positioning of our bodies for deepening asana (with even the use of props etc.), as well as working towards more advanced asana (within reason) helps us massively to look at how we deal with obstacles, relationships and fear in our lives.

I like how  Iyengar talks in Light on Life, about this continual need for challenge, This is what makes the practice progressive; as we are constantly changing; new obstacles prevail- I totally agree. We can go through our practice and life, for that matter, comfortable and familiar, not even exercising our brains or bodies beyond ‘just what is needed’ to stay alive; it’s a comfort zone or what is perceived to be normal. The bottom line is, life is painful! When we learn to work with variable degrees of pain and become sensitive to what is good and bad pain, we can deal with it better in life and develop a greater sense of equanimity. To access new levels of growth we need to face new challenges and ‘bear the physical pain without aggravating it.” (Mr. Iyengar).

He then continues to state in his book that all of the asanas require a certain level of ‘stress’ to be ‘truly experienced’, if this is not the case for the practitioner; it’s a false state of practising yoga; there is no challenge… just a shape with the body. This is especially true for those of us who have spent time on the mat, working the body to open and move in asana, or those especially flexible/strong and can do the ‘shapes’ with ease; we can get complacent in actually ‘practising’ yoga, which then shifts the whole intention into a more physical plane of ‘exercise’/’fitness’. The asanas then, are not as challenging, we just hang-out in Trikonasana (triangle pose) and it becomes an easy shape to make; we may even develop habits in areas of ease and comfort.

However, this is where the developed sensitivity and intelligence comes in; we need to notice and take it back to what is going on from the feet-up! Can we challenge ourselves by holding the asana longer, changing the stance, are we activating all of the correct muscles, is the pose ‘alive’, how is the breathing? Are we even present etc?  Iyengar, in his book, likens that when we operate in asana ‘mechanically’, we are operating from ‘memory’ and using no ‘thought, innovation or improvisation’ of being in the current moment. He also says to ‘never repeat: repetition makes the mind dull’, which I find most interesting, as in the Ashtanga yoga method, it is too easy to become mechanical through the sequences, so we need to be present and sensitive to exploring the thread of the breath and the body constantly.

Every now and then, in my practice, I will be almost overwhelmed by the depth of awareness of a pose. I may have spent 4 years doing padmasana (lotus) in my ‘own way’ or uttanasana (standing forwards fold); only to be told by a senior teacher its wrong, or maybe an injury occurs (knee pain or a soreness in the back) and I have to re-asses an asana for my own anatomical make up, thus leading to another approach etc. repetitive movement that is continuous; surely creates new habits (not always good) that may lead to weakness. (NB: repetitive movement in the sense of a rigorous daily practice of a set sequence of postures).

Nevertheless, the benefits of the practice are visible on a multiplicity of levels. If we look at what fruits the ‘challenge’ aspect that different asanas can give off the mat; doing hand-balance and inversion practice, is great for developing that sense of courage and self-trust, as well as confidence (this can constructively be taken out into practitioners daily lives and help them function better), to achieve this for many, we have to really play our edge sensitively and wisely, but simultaneously be playful and light. This type of practice requires us to go right to the edge where we sometimes feel we should not go any further, but the pose requires us to go that bit extra, cultivate trust, get to know your body etc. Take Bakasana for example; you have to go just beyond the point, where you think you shouldn’t go… to get the shoulders moving beyond the wrists for the centre of gravity to move forwards and so you are able to take flight. In the right environment and maybe using equipment also, the student can challenge and feel safe in doing so, if we sustain a fall, then we pick ourselves up and we haven’t fallen from such a height, we are compact; usually it is a mind obstacle we realise needs to be conquered. If anything, this may turn into more of a ‘frustration’ opposed to fear; which is then another obstacle to work with. We are also learning to ‘pick ourselves up’ as well, as life is full of stumbles and falls. Consequentially; our attitude to practice has to be addressed each time we step on the mat and our ego witnessed.

We never entirely know what is ‘actually’ going on in our bodies, our bone structures, what we may be predisposed to genetically, our characters and ‘character bodies’ fuel our ego and probably shape our practice; some of us like ‘pain’ or have a high pain threshold, thus may do more damage than we realise. The more we know about ourselves and even consider our histories, the better we can use our practice to help be a better version of us.

If each individual were to approach starting ‘yoga practice’ in a very ‘literal’ and ‘practical’ sense for their specific character, they could assess what ‘type’ of learner/character they were. In a TT two years ago with Christina Sell and Gioconda Parker, we looked at how, in Yoga, there is this ‘alchemical’ process of transformation, which occurs in the individual when we practice Yoga. Transformation happens on a cellular level and a much greater level but we need to be challenged to access this; away from habit and working from memory.  We looked closely at the domain of teaching Yoga and how to reach as many students as possible and offer a rich, informative and beneficial practice to varying types of student. For students to get the maximum out of the classes and the process, we maybe have to understand more about them (to know how they learn) and then to help them know themselves; helps them progress to know when to challenge (or not). For example, using Bob Hoffman’s ‘quadrinity model’ (The Hoffman Quadrinity Process: Freedom of the Mind) we can look deeper at the segments of our ‘beings’ as:

Then we see different ‘types’ of learners/personalities:

Dancers/athletes (practical kinaesthetic- based learners)
Scientists/Engineers (Factual/reason-based learners)
Psychologists (Knowledge/desire-based learners)
Poets and Mystics (Inspirational/love-based learners)
Just like anything Yoga, this above example; is not absolute! There are so many overlaps in the growth of yoga. Styles and lineages have been designed and developed beyond recognition from original and the ancient practice of ‘yoga’, now has its own marketplace demographic; ‘lifestyles for health and sustainability’ (LOHAS), which is a multibillion pound industry (worldwide).

We can ‘theoretically’ add lineages of yoga and styles that would suit specific learners according to their characters and style of learning. however, in the greater realm of life, yoga and learning; this is not a realistic approach and if it were; would it not only lead to fuelling the wrong parts of peoples characters and or egos, instead of leading to enlightenment? Many of us follow our desires to practice lineages and conquer asanas, sequences and freedom. Anyway, I digress (everyone should have the right to choose and try whatever style of Yoga they like to practice in their spare time). Nevertheless, this could be a great resource or starting point for self inquiry and identifying where we are maybe ‘lacking’ and need to challenge ourselves to brave new waters or build relationship with ourselves to create a ‘greater whole’.

Thus, self-Inquiry, is a key tool for us as individuals and practitioners, to knowing where and when to challenge, develop and integrate ourselves across the board; to create a more ‘complete’ version of ourselves- and that is down to personal choice. I still use Hoffmanns theory much when I teach, when students are sat in sukhasana at the beginning of class and maybe in savasana also; to try to offer a chance for people to even just be aware of these areas objectively – being careful not to completely dissect ourselves into segments of separation, after all ‘We are not human beings seeking a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings seeking a human experience”(Tielhard de Chardin).

Knowing when to back-off is an essential part of yoga practice and life. I think the ego in modern society with social media etc. is stronger than ever, with ‘Instagram yoga challenges’ (for any level of practitioner to try and copy an advanced yogi, everyday for a month or so; followers attempt a different posture and the challenge of posting your version of the pose with various publicity tags etc) and perceptions of what yoga is, there are lots of boundaries being crossed and grey areas of overlaps with; gymnastics, contortion, calisthenics and endless new ‘styles of yoga’ being invented. Not that I disagree with any of this and it is great that people are practicing, only the level of ‘competition’ within the industry is greater than ever and with not much regulation in place (and this is more matter of opinion).

Injury level (mental, physical and emotional) in practice is extremely high when practitioners are not aware of their bodies in each moment and what they are doing, (when this sensitivity is underdeveloped or we are rushing to achieve a pose for aesthetic egotistical value). As Vanda Scaravelli said ‘do not kill the instinct of the body, for the glory of the pose“, and  Iyengar mentions in the first paragraph of ‘Pain: Find Comfort Even in Discomfort”(page 47 Light on Life) that, “Many people focus on the past or the future to avoid the present, often because the present is painful or difficult to endure. In yoga class, many students think they must simply ‘grit their teeth and bear it” until the teacher tells them they can come out of the asana. This is seeing yoga as calisthenics and is the wrong attitude. The pain is there as a teacher, because life is filled with pain.” If we are constantly stimulating the nervous systems to an extreme extent; instead of using the practice to ‘tone’ the nervous systems; where is this leading us?

That said, even experienced, practitioners, are faced with unfortunate and sudden injury when challenging themselves; even when they are believed to be focused and sensitive to the current workings of the body.

In Matthew Remski’s article: ‘Kiono’s Hip: Reflections on Extreme Practice and Injury in Asana’, he has collaborated much information from top Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners (as well as interviewing over 100 practitioners on this subject) on their views of intense practice and injury, surrounding a theme of Kino Macregors (a perceived inspiration on social media) and her recent notorious hip injury, there is large reference to; Pattabhi Jois , Sharath Jois, Iain Grysak, Diane Bruni, Jules Mitchell, Kino herself. In this rich article Kino even states “I was ‘listening to my body’ intently the same way I had a thousand times before, and I STILL assessed the situation incorrectly.” As well as Diane Bruni (Canadian Ashtanga Yoga teacher), who reported a similar example, Remski writes: “In 2008, Bruni tore the deep rotators off her bone in a seemingly-harmless wide-angled pose following a five-year-long regime of hip-opening, which was paradoxically recommended by her yoga mentors to treat her ongoing knee pain.” 

Diane Bruni states to Remski:

Before my injury, I used to say many of the things Kino says in the injury post and on YouTube,” Bruni writes. To illustrate, she sends me a link too “Yoga for Open Hips: Full Practice with Kino”.  It’s on the Kinoyoga channel, which has 271K followers and almost 70 million views. I would say:

Notice the sensations. Notice if it hurts, it’s burning, or of it’s tight. Tell yourself it’s okay, practice surrender. Accept the pain, breathe into it. This will help you accept who you are.’ 

Now I wonder – what does that even mean?”

This raises great questions in the Yoga community of teachers and injury; especially those with such large media coverage and commercial followings and in teaching the practice. Iain Grysak comments on the above, as well as the modern, jet-set lifestyles and packed teaching schedules as well as attitudes of practice as follows:

It’s not what the practice is designed for. It’s not sustainable. The striving – for deeper opening in Bruni’s case, or to give “inspiration” in MacGregor’s case – might lead people to take the practice to a place that it is just not meant to be taken if it is to remain a healthy technique.”

He then later mentions that:

Sharath is very opposed to overworking and speaks out against it regularly in Mysore. He admonishes people who go home after practice and continue to work on tough postures. He says asana practice should be done once a day, in the morning. I agree with him: get on with your life and wait until the next morning to do more asana!”

Kino goes on to mention:

Practicing six days a week,” MacGregor writes, “accelerates the rate at which you experience the pains that purify weakness and stiffness, as well as the rate at which you experience the purified result of more strength and flexibility in the body and mind.”  

-Matthew Remski, Kiono’s Hip: Reflections on Extreme Practice and Injury in Asana.

“Conclusively, although there is definitely truth in this above statement from Kino, I believe it is up to the individual to cultivate the correct attitude towards their body and their practice, which is most relevant to them at that time in their life. And as practitioners and teachers, we need to be responsible for our own sensitivity and helping deliver this message to our students, so they can best cultivate theirs. That said, injuries, accidents do occur that are just out of our hands and at the end of the day, us as well as the top practitioners, are all made of the same organic materials, all have human brains and modern distractions, which can unfortunately get the better of us sometimes.”

This ‘challenging’, also helps us to look at who we really are. I am not just Rachael, who is British, is socially expected to grow up, get an education, go to university, get married, become financially stable, buy a house, have children etc. etc. I am Rachael, This mass of energy, who has discovered yoga, is still discovering things everyday about life, I have devoted time to discovering myself daily for the last 9 years, not wanting to slip into this modern mould; as there is something ‘else’ I need. I have worked through injury, good mental, emotional and physical pain and the relationship with my body and myself in relationship to the world; I cannot say I am perfect; by a long shot, or a complete ‘saint’ from doing this, but I know what this practice is, is continual and progressive tool and I can say with great confidence that, I feel a larger wisdom of sensitivity to living and the world around me. I also feel stronger physically and mentally, in most things that I do; with a certain ‘humbleness’.

At the moment I am struggling with getting up in the cold winter mornings and getting back into a routine (post-travelling), my ‘vata-dominant-being’ is embracing a scattered-mind; this is ‘painful’ compared to the life of Island-hopping in the warmth of Thailand I experienced over December, yet the routine, rituals and doing a physical practice is constructive pain and good challenge to helping me function, as well as move forwards.

What we have to be aware of on any spiritual journey is, once again, the bad pain, which is definitely not to be challenged. This is where the ego needs to be challenged to ‘let go’ of its ideals, surrender to what cannot be changed and be content with where you are at right now. I guess the real ‘challenge with applying ‘challenge’ is doing it safely with true ‘intention’. With all the above mentioned and considered, it also raises the question of; where does challenge end for people? But all of this said, safety should be paramount to the practitioner; yet questions surround- is it really in modern practice, especially with huge media influence, home yoga videos on youtube with no medical information of the student, Instagram/Facebook challenges and our competitive nature? (Food for thought for discussion another time)  Iyengar talks profusely that todays practice should help tomorrows practice not hinder it with injury.

By listening to our bodies reactions and requirements, as well as gaining sensitivity through the tools of asana, pranayama and meditation, we can learn to rewire our whole selves; away from the conditioning of society, to find our most genuine and best ‘self’. Our practice is to help us integrate our experience and I think Michael Stones statement sums much of the ‘bigger picture’ and ‘beyond asana’ aim of the practice up:

“Like most spiritual practices, the aim of yoga is not perfect mastery over technique or the ability to memorize scriptures, but rather the activity of bringing one’s insights and sensitivities into the world through action. Through the release of habitual patterns of attachment and reactivity, we are better able to perceive and take action in the world. When I tune in to the fact that the body and world are in deep continuity with one another, when I stand up after formal practice and look into the smoggy skyline, I feel called to take action. Yoga occurs when our inner work manifests in the world around us.” – Michael Stone, Yoga: for a World Out of Balance.

Learning a willingness to cultivate a sensitive attitude, with true intention and knowing when to challenge and when to surrender – this is surely, wisdom at work.

Article by Rachel Medd Teacher and Yoga student www.livewellyoga.co.uk

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