I know it has been a while since I have written a newsletter. It has been a very busy fall. In part because my brother and I have been continuously involved in the ongoing and seemingly endless process of moving my mother from her home of 50 years into an assisted living situation. On top of that, I was studying and preparing for IYNAUS's first ever Senior 2 level Assessment. I am happy to report that I passed. And now, slowly by slowly, I feel like I am getting back into the rhythm and flow of my own process and inquiry. By that, I mean one that expands beyond the parameters of exam preparation.
The process and inquiry that is self-directed can be more challenging on some levels because it is easier to be told what to study, and where to place or direct one's attention and efforts. But at some point it is important to become self reliant in this regard. It doesn't mean that we don't seek the help or guidance of others, but that we are taking responsibility for our own practice and learning. We have to learn how to provide structure and direction for our learning when neither is required. Sometimes a line of inquiry is so compelling that the structure and focus emerges organically. And we can learn when we are playing and exploring even (and especially) when there is no specific goal in mind. But at other times we might need to provide a context for ourselves and for our efforts. Sometimes we need to support our sadhana in a more deliberate manner.
This exam provided an interesting context with which to explore self-reliance (yet the exam provided a specific focus) for what I will describe as sadhana alambana. Alambana means support, and sadhana is the quest, the practice, the life-long process of on-going inquiry.
I found that the single biggest insight or learning for me in engaging in this exam process was that I had an opportunity to explore what I will describe as "the power of how." I know this might sound silly - and in my book silly can be a good thing - but the ramifications of this learning are not silly at all and go way beyond this exam.
When I learned that IYNAUS was finally offering a SR 2 exam, which I had tried to take for a few years, I found some part of me saying, "I can't." This was my internal reaction when I asked myself the question "will you do this?" or "can you do this?" This reaction provoked the question, "what do you mean you can't?" I would ask myself: "you can't, or you won't?" I knew that I could execute and teach the required poses. I was encountering a different type of resistance in myself. I thought, "maybe you don't want to. But why?" I lived these questions for several months, while continuously preparing because the questions themselves really interested me.
What I realized (slowly by slowly) was that I was not helping myself by asking "can I do this?" It was limiting and meaningless, self-defeating and did not promote process. So the question transformed into "how can I do this?" And that is what I am calling the Power of How. "How" makes room for possibility, and for process. It is the key to teaching, and the cultivation of self-reliance in our selves and in our students. Which does not mean that we don't ask questions, work together, play together and support one another. Quite the contrary - we actively engage with, and play with, The How. Engaging the How acknowledges that there is a way - we just have not imagined, or uncovered it yet. And we need to direct out efforts toward finding a way, or creating a way when one doesn't seem to exist. In my case this meant a playful way to work with the fear, resistance that I was encountering in myself - I did not want to lose the joy that I felt so deeply in teaching and practice.
Now this means that our asana or pranayama practice, for instance, might might end up looking/feeling very different - and in ways that we may not have given ourselves permission to imagine or embody.
Very often we are limited by our thoughts, our vrittis in the language of yoga. Our mind might actually be operating in a fixed and limiting manner. Not that limits or boundaries or structures aren't important or helpful. They are important - but are these structures serving to liberate or inhibit our capacity to gain a new perspective, develop new ways to approach challenges, and explore the How? Are we reinforcing a fixed perspective of ourselves and our environment, or promoting a fluid, dynamic, growth oriented one? Are we reinforcing a limited perception of ourselves and each other, or are we acknowledging that we really don't know what is possible for ourselves or for one another? Are our preconceived, fixed notions of things limiting a type of openness and clear perception that might hold the potential for new insights? How much fun (and yes, maybe how scary) might it be to take the leap and direct our efforts toward finding out how to really engage with those things that we are curious about, or long to do, rather than getting stuck in the idea that things are a certain way - that we are a certain way, and that we "can't."
That brings up the power of asking questions in practice. Let's say you are doing an asana and coming up against something that feels as if it is blocking the movement, the breath or the free flow of energy and intelligence in the pose. The question "what is preventing me from ___" can be very powerful. Especially if we ground this question in as much specificity as possible. Ask the question "what is it that feels like it is obstructing me, and how can I remove and lessen this perceived obstruction?" In that way the obstruction might not only cease to be an obstruction, it even becomes The Way. If one side of our body feels short in a twisting pose, for example, how are we going to go about elongating that area? Now that might seem simple and obvious, but I think many times we as students have been so spoon fed, put down, or in some way discouraged from accessing our own bodily intelligence and creative problem solving capacity. And it is also important to take ourselves to the point where we encounter what may seem like an impasse. When that happens what to you do - or not do? Sometimes leave the pose, do another one that gives you what you feel you are lacking (like a lateral side bending asana) and come back with that new cellular information. Or let it go and revisit another day. It is good to get stuck. Getting stuck is the launchpad for innovation and new insight. But only if stuck is attended to (and sometimes a break from what you are working on is what you need to access a solution). But if stuck becomes the "I can't" reaction then we may end up reinforcing a fixed perspective of ourselves, our practice, or each other. Which is sad because fluidity is much more life affirming, fun, and acknowledges that change and growth are always possible, even if difficult.
Another question might be "how am I supporting myself to _____?"
The context in which you frame and answer this question can be on the physical level, energetic level, mental level, emotional level, etc. But be as specific as possible. That is what I love about the question "how can I do this?" Because to really engage it means an encounter with specificity. The focus is on the actual process more than the result, although a goal might be a helpful guide. It brings us to into the fun, nitty gritty specifics of process, and even play.
In my case (SR 2 assessment) it meant involving others (specific people) in my process. It meant publicly acknowledging that I was doing this thing (and risking feeling embarrassment). It meant organizing and committing to specific times to do practice sessions with willing students. It meant asking them how they felt, what worked/didn't work, what made sense/didn't make sense. It meant taking the support of others by involving them, and their specific life/bodily circumstances in the inquiry. Then it became less about me, and whether I can or can't do this thing, and more about the work, the process of learning and of learning how to do that which feels difficult. It was humbling, scary, and empowering all at the same time. It was the type of self-reliance that comes from engagement, and as a teacher I am required to engage not only with the material that I am teaching, but with my students.
Another conscious practice/teaching strategy I employed was to deliberately put myself in new or unfamiliar teaching environments. I have been learning about how powerful this is for deeper learning by the opportunities I have had to travel to teach workshops both nationally and internationally. It can be a little scary because it is unfamiliar. But it is good to be a little bit uncomfortable and to find a sense of stability that is not context dependent. Contemporary learning science tells us that we tend to remember things in the context in which we learned them. So by changing contexts our learning and ability to connect to our material in a wide variety of circumstances deepens our understanding as we are required to deal with the curve balls of the unpredictable. And life can be unpredictable.
As for my assessment prep, I was fortunate to be able to call on some friends and teach the sequences I was exploring in different studios and with different students in and around NYC. I was even able to do some experimentation with my friends in New Mexico while I was out there dealing with moving my mom. These contextual differences meant that I was always a little off balance, and having to practice responding and recovering to that which was not as predictable as a familiar class in a familiar place. Since candidates have to travel to a new city and work with students they don't know, this seemed like an effective way to prepare. The same holds true for the demonstrated practice part of the exam. Practice in different contexts if possible, so that you are having to adapt to different environmental conditions.
This is one of the things (the awakening that comes from a shift of context) I have found to be a surprising and unexpected benefit of travel. My practices require more discipline, more imagination, and more innovation.
Routine is important, very important, but occasionally vary it in some small way. Maybe practice in a different place, at a different time of day, with different props or no props at all.
Also, try asking yourself a question or two when you practice - let the inquiry guide you.
Here are just a few questions to ask yourself (and the list is infinite) in practice:
What am I doing, and why am I doing this? What is my intention today? It might be as simple as fulfilling a commitment to practice, or just to practice a few poses, or pranayamas, or sit for a bit.
How can I start? There is no right answer here. Do I always start the same way? And if so how can I start differently? Be specific. Most importantly engage with and in your practice. In a way - the how naturally appears as you engage with your material (body, breath, asana).
Where am I initiating from? (Say you are entering an asana, for example, or doing a certain action in the pose) Ask yourself "how am I initiating this pose, or this action?" Be specific. Attend to this one - it is fascinating.
How can I vary my approach in some way - different props, different attitude (like playfulness), different tempo or rhythm. For instance try something very slowly, or with momentum. How can I invert it, reverse it, see and experience the other side of this thing?
Add one new pose, or one you never or rarely practice into each day's practice (just one new or novel thing). If it seems too daunting to do that, then try one new, maybe even slightly scary, pose or approach every other day. This provides a context and support for moving into the unknown. But beware - It can seriously enliven the practice and spill into your life off the mat in some surprising and delightful ways.
What did I learn today?
How can I apply this learning in my relationships?
Or come up with some of your own questions, or reflections.
Going forward - over the the next several months I will begin adding some video segments to my website to help support a playful process of practice. I will also be creating a program of inquiry called Sadhana Alambana (support for sadhana). This will be an ongoing series of workshops exploring the "How to's" of mindful, playful practice as well as ongoing learning in all aspects of the yogic inquiry. I will also be inviting other teachers to share their knowledge and expertise. These workshops will be for any and all interested and enthusiastic practitioners and teachers of yoga. More specifics will come in a few months' time. These workshops will be focused on process, and will include plenty of practical, playful, as well as poetic tools to support our yogic inquiry.
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two