What's in it for me?

After the initial elation of beginning to practice yoga wears off, many of us find ourselves asking, what’s in it for me? Who exactly we mean by “me” is the topic of a future discussion, but for now let’s assume we are wondering how yoga relates to the personal self.
We learn to practice yoga in much the same way a child learns—by conditioning. First we’re imprinted with each lesson and value that we are taught or experience. These specific imprints, or samskaras, create trends in our thinking, feelings and behavior that eventually seem central to our being. That’s why a teacher needs only to say Trikonasana, and we immediately think: turn the right leg out and the left foot in; right hand to the floor, ankle or shin; revolve the chest to the ceiling. We also feel dread or excitement or boredom, depending on our previous experiences in the pose and conditions of the day, which then cause us to stall, resent or hurry into it.
Just like during our teenage years, there comes a point when we need to challenge these imprints—both the useless and the helpful—so they won't become automatic or mistaken for the goal of our practice. Yoga helps us do this in two ways. It uproots and burns up the imprints if they’re hindering our growth, or if they’re useful, suffuses them into a sense of self beyond personality. In the process, yoga also provides a way for us to examine how we relate to (and deal with) our imprints.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patañjali suggests the following approach to challenge the dominion of these imprints:
1.     Create a new imprint by acting differently from the way you have before (tapas).
2.     Observe the effects of this new imprint (svadhyaya). If useful, continue to explore and refine; if not useful, discard it.
3.     Surrender to what you discover in the process (ishvara pranidhana).
The contention is that some imprints created through yoga help overcome the false or adopted sense of self that prevents you from experiencing yourself as the totality of existence. However, even those “good” imprints have to be relinquished in favor of being present. Patanjali distinguishes between two kinds of realization (samadhi): with seed, or sabija, and without, nirbija. In other words, with positive imprint or without any imprint at all. The point of yoga is to enter the seedless realization.
How can we apply this to our asana practice?
1.     Do a particular pose, sequence, or action with its archetypal expression in mind. For instance, move into Trikonasana, thinking of the myriad of instructions for this asana (e.g., press the four corners of the feet into the floor, externally rotate the thighs). This is the imprint. Be willing to push the limits of your practice to achieve that imprint.

2.     Do the pose, sequence or action again. This time, don’t think of specific instructions but observe how the imprint has informed your pose (e.g., automatically, you’ve turned your chest to the ceiling and pressed the back heel down). Ask yourself if and how the imprint is helpful to you at this time. If helpful, continue to explore and refine; if hindering, discard it.

3.     Repeat again, releasing all thoughts and feelings about the project of the pose. Let your mind go wherever it goes without getting involved in your thoughts. Accept your limits, pulling back or modifying before you reach the point of pain. Notice how your body, mind and breath react to simply being in the pose.
When we practice yoga in our mind—from an image of what a pose “should” look like or the way it looks manifested in another person—we’re doing yoga from a limited notion of ourselves. Like the child who becomes a doctor to satisfy his parents’ wishes, we feed an imprinted idea of ourselves. But when we practice in the moment and in our own body, we open the way for energy to flow unobstructed and to get in touch with the universal nature of being. Consequently the question what’s in it for me doesn’t arise anymore. It’s all for you because it all is you.

Coming up

April 3: Prop Workshop
Yoga Works, Costa Mesa

April 17: Expanding the Breath: Pranayama Workshop
Yoga House, Pasadena

May 27-30: Memorial Day Retreat
Details coming soon!

June 12: Iyengar Intensive
Yoga Works, Montana Ave.

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cradle to grave I forget you
over and over again
angel of peace
in silence you speak
yet your light slips
right out of my hand
life after life
I have left you
as into chaos
I fell
you consistently
offering heaven
I choose hell
maybe someday
I'll remember
so fully I won't
have to hide
behind all the clocks
I'm using to count
how many times
I have died

--Jane Watkins 

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