The Soul of Practice

This series aims to discuss the basics of somatics and ways to relate this wisdom to the many inroads of Hatha Yoga, in order to teach and practice the mind-body therapy that yoga promises.

In an increasingly media-based industry, yoga teachers have come to represent the physical elite.  Instagram, Facebook, websites, newsletters thrive on images of impressive physical feats and physiques.  Yoga pants sell, more often than not, because of who’s in them.  With all of this focus moving out toward the still image of the yogi, I’m wondering if anybody notices that the still point is actually a state of being and not a static posture or singular moment in time?  Certainly the body is a visible, tangible expression of self, but everything we see is literally a trick of the eye.  In order to know the embodied self we cannot merely look at it from the outside, slicing and dissecting, comparing and contrasting.  Furthermore, none of the asanas on their own has any sustaining power.  It is the way in which we inhabit each posture that gives them power.  From this conscious embodiment we as practitioners draw resilience, patience and autonomy into our mundane lives.

So why do have asana/poses then?  What’s the point or benefit in working the body beyond the place of cardiovascular maintenance?  Most of our teachers (as in Patanjali, Shiva, Krishna, et. al.) said one or two things about stillness.  I think maybe something about yogas citta vritti nirodah, or, “yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind.”  And if you’ve ever tried to sit still without your mind wandering you know Yoga is more than just working your hips open to hit Koundinyasana.

Stagnant physical energy is what makes sitting and stilling the mind so difficult.  Energy, once set in motion, must go somewhere, and since most of us cycle our energy through the thought wheels rather than consciously through the nadis, the result is an anxiety-ridden being that just needs to sweat and chatturanga.  Teachers practicing in front of their class with a “come-along-with-me-to-this-very-cool-pose” attitude, forget that the body might be going through the motions, but the psyche could be fragmented and therefore the “motions” are likely causing more harm than good.  This premise is based on the work of Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing (which we will explore in future articles,) and the movement system of somatics.  “Somatics” refers to a lineage of movement studies that emphasizes internal physical perception (or the body as perceived from within), and employstechniques that highlight the mover’s internal proprioceptive sensations, in contrast with performance-based techniques like dance.  Through the lens of somatics, movement is an indispensable precursor to that still point of transcendence, which brings me to my point: how do we know if our asana is helping or hurting?

Let’s examine the word somatics for a moment.  Recognize that word, Soma? That wondrous elixir residing in the liquid contents of body and mind, Soma is the counterpart to Agni, the moon to the sun, the feminine to the masculine.  “Soma,” according to Dr. David Frawley, is “the delight inherent in existence itself (Brahman), not simply the pleasure produced by contact with external objects. Soma is the ‘pure delight’ that we are truly seeking in all that we pursue, not mere temporary pleasure that wears away the senses and is only its reflection.”

Soma might be exactly the remedy to our yoga conundrum: a felt experience of pleasure that is activated and contained by posture, then lingers and floods into every open space in the body like a nourishing stream.  In the Sri Vidya tradition, this is exactly the point of asana: to activate and engage Agni and Soma in equal parts.  How do we know we’re doing that?  First and foremost, with an inwardly focused gaze- beyond staring at fingertips or nose during Surya Namaskar, this gaze is self aware with an observational quality.  This gaze recognizes strain, rushing, unrelated self-talk and the difference between right and left, front and back, straight and bent.  Secondly, the practice must generate energy as well as contain it.  Throughout a vigorous sequence, if the breath comes through in starts and stops and the form becomes soggy, your Agni is probably burning more Soma than ignorance, and your Soma is nothing but a puddle on the mat.  Finally, it should feel pleasant to return to your life following practice, as though you have been fortified with supernatural powers to bear the weight of winter or rush hour or sick children (or adults for that matter.)  Sleep comes easily and harmful substances hold no temptation.  Practice is the balm that soothes all ills and prepares us to sit quietly in the presence of Om, the Absolute, Isvara, et. al.

I don’t know if that can be captured on camera.