Sunday, April 10, 2016
Breath & Kindness
YOGA CAN BE fitness-oriented, which tends to imply a workout and favor a strength-orientation. Poses are isometric contractions, and the main benefit of isometric contraction is strength. Yoga can become a way to increase strength without weights or gym equipment. Poses may be dominated by postures that work muscles and ligaments to the point of discomfort that provokes the thought of getting out of the pose. In this approach, breath is engaged to press through the discomfort--sort of pain equals gain, and specific breath techniques are utilized as a way to press though the “edge.” In everyday life, strength is posited to offer a functional sense of both physical and psychological/emotional stability. Psychologically, this approach is posited to bolster up coping skills to overcome mental stress and obstacles.
The strength/stability-oriented approach is likely the most widespread strategy and tends to be some form of “vinyasa flow.” And yet, people commonly report being drawn to yoga initially to deal with “stiffness,” which is typically defined as inflexibility, often to the point of aches and pains when moving. A strength-oriented approach tends to exaggerate aches and pains. Its isometric contraction emphasis brings the poses to the point of discomfort, and this discomfort when “stiff” is more intense. It is “push” more than “release.” And fitness in general can increase inflexibility. The typical facilitator response is to suggest that repeated practice will be easier and, at best and, for the moment, the pose can be modified to reduce discomfort. Discomfort is posited to be a given and necessary for strength. The other option is to find a more “gentle” class where the same approach is likely to continue at a slower pace, but still with a strength-orientation in repeated poses such as warrior variations and forward fold variations. This leads to many “newbies” dropping out of yoga practice.
A flexibility-oriented practice in modern practice is still fitness-oriented, but may be more wellness oriented in that it places a strong emphasis on cognitive awareness rather than upon physical exercise. Whether gentle or more challenging, poses are slowed down with the idea of producing little discomfort. And breath is not used to push through discomfort. The primary work in the pose is one of releasing rather than pushing. Since the goal is flexibility, nerves need to relax--i.e., spindles in muscle and fascia need to release--because nerves drive tissue to either contract or release. Breath tends to be natural rather than intensified or metered into a pace. Breath expands for both support and massage of not only muscles and ligaments but also organs, nerves, lymphatic tissue and so forth. Breath washes awareness. When “yoga-quitting” poses such as standing and seated forward folds are utilized, knees are bent, not simply to make the pose gentler, but primarily to stretch areas such as the lumbar and “lats,” and to allow comfortable slow holding of the poses. As the nerve spindles release and the current pose is comfortable, legs might be gradually straightened by gradually unbending knees, further stretching the tissue. This slow process gradually releases facia that may be the last to release (and which s missed when going faster or when pushing the pose and increasing discomfort). “Softness” and suppleness of the total body-mind become emphases.
A flexibility-oriented practice can emphasize more than fitness. It can emphasize stillness and slow movement as a means of provoking experiences such as calmness that can, in turn, deepen into experiences such as tranquility, harmony, and grace. Calmness and these more complex emotional states are commonly described as qualities of spiritual persons. In human life, these states of being can become more regular characteristics or “attributes.” Here the practice becomes neither simply body fitness nor body-mind wellness, but rather body-mind-spirit. Breath here and listening to body experience and the passing thought-stream become quite different. Breath here is relaxed and “kind.” Poses can be gentle, gentle restorative, gentle, or even Level 1 and Level 2 and still be kind and painless. Poses can then become “islands of grace” that are not rigid but that softly open. A sense of thriving and optimizing and even positive “dis-identification with ego” (i.e., transpersonality or self-Identity expanded beyond ego) can occur. Such an emphasis begins to actualize that which yoga aspired for millennia to experience, having almost nothing to do with poses (excepting a few meditative postures).