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January 2011 Feeling the Pose

Dear Yoga Friends,

This week I had an interesting conversation with another yoga practitioner about the differences between yoga class and practicing at home. Let's face it, we all have busy lives, and making time for home practice can be a challenge. We might rely on yoga classes as a way to have time to do yoga. But the experience of doing a pose in class, particularly an Iyengar yoga class, can be much different than doing the pose on your own.

It is probably accurate to say that B.K.S. Iyengar invented the modern yoga class, in which there is a teacher and a group of students following along. Prior to B.K.S. Iyengar, yoga was a more private undertaking in which a disciple studied 1:1 with a guru, with many hours spent practicing for each hour spent with the teacher.

In a class we are (hopefully :-) listening to instructions. How many times have you heard "press your thighs back", "pull your kneecaps up", "roll your thigh in [or out]", "lengthen the sides of the torso", "draw your shoulders away from your ears", "roll the outer shoulders back and broaden your chest", "press your shoulder blades into your back", etc.? And then there are those refinements like "press the inner upper knee towards the floor", "lengthen the outer armpits towards the floor", "roll the top back thighs from inside outwards", etc.

The difference between an asana and a stretching or strengthening exercise is that in an asana, every part of your body has something it should be doing, and your mind focuses on observing and adjusting to ensure that the asana is maintained and improved. This allows for a meditative state far beyond any rote performance of an exercise. True performance of an asana requires complete attention and is the polar opposite to watching television while walking on a treadmill.

But the asana is also much more than the sum of the instructions you hear in a yoga class. In a class, the teacher is attempting to get the students to perform certain specific actions. This can sometimes cause the asana to be experienced as some sort of checklist. In reality, the asana is an integrated experience, in which certain actions play off or compete against other actions, and there is a harmony taking place among the actions and the breath. It is often difficult to experience this in class because we are listening to instructions one at a time and trying to understand them and execute them. Yoga teachers work to "link the parts to the whole" to convey some integrated feeling about the pose, but this is where words often fail.

At home, in peace, quiet, and privacy, we often have a better opportunity to feel a pose in its pure form. Of course, our teacher is not there to keep us honest (are my legs and arms really straight?), but there is an opportunity to go beyond the checklist of actions and feel how all the actions interrelate, on our own timeline, not on the timeline set by our teacher.

As always, your thoughts and experiences on this or any other yoga topic are most welcome.



Chad Balch