body consciousness

Those of you who have been reading this blog regularly know that I don’t treat yoga as a physical exercise or performance art. I know that people come to yoga for all different reasons, and many people say “so what if people just do yoga for the work-out? they’ll find the non-physical part of it eventually.”

my contention is…maybe.

remember what I said before: in the pre-Yoga Journal days, that is, when I dabbled in yoga and meditation in college in the early ’70s, the only people I knew doing yoga and meditation were patchoulli oil wearing hippies who had already been to or were going to India. They lived in communes or had studied with white-robed gurus who did not separate yoga and meditation. Yoga was meditation and meditation was yoga. what a concept!

I also contend that if one is “doing yoga” for only the physical aspects, it ain’t yoga. it’s acrobatics. it’s gymnastics. but it ain’t yoga. I’ve heard Desikachar, the son of Krishnamacharya, say the same thing. you can call a dog a cat a thousand times, but that will never make that dog a cat. it’s still a dog, no matter what you call it. so you can call your morning work-out “yoga” all you want, but that does not make it yoga.

what I find in my classes both with beginners and experienced students is that they are very disembodied. their bodies are in the room, but their minds are not. my teaching is very breath-oriented, and I can always tell when someone moves first, and then breathes. it’s become second nature to me. and when they are holding the asanas, I can always tell how they are “out there”, instead of “in here”, that is, in their own skin. the darting eyes, the twitching fingers, the hard bellies without the softness of breath, the constant adjustments without stopping to feel the asana, the need to rush on to the next asana, these are all dead give-aways of disembodiment.

I teach a slow flow vinyasa, moving with the breath, and also yin. Yin is a style that can make people uncomfortable in their own skin because they have to be still for at least five minutes in order to stretch the connective tissue (and thereby the meridians of the body) in order to facilitate opening and an increased flow of chi. it’s a style that teaches you to stop resisting, first in your yoga, but more importantly, I believe, in your life.

it is also a style that connects you to the concept of surrendering to your body. I think the concept of surrender is a dirty word to many western yogis because the western mindset is conditioned for resistance and hardness, in other words, “working out.” I believe that the way you do your yoga is the way you live your life…soft v. hard, resistance v. surrender, rushed v. slow, pushing away v. acceptance.

In my Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training we must do periodic readings and one reading was a chapter called “Sensations” from Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient: The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness by Will Johnson. as I was reading a light bulb went off over my head and I said “YES!, this is why people are uncomfortable meditating”. not because our minds run away with us, which is what people always say, but because we run away from our physical sensations. what comes up in asana practice or when we try to meditate draws us into the present moment and sometimes that’s a terrifying place to be. the present moment helps us experience life in the here and now instead of regretting the past or anticipating the future. the present moment helps us become embodied rather than disembodied. when we stop feeling our physical sensations, when we run away from them, when we are “out there” instead of “in here”, that is when the monkey mind takes over. that’s when I see the twitching fingers and the darting eyes.

it’s hard to be still because we are conditioned to run.

Johnson says that “it is not possible to be aware of the full presence of bodily sensations and lost in the involuntary monologue of the mind at the same time.” Buddha said that “everything that arises in the mind starts flowing with a sensation on the body.”

Below is an excerpt from one of my favorite blogs The Absent Mind. In this post Mike writes about meditation, surrender, and acceptance:

I’ve been feeling that I could actually meditate indefinitely, if not for physical limitations. And even then, I could probably bear any level of physical discomfort. Somewhere along the line, I passed a point where I stopped resisting or expecting anything from meditation. Or life for that matter. The two go hand in hand.

…I still resist life here and there like everyone else. But not nearly as much as I once did. With regard to meditation, I am in awe of the beauty of utter simplicity. A friend of mine once said that transformation is the shift from nothing is very satisfying to nothing is very satisfying. Brilliant, and oh, so True.

When people ask me about meditation, they often tell me they have tried it but can’t sit still for even 15 minutes. What can I tell them? Practice.

Here is another hint that might unlock the door for some. The reason that people can’t sit still in meditation (or any other part of life) is that they want to eliminate what they perceive as the negative. In the case of meditation, it can be mind chatter or whatever unpleasant thoughts or feelings arise. How many times have I heard the words, “If I could only quiet my mind …”?

But the problem with that perspective is this: reducing the negative in anything only changes the scale on which you operate. It never eliminates duality. For example, if you reduce mind chatter to the point where you only have a fleeting thought once every 2 minutes, you may still be just as annoyed by that thought as you were with constant mind chatter. There is no escape from thoughts, feelings, or any other forms of negativity. There is only surrender, acceptance.

As one of life’s most excruciating ironies, a funny thing happens with surrender. Gradually one opens up to the profound beauty in every movement, thought, feeling, or stirring. One becomes able to perceive even the slightest shift in energy, and the Silence of Pure Being arises amidst the storm of thinking, feeling, and otherwise being alive.

(emphasis added)

In my comment to his post I said that when people try to meditate they usually run from any type of temporary physical sensation. Mike said: “I notice this, too, when attending yoga classes. The most challenging (yet also most satisfying) aspect of the asana is the relaxing into body consciousness. Of course, this is why breath is so important, because it is synonymous with energy flow and the consciousness of the body.” (emphasis added.)

Mike said that he pondered the question, “why does consciousness follow this body around?” and when he asked his teacher, his teacher said “‘the body is consciousness.’ …there is no separation of mind and body, they are one and the same.”

mind + body = no duality. until we understand that, we’re not doing yoga.

16 thoughts on “body consciousness

  1. Maybe it’s just wording, but I disagree with “Yoga was meditation and meditation was yoga, no duality.” If they were the same thing, there would be no need for two words. Also, from what I’ve learned, yoga has been a preparation for meditation, and thus separate. Obviously very interrelated, but separate nontheless. Your point remains, though, that the asana practice has become very separated from the meditation practice in the West, but still, even if some people never find or care about the non-physical part, many will, and that’s good. It sure would help if yoga instructors would stop yammering quasi-spiritual stuff through savasana and allow more than 1 minute of silence to clear the mind!


  2. asana + pranayama are prerequisites to meditation according to the lineage that I follow. not just asana. and is not asana practice a moving meditation? I suppose it depends on what your definition of meditation is. come to one of my classes. I don’t yak during savasana. but even if I did, would you be able to observe the external sounds and not react to them, engaging in pratyhara with equanimity?thanks for reading!


  3. thinking more about your comment, steven….have you ever done walking meditation? is the meditation separate from the action of walking? and if you are walking, are you JUST walking? or is your mind “in here” instead of “out there”?


  4. This is so insightful (and yeah, we’re thinking along the same lines!). I know that we Westerners—me included—are way too head-oriented. It’s why yoga and meditation are so important for us.I think that yoga and meditation are different, but that yoga (asana, that is) <>can be<> a meditation. I am not a teacher like you, but as I practice longer, I see how asana, breath, the bandhas, the driste, all lead one into a meditation. Presence is so, so important—inhabiting each pose, as Pattabhi Jois says (Iyengar says this, too, and I’m sure the other great teachers); otherwise, like you said, it’s just acrobatics.Yoga is such a gift. I am so grateful for teachers, like you, who bring it to us here in the West—we so, so need it!


  5. the thing is, gartenfische, each time I come back from my studies in India, the more I feel like an outsider here, in the western yoga world.Kate Holcombe, a teacher in San Francisco and who has studied extensively at the same school I do, has said that for a long time she hesitated calling what she does yoga because it was so different from what is practiced in the west.I now know what she meant.


  6. So is there a way to bring more of the true yoga into the West, or is it hopeless?Most of my teachers are, at least, trying to be very true to the Indian teaching (Annie Pace, especially).Even if it is not yoga as it is supposed to be, I have known a lot of growth and healing as a result of my practice, and I am grateful for it. I don’t know—I may never get to India.


  7. gartenfische, I am in no way saying that the yoga I study is the way it’s “supposed to be”! that would be so autocratic! and no way am I saying that all yogins/yoga teachers have to go to India to study! HA! India is definitely not for everyone! however for me, the first time I put my foot on indian soil, I felt like I had come home. I just know that what I study there resonates with me and it is a traditional style. for example, when I’m there I study chanting, pranayama, meditation, asana theory, etc. and from my teachings I’ve come to realize that (for example) pranayama is taught indiscriminately here in many classes I’ve been to, like an afterthought, or with no purpose. A teacher will announce “ok, let’s do kapalabhati” in the middle of the class. I can tell you after my first training, I immediately stopped teaching that pranayama in group classes. that’s just an example. my classes are always asana/pranayama/meditation. of course, YOUR yoga is what resonates with YOU!


  8. I have the same hesitations about pranayama, but I think they came from reading something several years ago that warned that it should not be taken lightly and that beginning yoga students shouldn’t do it at all. I have heard of teachers teaching it indiscriminately (it seems) and I’ve wondered if they know what they are doing.Earlier, I was reading about pranayama in Light on Yoga. He recommends Nadi Sodhana Pranayama for headaches, but elsewhere, he talks about supervision by a guru or teacher being necessary to practice pranayama. So I don’t know if it would be okay to try it as a remedy when I have a headache. Probably not. I have noticed that even ujjayi breathing helps, though


  9. yes, I agree about having a qualified teacher to teach pranayama. another thing that is never taken into consideration regarding pranayama in group classes is the dosha, or the body type, so to speak, of each student.a certain pranayama might be appropriate for one student while it may completely agitate another student, in a group class. how does a teacher know the dosha of each student in a group class? just like yoga, pranayama is not one size fits all, so that is why I believe pranayama is indiscriminately taught in western yoga classes.also, regarding the bandhas: Krishnamacharya believed that bandhas should not even begun to be taught unless the student can comfortably inhale 10 or 12 counts, and exhale 10 or 12 counts. now tell me how often a teacher in a group class will announce “engage mula bandha!” or whatever bandha as if every student knows what she/he is talking about!this is why I have said time and again what I have been taught: personal transformation can begin in a group class but is accomplished in a one on one relationship with a teacher.and THAT is the difference between east and west as I see it.(I think I may put our discussion in a seperate post!)


  10. Linda, Mula bandha is a common teaching in Ashtanga, including with the teachers who study in India. I am NOT saying you are wrong! There just seem to be different “rules” coming from different teachers.But it is confusing for people, because we don’t know! All these teachers are teaching pranayama and then other teachers say they shouldn’t be. Then everybody’s teaching the bandhas and others say no.Anyway, thank you for the discussion!


  11. gartenfische, yes, I know MB is common astanga (altho I’m not an astangi, I did a workshop once with Manju Jois, Guruji’s son).what I am saying that things like pranayama and the bandhas sometimes are taught indiscriminately or not deeply enough.and Krishnamacharya was Iyengar’s teacher AND Patabhi Jois’ teacher, so how THEY interpreted his teachings was up to them!


  12. I for one, totally agree with your post (as I would!)I am so tired of that other yoga, that is in fact not-yoga.And the hotpants/ flashy yoga gear that goes with it. Why are people so very very afraid to face themselves, unarmed, undressed (as it were)?


  13. First of all, I love this blog. It is so well written. Everything you wrote is so powerful and true. Also, some of the above comments remind me of what you said after coming back from India this past time, which really touched me. When you talked about American yogis fussing that they can’t have the new yoga pants or eco-conscious mat with the reality check about the poverty in India. That has really changed my perspective on yoga and life for the better. I can’t describe it, but in that instant I realized that I could live without the eco-conscious mat (which I had been wanting for a long time). My old yoga clothes work just fine, why would want to buy 85 dollar yoga pants anyway? The picture of the boy (from India) stumbling around in garbarge keeps coming to my mind. The focus on the these externals, these material items diminish my inner practice. I would rather focus on how I can give back to the unfortunate instead.


  14. My dear friend, you are a truly Yogi and such a great writer… you have to come to Brazil, you have so many things to share with us! Love this post so much… loved the part you said that “people are uncomfortable meditating not because our minds run away with us, which is what people always say, but because we run away from our physical sensations”.. that is so TRUE!

    Can't wait to tell you good news! Soon!!

    Shanti, Shanti!



  15. I was thinking and I guess the asana practice helps also to follow the yama and nyama, the bases of yoga


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