The Long View: Being present in your practice is balanced and tempered by keeping a long view, a lifetime perspective. Every body ages. A person twenty years of age is less apt to pay attention to this inevitability than a sixty year old, but the earlier we become aware of aging, the more we will learn from the process. How would you act if you received a wonderful new car when you were sixteen years of age but were told that this was to be your only vehicle for your entire lifetime? How would you care for it? Although our bodies change and are self-healing, we do in fact have only one body for our lifetime. Acknowledging this fact and treating the body accordingly is an important part of taking the long view. We are all subject to setbacks from circumstance, accident, injury or illness. Yogis learn and gather tools to rebalance themselves and to become self-healers. Practice with the long view by holding an entire lifetime in perspective so that looking back years from now we'll be content with ourselves.
Strength and Flexibility: An important aspect of working with physical polarities is to understand the interplay of strength and flexibility. Our bodies require healthy integration of both in the right balance to function properly. When yoga first arrived in the West, it generated an enormous fascination with flexibility, probably due to the exotic pretzel contortions the early yogis demonstrated. Even now, many people associate yoga with flexibility postures. A common response I hear when I mention that I do yoga is, "Yes, I do some stretching too." A yoga practice involves far more than merely being limber.
The syllable, Ha in Hatha means sun which implies masculine energy and symbolizes heating, expansion and strength; Tha means moon which refers to feminine energy and symbolizes cooling, contraction and flexibility. It is vitally important to bring these principles into balance. Too much flexibility and cooling can be as problematic as too much strength. Flexibility without strength leads to fragility. Strength without flexibility leads to rigidity. As you practice, become attuned to the relationship of these principles and aware of which principle needs emphasis. Watching the interaction of strength and flexibility is one of the things that can hold your interest and keep your practice fresh.
Tension Is Your Friend: Muscular tension is necessary. The body constantly adjusts and changes its levels of muscle tension to support the skeletal structure, to protect the joints and to absorb shock. The musculature of the body acts on the skeletal system like a series of interrelated springs and tensions that are constantly resetting each other at levels appropriate to the particular activities we engage in. These "springs" are composed of multiple processes of varying tensions, strengths, flexibilities, and hard and soft structures. Tensions interact and combine in many variations to reach higher levels of order and performance. Stiffness is not a hostile adversary, rather, it's the operation of intelligence in the body. When we stand up and walk after sitting for a long time, we feel stiff. What we're feeling is residual stiffness from the previous activity dissipating as the body resets its tensions for the new activity. If we do not keep the muscles pliable and able to reset, we may create imbalances that result in stiffness, pain, immobility or lack of skeletal alignment.
Both our activities and our inactivities affect the tension balance in our bodies. One purpose of yoga practice is to keep limits of strength, flexibility, tightness and softness malleable and transformable. Broadening the limits of flexibility and the body's capacity to adjust is one of the purposes and effects of the asanas, or yoga postures. Simply put, with a regular yoga practice, the body can more easily restore equilibrium after stiffening from hard work, strenuous physical activity, or even from periods of inactivity.
Flow and Grace: As we progress in your asana practice, it's very beneficial to develop qualities of grace and flow in moving between the poses. In the same way that we compartmentalize our lives, we may tend to fragment our practice into a series of syncopated movements. We may focus on the goal of reaching the posture we are moving towards and pay less attention to interesting processes of transition. This static focus leads to mechanical movements and less graceful practice. You can bring a gracefulness and fluidity to your movements by making the journey between postures as important as the destination of the finished pose.
Great dancers or athletes seem to glide and float effortlessly through their movements. They have worked hard to attain their performance levels, but they are no longer forcing it are moving in grace and joy. Laghima, or floating, is a combination of strength, flexibility, flow and balance. It may be difficult to describe, but we have all seen it and any of us can learn it. Even a beginner can start learning to flow gracefully through the practice. Remember Siva, the mythological first yogi was also the great dancer. By learning to dance through our practice, we will find more benefit and more joy.
Ganga White is author of the new book, "Yoga Beyond Belief-Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice" (www.northatlanticbooks.com). He is the founder-director of the White Lotus Foundation retreat in Santa Barbara, CA. For more info on the author and book, visit www.whitelotus.org or call 805-964-1944.