FLOW AND STILLNESS IN YOGA

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Not all of the subject, you understand. Not even remotely. More nearly, the yoga-related thoughts of a late apprentice.

Most people seem to have an aversion to exercise. They seem to regard it as painful. I’m addicted to it. I haven’t felt the usual way about exercise since I discovered distance running in 1959 when Doc Bannister broke the four-minute mile. (Until I was in my late forties, and ridiculous as the ambition was, I didn’t give up the dream of somehow running an impossible number of miles a week till I was lean as whipcord and broke the world record.)

Which they started doing with a lot of regularity from the sixties on, breaking the record. I haven’t kept up and don’t know where the world record is now but I would guess it was down around 3:44. More and more they don’t even run it. Everybody runs the fifteen hundred. But no matter how many times they break the record now, none of the efforts will ever seem so incredible as that first sub-four. There will never be a three-minute mile. I guess you could go for a 200-second one. Seems a stretch though.

Anyway my point before that was that, regardless of my original motives, my fascination with running made me a distance runner, mediocre at best, but I, the four-eyed intellectual son of a Baptist preacher, became an actual ath-a-lete. All I had to do was run forty or so miles a week at a six-minute pace.

What was even more wonderful was how I felt, nimble and yet almost undentable. And all I had to do was exercise.

Distance running actually worked. Not many practices did.

It changed my life. I became addicted to exercise. There were some strange side-effects. When I came into graduate studies with fellow writer/intellectuals, I was suddenly seen as a jock. All my life and in some measure to this day I’ve seen myself as the spindly and undernourished clown, the social idiot who’s good with numbers and writes poetry and makes good grades.

But being considered a jock was irresistible, and I fell for it, not noticing at first all the bad things, including envy, that came along with the status.

You probably noticed I made one undiscussed assumption, that yoga is exercise. Yeah, I think so.

Even elementary yoga practice, kept up for a while, can be aerobic. The body begins to generate internal heat (you “warm up” quite literally), which is called, from the Sanskrit I think, “tapas” (spelled the exact the same way as the word for finger food in Spain).

Nowadays I never think of vigor in terms of numbers, but used to be I kept track of distances and times.   Even devised an aerobic ratio for yoga. I considered thirty minutes worth equal to running a mile in ten minutes.

This dodge was more strategy than fact. At first, it was what I had to do to allow myself to replace some of my aerobic exercise with yoga.

But here’s the thing.   There was always, even for such a life-long over-compensating ubergeek, that instant of dread before I started. I was addicted working out, but I never got rid of the shiver of panic just before I started. I have it just before I launch into the cold water to swim.   I have that reaction, in some measure, to this very day. Even though I’ve done every asana in my repertoire thousands of times, sometimes I dread beginning a session, or a even an asan, which leads up to—finally—my theme.

Everyone needs to find a way to overcome that dread. It’s only momentary when you establish the habit, but you have to beat that only momentary dread, or nothing at all will happen. My daughter laughed aloud reading a book this morning, and when I asked, quoted a line in which a father told his son to be sure and “start what you finish.”

That’s one way I handle the the moment.

Just do it, like Nike says.

But seriously, all the benefits will come from that one moment. Without it, nothing. With it, everything. None of the good results will come from not beginning.

Still, there’s the pain angle. Not a big one, and you get used to it. It really isn’t a pain, just an inconvenience.

To who? Okay, you big chicken. Begin.

That’s another.

But like I’ve been trying to say in all of this, the best remedies are physical, not matters of ideation. You wanna get so used to the twinge it aint a pain any more. That’s one of the differences, one of the ways to tell.

With a real pain, your opinion doesn’t matter.

It has been an approach to doing the asanas that proven the most successful way of side-stepping that beginning moment.

I was accustomed to doing them as fixed positions, in which the purpose was to achieve a maximum stillness and to hold it. Sometimes, when I wanted to do yoga that was frankly aerobic, I would, instead of trying to perfectly accomplish fixed positions, what I was trying to achieve was smooth and easy flow from position to position, with and without a hesitation in the position. Probably usually just a few seconds of hang.

In the fixed-position approach, I was trying to train myself to hold the ideal (most stress-balanced position) for various intervals, and approximating the seconds by going 1234 2234 3234 and so on. Some as long as an eighty-count, most 48 or fewer.

The aerobic, or “flow” approach had no threatening aspect. You would not have to endure the strain of holding a position for a long count. This way was much faster but required nearly the same energy, so eventually breathlessness could conceivably be a problem but you let it not be one by resting whenever you want to. If you think about it, you’re more likely to keep doing a good thing if it doesn’t hurt so much, and you know it holds the way to make you feel better.

There’s a reason.

It does. It actually does. I have never known anyone not to feel better after a session of yoga that is appropriate to for his or her condition. I have never, not once in what is now ten years of steady yoga, failed to feel better after a session of any length whatsoever (but usually at least twenty minutes worth).

Every now and then just remind yourself that no matter how silly a script-writer might make a yoga or yogini seem, the point is not to be thought either cool or uncool, but to develop a set of exercises or performances that will actually improve your health and make you feel better.

On a regular basis, you can make yourself feel better.

I can’t tell you how much I look forward to the days when I will allow myself to chant out loud. I especially like ending this ritual warm-up—kneeling, with my feet out behind me and butt on a block—“Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.”

Always, every time, by the end of the chant, I’m asking for peace within myself. It’s really impossible to do yoga correctly without that aim. But the good news is you have only to begin. You cannot begin it wrongly. Or if you do, you will learn better. That’s a frequent way to learn how to do things right, doing them wrong and not getting the results you want.

Don’t let that little cold-water-slap or needle-sting of dread keep you from starting what you finish.

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