"Do not focus on where you want to go but on going as far as you can with dynamic extension." (Light on Life 34)
There is a difference between 'learning' and 'practicing' when it comes to yogasana. When we are in the learning stage, the pose is not yet wholly familiar to or comfortable within our body. We are still trying to understand where strength is needed, where flexibility is needed, and how much of each is needed. We need lots of instruction, and must very consciously position each body part. We experiment with modified versions of the pose, maybe incorporating props. We move in and out of the pose with some clumsiness, and maybe hold it only briefly and shakily. Our breath wavers if we're not careful. All of our attention is locked on to the brand new experience and how foreign it feels.
When we are true beginners in our practice, every pose we encounter is in its learning stage. Everything is new, everything is foreign, everything is a little bit clumsy and awkward. But soon we develop some experience, stability and mobility, confidence, intimacy with our body and its relationship to the asana. Then the asana emerge from us with grace and skillfulness, with only minimal effort and a relaxed kind of consciousness. It becomes like an exquisite dance you've performed your whole life. Your body seems to position itself whenever it thinks or hears the name of an asana. Instructions are mere background music which keeps you focused, but the rhythm is coming from within. That is practicing.
Learning requires active, wakeful awareness in which questions are constantly being asked and answers are necessary. What is right? What isn't? When should I practice and for how long? Where does this leg go? What does that arm do? Etc. Sometimes the questions and answers are literally spoken aloud between student and teacher. But it's also the inner dialogue you have with yourself when you act as your own best teacher. Either way the body, as well as the mind and heart, are each still dependent upon some kind of guidance and influence. They cannot yet act autonomously.
Practicing, on the other hand, is meditation in motion. When you are practicing an asana rather than learning it there is a sense of ease and joy which fills you from the inside out. There is no stress, no discomfort, no worry. Your body has memorized what to do, and the position unfolds organically. The right muscles tense for stability or open for mobility and in just the right amounts. Your breath remains steady. Your focus is fixed. Your movements are fluid. Learning is often more focused on "form" while Practicing tends to lean more towards "flow" because your body knows better how to take care of itself, and thus your attention can be on much more subtle aspects of practice. (That, of course, is not to say that beginners cannot flow or that those with more experience only flow or don't focus on form.)
'Practicing' is not better than 'learning' or vice versa. They are simply different stages of experience. We are constantly shifting back and forth between learning and practicing. Every time we introduce a new asana into our repertoire we return to our "beginner's mind," we are learning again. It is important to recognize them both because they provide us with different types of effects and benefits and challenges. They require different kinds of exertions and efforts. They leave us with different kinds of residual feelings post-practice.
The more invested we are in the learning stage, the more deliberate our movements need to be. We need to take time to think before we act. We need to emphasize good foundations and precise positions. We need to slow down.
The early weeks of DK focus on poses which are very commonly incorporated into many different kinds of modern yoga classes. The "basic standing poses" transcend nearly all lineages and interpretations and styles. It is likely safe to say that nearly anybody who has ever rolled out a yoga mat has some amount of experience with these asana. Even those who have never practiced yoga before are likely to at least recognize the basic shapes, if not the names, of poses like Warrior and Triangle -- we see them all the time in magazines, movies, television commercials, etc. Of course, looking at a picture of a pose doesn't mean you perform it well. Can you imagine if it did!! The point is that, for many of you, the first several weeks were almost like a review of an already known subject rather than a total introduction. And that means we moved fairly smoothly through the poses, through the sequences, through each week as it was presented.
We have approached something new, and we need to slow down. We will still see lots of asana which will be some amount of familiar to you in the weeks ahead -- still coming are poses such as Down-dog, Cobra, Camel, and different seated forward bends, for instance. When they appear in the sequence, it'll be like the basic standing poses, meaning more of a review than something entirely new. But other poses I am pretty certain are much less familiar because they are just simply not as commonly practiced for various reasons. So you may be a rather experienced yogi in regards to the amount of time you've been practicing, and yet not have much experience with asana such as Padahastana (91), Simhasana (135), or Urdhva Mukha Paschimottanasana (174). When those poses appear in the sequence we'll be back in the learning stage. And that's OK.
We are currently working on Weeks Nine and Ten Sequence. It includes some asana which are less familiar to many, namely Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (68) and Karnapidasana (221). It has been my experience that these poses -- and even Gate pose and One-legged Shoulderstand which are also in this sequence -- are not commonly included in public yoga classes. That is not to say that they are never included, or that variations of them aren't included, or that they should be or should not be. I am not universally claiming that nobody teaches or practices these poses, of course they do. They are simply less common, and therefore we need to grant ourselves time to understand them properly.
We started this series together with the intention of following the thirty weeks as prescribed. But strong intentions are flexible. If we want to Practice (in the strong sense) and we want to practice well, we owe ourselves whatever amount of time, effort, energy, patience, and perseverance it takes to move forward through the series with integrity and dynamism. If we get to the end of the series and have truly experienced the asana, learned them, learned from them, and shifted our awareness into a meditation in motion, and it takes us 31 weeks or 25 or 55 or 300, we will have gotten exactly where we intended to go. Remember "dirgha kala" means "for a long time." How long? -- however long it takes.
We will continue to move through the sequences as prescribed except that we will take time to learn new poses as they appear even if that means we linger longer on any given sequence than is stated. For instance, this past Sunday we were introduced to Weeks Nine and Ten Sequence, and we will stay with it for at least two additional weeks. That will give us time to dissect the essential components of the new poses and make sure we have a clear understanding of them before moving on to even more new poses. There is a lot to learn and no hurry to learn it. Let's do it well rather than fast.
In his book Light on Life, Iyengar discusses the difference between 'stretching' and 'extending':
"When most people stretch, they simply stretch to the point that they are trying to reach, but they forget to extend and expand from where they are. When you extend and expand, you are not only stretching to, you are also stretching from. Try holding out your arm at your side and stretch it. Did your whole chest move with it? Now try to stay centered and extend out your arm to your fingertips. Did you notice the difference? Did you notice the space that you created and the way in which you stretched from your core? Now try expanding your arm outward in every direction like the circumference of a circle. The stretch should bring the sensitivity and experience of creating space in every direction." (34)
Stretching is not just about where you are going; it is also absolutely about where you are starting from. Yoga Practice as a whole works similarly: we must look forward to where we are going, but we cannot ignore where we came from or where we are. We are extending ourselves toward the culmination of the series. The point of the series is not to finish it in thirty weeks, however. The point is to learn how to practice. What do you want and what are you willing to do to get it? If you want to practice and you want to practice well, slow down.
"Do not focus on where you want to go but on going as far as you can with dynamic extension." (34)
We will practice Weeks Nine and Ten Sequence on Sundays July 27 and August 3.