There is never a reason to advocating a pushing attitude in Practice. Now, it’s possible that this is only a loose use of terminology; when it is said that you have to push into uncomfortable places, push yourself out of your ‘comfort zone’ in order to grow. Being extremely generous, I could interpret this to simply mean a diligent and engaged attitude towards practice. Yet, framed in these very terms, it is unlikely to be the case; for implicit in the word is the sense that we have to be somewhere other than where we are. This might be fine for gymnastics, but if the intent is to practice yoga, to frame it in these terms is to contradict a method based on its foundations as In the principles of the Yamas/Niyamas (rules for personal and social conduct).
The first, and most fundamental of these, being ahimsa (non-violence); because, to push against oneself, is to commit the violence of non-acceptance towards the expression of one’s own body. Similarly, with satya (truth); a striving to be where we are not, amounts to dishonesty about the current place at which we are. Usually, then, following on from this is a breach of aparigraha, (greed) and santosha (contentment). I am not suggesting here that we don’t try, just that this effort is more complicated than it immediately seems.
Indeed, the only sutra on asana-practice states;
Sthira sukham Asanam, ‘asana is a steady and comfortable position’. (Yoga Sutras of Patanjal, 2,46),
This suggests the very intent and focus of the practice in the learning to reside more with oneself rather than away from it. The same perspective is confirmed in Patanjali’s definition of practice;
Tatra sthitau yatnah abyhasah, ‘practice is the continuous struggle to reside in the essential nature of the Self’ (yoga sutras, 1,.13)
This suggests then that asana is more adequately represent in cultivating some sense of a more inward-looking perspective, then simply looking to deepen a posture by pushing in a straight-line way from oneself. Evidently, this seeking for comfort and stability is quite the opposite of pushing. Psychologically; perhaps it represents acknowledgment of the self, rather than just one more attempt to avoid this in the attempt at creating a more preferable ‘image’.
For, to face what the present currently looks like, is, at least on a more practical level, the very challenge yoga gives on to. This does not mean we need stay there forever, a fatalistic mindset. However, it is more efficient, ultimately helpful than simply hoping and dreaming. For, limitation is part of life; we all have to meet our limitations somewhere, and regardless of at what level this is at, it always ends up in a sense of frustration and disappointment. In order to live realistically, this first has to be acknowledged.
Regardless of how fortunate we are circumstantially, there is always this tendency to throw oneself against the next closed door, for restriction is not something the mind takes kindly to. It is this attitude that yoga seeks to correct, for a life defined around a perception of lack is one framed by dissatisfaction and struggle, although, practically, this is the actual and honest appraisal of our condition if another solution cannot be perceived.
Pain, obvious as it might seem, is not the aim, though it’s all too easy to take suffering as a sign we’re doing it right. But, it’s not easy to change the habitual, worldly, viewpoint, that, achievement must go hand in hand with struggle. Even if this works to degrees (and does it really?) in regular life, it certainly doesn’t around yoga. The door we are pushing against may open, but not in a way that is comfortable, or usually, sustainable. To extend the metaphor, if the key is searched for, instead, in or around one’s own person, the door can be opened quite simply, and in a way involving no further complications.
In any other case; if the door stays open due to breaking it down, we’ve usually not only broken down the door alone, for the body is intricately connected and cannot be treated like this. If one thing opens in isolation, another thing is usually implicated negatively in this. In fact, this method, so often seen, in waiting the whole practice to get to this door and start hammering on it is deeply ineffective. If the key is to be found, it’s within us, which means, at an earlier and previous stage of practice. Which is to say, it demands self-reflection rather than the distraction the allure of ‘achievement’ presents.
Nevertheless, it is not being suggested here that Yoga practice should be a kind of therapy; nor that it is to be done more ‘softly’, that ashtanga yoga should be made to resemble Iyengar, or, Yin Yoga. It is, instead a question of redefining effort; in which a sense of Dynamism can still be preserved, but in a quality of awareness, rather than brute-force. Quite honestly, the difference is really not a very subtle one; the one way being the imaginary belief that to struggle against our limitations will finally free ourselves from them, the other, to make peace with our natural boundaries, in finding a way to embody and work within them more comfortably. In both cases, hard work is entailed, the crucial difference being that a kind of reversal in attitude produces a dramatically better result.
This kind of viewpoint cannot be arrived at, obviously, if our tendency to continuously push to try to improve isn’t questioned. A very basic stimulation will cover up any other possibility of a subtler one coming through. Just as the noise of road-works outside serve to cancel out the classical music you may want to listen to, the same happens in the body; where the mind is taken up in the dulling quality of a most immediately intense sensory input, rendering it unavailable to appreciate anything more refined.
Physically speaking, the most unskillful effort is usually done by clenching the most immediate muscles in the body; those symbolizing our power of volition, or action, in the world; the arms, shoulders, and legs. But, this gesture only serves to further tighten the body, often, also, causing injuries, as it lacks any kind of skill or sense of balance. Indeed, struggle is always defined by a lack of skill, which means a resistance of circumstances; rather than a recognizing and attempting to go with the world, the un-thoughtful and inefficient opposition of it. Yet, there is little point in squeezing oneself so hard, just for the sake of a denial of the way things are. Pushing against reality is not the way to change it.
In contrast, the ability to accept and be present is the only time when actual, as opposed to imagined, work can tangibly be engaged with. This is the more subtle approach suggested by yoga, in the attempt to seek equanimity. It relates to the intelligent technique of working within our confines through internal stretching. That is, a ‘pulling together’ in wishing to find the higher goal of peace in the way things are, not, in a conceptualized value randomly ascribed to a shape given this value arbitrarily from the outside world. For, if one is great at gymnastics, yet in no way content with oneself, then what, really, is the point? There will always be a sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction if this is the focus; for, there is always another posture.
When the focus of the mind is put on this inner-technique, the way breath and bandha move the internal body, then this linear conceptualization of desire -outwards and away from ourselves towards what we are not – is slowly reappointed; led back to point towards ourselves. This is the very place that yoga-method becomes more than purely another goal-oriented, material, task. For, now there is no longer an immediately valuable aim in a material sense to aspire to. The whole thing doesn’t make rational sense in material terms any longer. Here, the focus has been thrown back on looking at a quality within us, instead of a quantity, measured by external standards.
Basically, a wish for awareness and peace over the incessant chasing that normally characterizes life;
Yoga citta vritti nirodha, ‘yoga is stilling the constantly turning mind.’ (yoga sutras, 1.2)
Therefore, the journey is a personal one involving a framework, but not in the sense that it acts as measuring stick dictating progress. The question then is, firstly, as to the ability to simply refrain from a more obvious action, in the way we immediately push in daily life against any presenting challenge. In the absence of this focus, something much more satisfactory may be given the chance to become noticeable. But, this takes courage, a bit of faith in the ability to withhold judgment; for, first off its to entertain our principal enemy doubt and uncertainty, for an immediate resolution to our action is no longer envisaged. At this point, often comes the very crisis, where, no longer pushing, there appears no reason to continue.
In the ashtanga sequence there are many positions. But, in this framework, more postures are only there as long as they are needed. An aide to keep the individuals’ attention, when all that is really necessary for physical health, prescribed in the earliest mentions of yoga, is the surya namaskar, ‘sun salutation’ sequence. This is enough; when repeated carefully and consistently, it provides adequate conditioning as well as the vital realization of the inner technique. The advise is not that these postures are all that needs to be done, instead, that all the extra postures are there only as long as we need them, in other words, not inherently necessary or valuable. For, contrary to the way that the sequence is conceived, a literal and linear progression is not, in and of itself, the ultimate aim; even though it often appears to be.
This revelation is now so often missed through an obsession with the tool rather than the job in hand. Yoga is defined in an aim, yet, it also relates to a quality inherent in within the method;
abhyasa vairagya tan niroddha, ‘the mind is stilled through practice and detachment’ (yoga sutras 1,12)
In the light of all this then, what is a teachers’ role if it is not to push a student further? What does it mean now to ‘deepen’ a posture? The only answer I can come up with is our use as a source of motivation, and, not towards more postures. Rather, towards keeping the mind open enough, using the structure of practice, that the spirit of a more honest sense of inquiry as to life and living is pursued, which is to led life the living, organic quality imperative in it’s definition. Closing down over pushing does the opposite, reinstating the familiar habit of looking at life as an obstacle to be surpassed. However, the discontentment that comes from trying to escape oneself in an complete resolution, or conclusion, is a negation of living, and, therefore, not a comfortable approach to the task.
On the other hand, when the feeling of balance or equanimity is experienced, even to a very minimal degree, there is no need for a further idea to validate this. No more rules and concepts are necessary to justify continuance with yoga, no more external standards or authorities. The experience of self is confirmed, which is what we are, in the end, searching for. Truly, this is the deepest aim in yoga, this state of kaivalya; or ‘aloneness’; meaning to take a full responsibility for oneself living in honesty and harmony with life. Distraction from the present situation, and away from oneself, is the opposite to this, and the chief obstacle to this, and therefore, to yoga is this pushing. Yoga aims to overcome this limited view of living as pure ambition alone, but, these days, so often, ends up confirming it.