Cultivate More Joy in the Practice
In his beautiful and influential book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness, Erich Schiffmann instructs yoga practitioners to cultivate joy and ease in the practice. Every time there’s a push, he advises, we do well to find a yielding. The practice isn’t meant to be all sweat and intensity, nor is it meant to be all softness and passivity. It is exactly this balance between effort and ease — sthira and sukha — that makes yoga, well… yoga.
Of course, no practice sustains the ideal blend of work and play for its duration. Each moment of the practice is like a living, shifting being–every striving exertion meeting its mitigating reprieve. Every heart-softening breath meeting its (intentional or unintentional) retention.
As you well know if you’ve ever rolled out a mat, the practice brings things up. The physical body experiences its peaks and valleys. So too do the mental and emotional bodies. Yoga has the great power to frustrate, amuse, embarrass, please, irritate, and exalt. It’s tempting to believe that it’s the teacher or the asana itself causing us to feel whatever it is we’re feeling. But, as our inner knower knows, the impetus to our emoting is not external at all; the poses and the cues are merely triggering the dank, dark, and forgotten reserves of memory and feeling that already exist — hidden, protected, habitual — in our bodies and minds. True yoga is the practice of guiding us to the peace of our inner being.
Here are 5 ways create more joy in the physical aspect of the practice:
1. If It Hurts, Don’t Do It!
On paper we all know this already. If I’m stretching beyond capacity and there’s pain, there’s a good chance that I’m heading toward a pulled muscle or a torn ligament. In the moment, though, when Sally is executing that asana more aesthetically than I am, or when I just did this pose without problem last week, I forget myself and allow mind chatter to win. Unfortunately, it’s mind-stuff, and specifically ahamakara, the stuff of the ego, that leads us down foolish roads. Schiffmann recommends that we periodically ask, Am I enjoying myself? If not, he says, ask, why not? Then back off, adjust, prop-up, lay off, or go deeper as needed. The teacher, no matter how skilled, experienced, or empathic, doesn’t know precisely what you’re feeling. Only you have that intimacy. It’s up to you to create your comfort and joy!
2. Become Your Own Best Observer
If you’re mortal, you’re not immune to the arrival of unpleasant emotions on the mat. When this happens, we have many options: We can get carried away by the unpleasantry, trapping ourselves in the sticky goo of, say, drama, anger, resentment or anxiety. We can become disappointed by our own un-yogic nature. We can play the blame game, and decide who or what must be causing these feelings, maybe even resolving to react in some way.
Instead of falling into these traps, become a student of yourself. Become your own best observer. Be an observer who is benevolent and nurturing, kind and supportive. This observer has not even a trace of critic, judge, or analyst. Whenever an emotion arises that you wish hadn’t, call upon your observer to simply take note and remark, “Huh! Well, look at that. Some [anger] came up. Isn’t that something?”
It’s this earnest, vaguely amused detachment that will eventually pull us out from underneath our emotional riptides. When we create one degree of separation from our selves, we take one step closer to our inner abiding, one step closer to bliss eternal.
3. Inner Joy over External Outcome
According to the Sutras, the yogi is alike in pleasure in pain, alike in success or failure. We can utilize this same concept in our practice: “I am alike whether I execute this Koundinyasana, fall flat on my face, or even opt out entirely.” In other words, it’s important to remember that none of this is really about asana anyway! It’s about connecting to the oceanic expanse of bliss beneath the clutter and chaos of our external circumstances. When we get in tune with our innermost being and the life force that animates us, we recognize that all external accomplishment and acquisition is just a grand play, and any stakes are holographic tokens. The object of yoga is to remove that which separates us from Self, whether that means layers of success and accomplishment, or shrouds of perceived failure. If I am caught up in conquering a pose, I am forgetting that all I need is already here, if I can only recognize it. When my inner joy shines bright, I can smile softly as I take pigeon while everyone else has a foot behind their heads.
If you have moments when you doubt the practice, or when some emotion like irritation or disappointment seems to be sapping your enjoyment, try repeating a phrase like, “It’s up to me to be joyful,” “I allow myself joy,” or “Bliss is the nature of my being.” If you have full faith in the meaning encapsulated by your mantra, it’s helpful but it’s not entirely necessary. The mere act of concentrating on repetition of a phrase will help to train your mind back to its baseline level of peace and equanimity.
5. Make Yoga Your Moving Meditation
Meditation practices facilitate the quieting of mental chatter, help us to observe ourselves, and grant us the perspective we need to pull ourselves out of the trivialities of self absorption. Traditionally, of course, meditation is done in a seated position, and there is really no replacement for a sitting practice. However, movement provides some of the same mind-quieting benefits of traditional meditation, especially when combined with a concentration on breath and drishti. It’s a little tough to chase a thread of thought about how someone has wronged you, or about how worried you are about some future engagement, when you are holding a lunge, trying to observe each steady breath in and out, and lasering in on a focal point above the crown of your head. A movement practice can bring us to equanimity practically without our noticing. All we have to do is allow it to happen. Learn to notice when tension, anxiety, or frustration arise, and then guide yourself back to ease and maybe even a little soft laughter as you remember the divine absurdity of it all.
So often, I look out upon my students’ faces and watch as emotions cross countenances like clouds drifting across a serene sky. Of course, it could be my own projection assigning “frustration” to furrowed brows and “satisfaction” to soft smiles, but emotions really do show up on the mat and I know that my students are experiencing the gamut. In these moments, I am not teaching asana, I am sharing a way of being in the world, a way that leads to the experience of a joy so vast and memorable that we keep finding our way back.
May you find a joy that sustains you.
In peace & play,