The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Moving beyond stretching

The following quote from William J.D. Doran is valuable:

"The core of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice. Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine. Because we are all uniquely individual a person can emphasize one branch and then move on to another as they round out their understanding.

In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows:

1. Yama : Universal morality
2. Niyama : Personal observances
3. Asanas : Body postures
4. Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana
5. Pratyahara : Control of the senses
6. Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
7. Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
8. Samadhi : Union with the Divine"

What we have here is a complete life path: morals and ethics, occupation, exercise, prayer, meditation, intellectual study...a core of meaning running all the way through life.

One measure of Mastery is to be in control, or aware, of every moment of an action. In Tai Chi this equates to slowing things down so that you are aware of "every half-inch" of motion. Only then are you ready to move more quickly. Not much real Tai Chi in America...but what I've seen of those who have actually mastered this is devastating.

If you meditate, somewhere in the practice you will hit a point where you are more centered than you ordinarily are. Notice this: how does your body feel? How are you breathing?

Take THIS quality of relaxed focus, and bring it into yoga.The point is to be centered and calm while under physical stress--consider this to be, in one way, a low-tech form of biofeedback. But this is not theater for the mind. It is a finger pointing to a very precious door. On the other side of that door is the real you. No words suffice here.


Now then...what should one do to maximize the health and fitness benefits of yoga? Take the previous comments: remain calm under stress. But once you've learned to do this, you want to take your body to the edge. This is vital for multiple reasons. One is that if you aren't on your edge, the chances are good that your mind is wandering. Don't go PAST your edge. If you can't breathe smoothly, you've gone too far.

Yoga poses are like putting your car up on a rack at the mechanic's and looking at the suspension and power train. Sports are like running your car on a track, and life is taking that car on the road.

While you are calm, and centered, it is time to let your mind penetrate deeply into your body. Get a skeletal chart if necessary, but really KNOW how your bones, joints, tendons and ligaments work together to create posture, motion, and so forth. Think about the "six degrees of freedom", the basic planes of motion: forward and back, side to side, and twist to each direction. In some cases, your motion will be limited by joints, others by stiff tendons, and in others by unyeilding muscles.

After your body is warmed up, your synovial fluid runs more readily, and your joints should be capable of greater mobility. Tendons also yield more readily. Muscles are more a matter of your mind releasing the Golgi tendon organs. In all cases, IF you keep the thread of breathing steady, you cannot hurt yourself.

Every day, you should work your way through all basic joint and muscle flexions. The "Sun Salutations" are great, and a full workout in themselves. Scott Sonnon's "Warrior Wellness" program is terrific, as is the 15 minute "Yoga short forms" routine by David Swenson.

As we age, the fluid in the padded disks in our spine dries out. Spinal flexion exercise, performed carefully and consciously, is wonderful for the back. For other joints, gentle exercise can wash he "joint capsule" with nutrients, allowing it to rebuild itself more rapidly.

For damage that cannot be healed (or is not yet healed), such slow and careful work will tell you where the damage is so that you don't accidentally aggravate the injury. It grieves me how often people throw their backs out performing ordinary daily movements.

What you have here is, in a physical sense, a system for becoming aware of your body, for releasing unbalancing tension, for flushing tendons and joints with nutrients, and more. The centering, relaxing, and meditative benefits can be transferred to other arenas easily through breathing.

If stress does not become strain, the body and mind adapt, becoming more capable. As you master one level of your life, the next presents itself, creating a road of growth that eventually becomes spiritual--IF you actually deal with the emotional wounds and survival needs.

PLEASE ask questions if anything seems unclear here. But this is a decent take on my understanding of hatha yoga's relationship to fitness, health, and life itself.


Mike R said...

Last Friday I did Yoga for the first time in a year, maybe two, and I was really glad I did. I'm going to try and make it a regular habit and will be going again today. I'll try to keep some of this advice in mind.

Anonymous said...


This is an excellent essay on the 8
limbs. I appreciate it very much.

It's fascinating to me how much of the insights and centeredness that you develop in a Yoga practice seem to effortlessly mirror in the balance of your life. Everything sort of becomes part of the practice and you realize that the growth that you develop by gently pushing the boundaries of your asana practice is the same mental state of exploration that allows you to grow in relationship, or work, or athletics.

Thanks for posting Steve.


Daniel Keys Moran said...

This is vital for multiple reasons. One is that if you aren't on your edge, the chances are good that your mind is wandering.

Yep. Certainly my problem with meditation in general. I can do five or ten minute bursts of (what I think is) mindfulness -- and then I start thinking about my daughter's parent-teacher conference, the financial considerations to get my oldest daughter into the college she wants to go to, son #1 can't dribble with his left hand yet and it's frustrating him, son #2 wants to negotiate the time of day, son #3 wants a playdate with the kid down the street, didn't Amy's butt look really good in those Capri pants ...

You know. I don't know if it's skepticism or just a lack in me -- maybe both -- but this is what I run into with eastern meditative disciplines. I've gotten some really good benefits out of it over the years, too, but once I get past the firs step, the second step is hard and the stuff past that I'm just deeply skeptical of; it looks too much like religion. I don't see how you get from breathing, poses, mindfulness, to Universal Morality, control of the senses -- and while "Meditation on the Divine" works for me, "Union with the Divine" starts hitting my Buddha Babble Button.

Steven Barnes said...

Hah! Dan, your mind is playing a perfectly predictable game with you. All the "Buddha Babble" stuff refers to states that are WAY beyond the benefits you're looking for. It's like someone saying "If you can run a marathon a day for ten years, you'll achieve Enlightenment." Suppose a doctor said "If you run three miles three times a week you will have a multitude of positive effects on your health." you start walking around the track. On your fourth lap, you hear voices saying: "what Buddha consciousness? That's all a bunch of crap!"
It IS a bunch of crap. The meaning of the phrase "Buddha Consciousness" (when used by those who have achieved such a state) means NOTHING to the ordinary mind. Nothing except extinction. Now, long before you could get there, there are massive smaller benefits: stress reduction, creativity, flow state, blood pressure, centeredness, etc. But the ordinary mind will fight like HELL to keep you from ever opening the door. At five or ten minutes, your mind throws all that "stuff" at you. 100% predictable. A good way to use this to your advantage is to sit quietly, counting breaths or listening to heartbeat or watching a candle flame or whatever. Notice how long your mind will let you do this before it tries to stop you.
DO NOT JUDGE YOURSELF. Just notice. What does it use? Are there patterns? If your kids said they couldn't concentrate on their homework for more than 5-10 minutes you'd think they had ADD. But if you can't meditate longer (which is nothing more than the act of pure attention: context devoid of content) your mind tries to paint this as a POSITIVE thing. Isn't that interesting? And don't you wonder why you can drive an hour, watch a movie for two hours, or play basketball for three with no problem...but you CANNOT quiet your mind for 15 minutes? Engage with the question of what the hell is going on here. Meditating is like Intermittent Fasting: you get to take a close look at the bare wiring, at the way the television set is constructed, rather than being hypnotized by the cartoons. It's a valuable exercise if you ever want to be able to change the channel.

Mike R said...

>Meditating is like Intermittent Fasting<

I don't know Steve. I can do IF without _too_ much problems, and when I'm really hungry can go "Huh, my body is reacting to not having any food for 24 hours. Do I want to feed it, or should I wait the full 36?"

But that was my MIND that was saying that, but with meditation you are using the mind to examine the mind. Using the thing to examine the thing that is being examined the thing? Different thing entirely, IMO, and even on those very rare times when I thought I had cleared my conscious mind in a meditative state, I don't think it really gave me a better view of the bare wiring.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Oh, I didn't say I didnt know what was going on; I'm clear enough, and not particularly surprised by it. My inability to do this correctly is one of the things that makes me feel a need to. I've never been able to meditate for an hour straight, in my whole life, but back before I had kids I could go maybe 30 minutes without fuzzing out. I've completely lost that ... Not sure if that's the kids or not; maybe just a decade + of inattention...

Mark R. Jones said...

I've been doing every day but 4 days since April of this year. You have summed up my extensive reading in a few paragraphs. From one writer, to another, kudos!