Our intention and attitude toward the practice is very important – it makes all the difference between doing asanas as gymnastics, or as Yoga! One can easily practice yoga as a body-culture only but in an attentive yoga practice we have a vast potential for self transformation.
It is important to ask ourselves: why do we practice? What are we trying to achieve? Is it only bodily capabilities like strength and flexibility, or do we have something more in mind? Do we approach our practice space like one may come to a gym? Or, as a student entering a classroom or a lab?
We must know that our practice is not only a body culture; it is not a ‘workout’. Our aim is to develop our whole being, to develop capabilities and attitudes like sensitivity, stability, (mental) flexibility, persistence, self-discipline, balance, and equanimity. These capabilities are psychophysical – they pertain both to body and mind.
An attentive yoga practice has the potential to make our life better; to make us better human beings. To do be more wholesome for us, for the people around us and for the environment. We should develop positive qualities such as: tranquility, concentration, consideration, generosity, compassion, joy and happiness with the wellbeing and success of others.
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This will only come if we approach the practice with the right attitude, the right mind-set. Our practice should be reflective and mindful. Then it will be a psychophysical lab! A lab for self-study (svadhyaya), a lab for working with and on our entire being.
When performing an asana we should reflect on what happens in our body-mind-breath and senses. Many things are happening!
What we feel is more important than what we do since the purpose of doing is to feel more, to develop our awareness and sensitivity.
There are many correlations between the body and the mind which are revealed in the practice. Here are a few intermutual psychophysical effects we can observe:
- Our level of confidence affects what we can do. Low self esteem can invoke thoughts like ‘I’ll never be able to do that pose’, ‘I can’t jump up to full-arm balance’. If we are able to let go of such fixed and limiting notions and self-images while practicing, and be open to what each moment brings, then we will gain more freedom in our life.
- Our ability to perform balancing asanas is intimately connected with our concentration and focus.
- Our ability to let go, relax mentally and release stress helps to progress physically.
- Our breath can be used to release bodily tensions, to soften, to expand, to energize, to uplift and so on.
In our new book The Psychophysical Lab, we examine these effects and the two-way relations between the body and the mind. We discuss whether and how our practice can develop psychophysical capabilities, such as flexibility, balance, stability, non-injury, self-discipline, patience, truthfulness. We examine whether and how, developing such capabilities on the practice mat, affects our life outside of the mat.
We also show how the practice can become a lab, for observing, exploring and studying our mental tendencies. For example:
- In a class situation, there will be tendencies to impress, excel and compete. If we are flexible, we may overuse our flexibility in a way that may wear and tear our joints and ligaments.
- In self-practice, we often struggle with weak determination, lack of perseverance and self-discipline, with our scattered and absent-mindedness. Sometimes we experience irritation, impatience and agitation (rajas). At other times, low-energy, dullness, sadness, laziness, or heedlessness (tamas). We may find it hard to bring ourselves to practice and to kindle our motivation due to emotions such as sorrow, remorse, anger or cravings.
- We may find ourselves practicing ambitiously, to achieve and show-off, then we will be strongly affected by success and failure.
- Sometimes we tend to practice mechanically and habitually. We just repeat the things we already know without a real motivation to explore and learn and with no interest, curiosity and creativity. We prefer to repeat the poses we know and are easy for us, avoiding what we really need, even if it’s harder and there are no immediate benefits or satisfaction.
In order to maintain our practice on the right track we should develop and apply the five qualities that Patanjali mentions in sutra I.20, and that B.K.S. Iyengar calls: ‘The five vitamins of the yogi’ (see: The Tree of Yoga in the chapter: The depth of Asana). These are:
- Shrada – faith; trust that the path of yoga is the path we need to undertake in order to improve and progress.
- Virya – prowess, energy and determination that are needed to overcome obstacles and difficulties that we will surely encounter sooner or later on our path.
- Smriti – strong and keen memory to remember, moment after moment, to come back to ourselves, to the present moment, to remember what we are trying to achieve.
- Samadhi –concentration and absorption.
- Pragnia – spiritual wisdom.
Shrada is akin to a mother; since the mother’s love, confidence and trust in her child develops his or her faith. Virya is the energy and willpower given typically by the father. Smriti, the third quality is very central, and it appears at the center of the five. It is the gate for the following two. It is difficult for our mind to concentrate and be quiet. We want to concentrate, but soon forget. We are carried away by the business and worries of our life and forget to breathe, we rarely stop to return to our senses and to be mindful to what is happening in the present moment. We live in our memories or in our plans and worries and miss the joy of being in the present moment – the only moment where life really happens!
Smriti is mindfulness, which develops concentration (samadhi), from which wisdom (pragnia) follows.
If we approach our practice seriously, we have to develop and foster these ‘vitamins’ and combine them in our daily attentive yoga practice. Then our practice will progress and if we preserve in it, we will develop the yogi’s capabilities and qualities we mentioned at the outset of this article.