Yogi Bhajan, Master of Kundalini Yoga said "To sustain themselves, tomorrow’s individuals must have yogic training. They will need a strong healthy nervous system, mental clarity and the backup of spiritual strength to face this coming world." We can say with confidence the only way to do this is through yogic techniques by which mind, body and spirit can be enhanced.
Yoga has become mainstream as a physical workout for some, more than that for others. There was a yoga practitioner and healer on Linked-In.com on the internet who made a comment that though he might have felt more than physical benefit from yoga he preferred to deal with it purely as a physical form. He was self-taught and perhaps had he had a teacher he might have been instructed to delve into the ramifications of yoga practice that are beyond the physical and how these are interactive. As I study various form of yoga it seems impossible not to reach into the other aspects of yoga, no matter how the physical form is presented even if not everyone cares to do that. The physical aspect of yoga has come to the forefront of late as sixteen countries host Yoga Olympics Competitions created by the wife of the well-known Bikram, the founder of hot yoga. Their hope is to eventually bring yoga to the actual Olympics. In New York City the young man who has won the competition several years in a row said "I don’t see it as a competition. I offer my yoga practice to God." Isn’t the concept of Olympics about healthy competition to distinguish the "best" physically? Though Olympic athletes may have God in their life they are not known to say that they offer their sport to God. To some the concept of a yoga competition is an oxymoron. For those of us who cannot naturally do the extreme asanas of yoga like the young woman who won the Yoga Olympics in New York City, who said on the news that doing a split was just easy for her, it is perhaps healthier for us to think of our yoga practice outside the competitive mode and not aspire to anyone’s physical abilities but our own, within our own limits and at our own pace. This young winner of the yoga Olympics had only been doing yoga for five years and suggested that the postures simply came naturally to her. Some of it, at the end of the day, is just to be with the physical vessel we were given..
Olympics aside, yoga can be an extremely positive way to deal with our own individual physical vessel, no matter our level of "bendiness." So much of what we can do in yoga depends on our individual body. I was in an advanced yoga class yesterday where the teacher was saying that the person she was using to demonstrate a pose (the pigeon) was actually quite flexible in her hips. Another student asked then why was the demonstrating student piled on top of a few blankets to do her pigeon pose (preparation for the almighty split!). The teacher, Genny Kapuler, a senior Iyengar teacher in New York City, gave such a wonderful answer "Why, for her this is a very flexible position." Rather than pull a hamstring trying to do a split we cannot do, or bending back so far in a backbend that we hurt our knee or shoulder, we can observe our own vessel for what it is and what yoga can do for it. The asanas are a starting point to know where our body is at and from there see where we can improve our own flexibility and strength with the vessel we have been given. And it is never too late to do that. We don’t have to be Olympic athletes to work with what we were given!
The torso itself is like a vase. I often use that image for working with the breath, picturing filling the vessel as if with water, only doing so with the breath. Energetically and physically the spine, our spine, holds up our vessel or vase. Along the spine are the nerves. Near various parts of the spine are the internal organs, glands and supportive tissues like muscles, ligaments and tendons. In a yoga practice all these parts of the anatomy are affected. The asanas and breathing do specific things for certain parts. Even sound can affect the physical vessel and that is where the use of mantra and music comes into our yoga practice. Our physical vessels are complex; each one of us is.
If anyone has ever had the opportunity to see the BODIES... Exhibition, which has traveled around the world, you can see how beautifully intricate our physical being is – at the top of the vase sits a heavy head, our complex brain, supported by the four appendages, the two arms and two legs. When the vessel is functioning well this is a totally miraculous event. Many of us take this for granted until some illness or injury occurs. Even then, yoga can still be a blessing in our lives as we observe, work with and tend to this precious physical vessel, or as yogis call it "the temple.”
Sometimes nature simply runs its course with us yet we have the conscious choice to enhance or destroy our physical vessel by being aware. Are the foods we eat nurturing? Do we eat enough—too much or little? Are our words helpful or hurtful? Are we selective about what we say and what words and energies we allow into our lives? Part of tending to our physical vessel is that, too, tending to what, as Yogi Bhajan amusingly put it, (but it’s true!) it goes in and out of all of our holes. Recently someone said some words that felt harsh to me and my throat was bothering me for a week afterward with swollen glands. How does our environment affect our vessel? I know a young woman who works very hard, almost obsessively, to make sure she eats pure foods and puts only non-toxic creams, hair products, toothpaste, etc. on and in her body, yet keeps her living space dirty and cluttered. Not only can that dirt be breathed into our body, but the clutter itself can make us unsettled in our body, more restless and even more accident-prone than if we have a clean, calm environment to live in. The energy of our home affects our energy, too.
Every moment, every day, we have a chance to observe our body – do we move too quickly or slowly, are we aligned, walking properly, lifting our body using our muscles and spine rather than slumping into it, which can create chronic pain and discomfort? If we are a slower person can we use that energy productively and visa versa? Who you are is your gift. When we feel run down or even get a long or short-term illness can we heed the call of the body? Many yoga teachers these days do not even practice what they preach. It is a constant practice to be in your body, to have a regular yoga practice while serving others, often under the strain of running a yoga studio or having to pay overhead and teachers/employees at studios. You can feel when a teacher has her/his own practice, setting an example by his or her presence even more than what he or she says. It is the responsibility of all students and teachers alike, to do the best we can to take care of our physical vessel. Once illness has set in Yogi Bhajan said we could not count on doctors to cure us, only to make the diagnosis and do the best they humanly can. If we are blessed with good health, which is the greatest wealth, the best thing we can do is value this gift of health and be an examples for others to also remember their physical vessel and tend to it as we would a winter plant or our summer garden, with love, good nourishment and good thoughts, placing it in its proper place so it can be healthy and happy. As one of my students just emailed me, simply put: "Without yoga I would be very unhappy!"
Donna Amrita Davidge and her husband Kent Bonham own and operate Sewall House Yoga Retreat in Island Falls, Maine. Small and personalized, the retreat center was established in 1997, built in 1860. Donna and Kent have watched their vision unfold with all its rewards and challenges. Sewall House operates May through October, Italy yoga trip scheduled October 27th – November 2nd, off-season retreats by special arrangement for parties of 3 or more. www.sewallhouse.com 888-235-2395. Inquire about teacher training beginning October 10th for three 9 day retreats/February/May.