The Push-Ups of Yoga
“Even if you start doing push-ups it will not help," said Yogacharya Venkatesha to a student struggling with an arm posture.
In Mysore, India, we practice an unguided sequence, which is built from learning to practice the postures independently. As a student this is the best way to learn the physical postures. My teacher Yogacharya is well known for his ability to verbally lead students through their practice and without physical adjustments. When it comes to his instructions he hits the nail on the head and makes you feel he can read your mind.
Yogacharya finishes by saying, “Strength cannot be built from the muscles alone.”
This made me recall the time Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) told me I had "no strength". I didn't like that. It bothered me so I started doing push-ups. I did them until I flopped on the floor. Like most people I wanted to become stronger but as a woman my feeling was intensified. I never stopped thinking about this until I found out he also said the same thing to men! Looking around the practice room in Mysore I wondered ‘how’ was I going to build strength?
Certainly many of the arm balance postures of yoga are difficult in terms of their physical tenacity. When I began studying regularly under Yogachaya he asked about my practice. When I told him I was doing push-ups he gave me a very painful (an almost dirty) look. Then he laughed.
Speaking from experience push-ups do not work. I actually discovered they are good for developing stomach strength rather than arm muscle. What I also discovered is the balance, control and an unwavering ability to focus that arm postures require over physical strength. In Sanskrit this is called sthita-prajna (meaning the steadiness of thought).
Focus Your Practice
Remembering that the practices of yoga are about mind-training is one thing, but developing ways to steady the mind is another. I learned the best way to do this was by being true to one system at a time. For many years I never deviated from any of the systems I studied. There was little room for improvisations or skipping what I wanted.
I started my training with Sivananda and practiced the series for years. When I learned Ashtanga yoga and later the system of AtmaVikasa it was with the same approach. However, to develop strength, as an example, I began to create a system that better served problem areas and challenges.
Troubleshooting the Practice
Taking a look at the peacock lotus pose called padma mayurasana, an intermediate pose, here is one way to break it down and work with where you are.
- Start by opening the hips, the low back and waist as well as stretching and opening the ankles in konasana, the side angle pose, warrior and forward bends.
- Begin with the tree pose if learning half or full lotus is unmanageable. Learn to practice the half and full lotus in all its forms (re: sitting, lying flat and upside-down)
- Stay focused on the here and now and not how far you have to go. Forget about even lifting upward if you cannot do lotus. So maybe you cannot practice the full lotus so try it in half. That is tougher!
Make it Personal
The beauty of personalizing the practice lies not in the finished product but what gets developed along the way. An awakening for me was not when my legs folded neatly into lotus but when I understood where I was blocked internally. In a silent moment a gate was opened in being able to deepen my practice. Sharath, Guruji’s grandson, gave me an encouraging moment when he demonstrated how his knee moved out of its joint. He explained it had been 'restructured' from the practice.
As a teacher, I have consistently been big on taking this approach. That is, creating a personalized system that becomes the foundation to evolving physically, mentally and emotionally. I am not a fan of practising from start to finish as many teachers encourage. I do not see the merit in saying you can get through the primary series of Ashtanga in one hour if the entire practice has technical holes. I also know there are few artists who play a piece of music with this approach.
Taking the time to practice independently and troubleshoot areas of difficulty builds confidence, strength, independence and a greater appreciation for the practice. So the next time my teacher asks about my practice I can safely say I dumped the push-ups.