In a prior article I described how my father took me to a great little shop/art gallery down a windy and dusty road, and how that led me to reflect on the advantages of going “off the beaten bath” – exploring the unconventional for new knowledge, skill development, and enjoyable experiences. My father said something else while we were in that “arty” little store that led me to reflect on another general theme. He said something to the effect of (I paraphrase) “There’s so much to see, it’s almost overwhelming – but if you take a second time around the whole store, you’ll see totally new and cool stuff.”
Yoga instruction can similarly feel overwhelming, with so much sensory input from multiple sources – some internal (within our bodies), and others external (within our environments). This can be true for beginners, new to such a myriad of sensations, as well as advanced practitioners challenging themselves with complex postures and pranayama exercises. The sixth of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs, dharana, refers to cultivating focus and perceptual awareness. We can put that concept into action, in both yoga practice and life, by focusing on one consideration at a time. We can then explore other aspects, and ultimately put it all together to build informative experience. Following that general process can help us to beneficially make sense of all of that complex information.
Stepping outside of yoga specifically can help to put this in helpful context; empirical, accepted science tells us that the human organism can only take in so much information – be it visual, kinesthetic, et cetera – at once. This is simply evolutionary, as human beings wouldn’t have survived to become who we are today if we were too distracted by every sight and sound to follow a lead on a viable food source, or take note of threatening skies to move elsewhere before an ensuing storm. Not to mention, life would indeed be overwhelming and over-stimulating if we naturally took note of every sound, smell, and image in our environments.
Each yoga practice situation is its own unique environment, with sensory information to offer for practitioners’ enhanced holistic health (in body, mind, and spirit). Yet, there is only so much of that which any given individual can beneficially perceive at one time. As yoga practitioners, one approach to meeting this complex dynamic is to key into the maximum amount of beneficial information we can at one point – discovering what that limit is and gently pushing it until it expands. At other points, we can constructively rest from such hyper-awareness by letting what sensation might come simply come to us (Savasana being a great point in standard practice in which to do that, for instance). This is balancing of sensory information by actively engaging with it sometimes, at other times letting sensation come, as it will. In so doing we can balance yin and yang energies, work and rest. As instructors, we can guide our students to practice that balance with all of our standard tools – imagery, carefully crafted verbal instruction, physical cueing, prop use, et cetera. We can also simply, and perhaps more subtly, lead by good example.
Another way to make the most of the sensory information we might receive in practice, given the difference between all there is to perceive and what we can usefully absorb at one point, is to pick a specific focus and be present with it at that moment. The next time, we can pick another focus. Ideally, that process will be additive – something learned and integrated the first time and the next thing added on to it on subsequent occasions. For instance, while executing Triangle Posture (Trikonasana), one could focus on maximally opening the chest (through purposeful torso placement in relation to the hips, and in the shoulders to the ribs) in order to have fuller breath in the posture.
Later on in that practice, or on the next day (and so on, some other time in the future), one could take Trikonasana again – yet this time focus on relaxing and flattening the feet, and connecting through them to the legs to establish a firmer (yet balanced and eased) base in the posture. The practitioner might not be aware of it, but – as an instructor and practitioner – I predict that he or she would have a slightly more open chest when approaching the posture with a different specific focus the second time. After that trial, I foresee that – just from that time of pointed and mindful focus – he or she would also have a firmer, yet more eased base of support in the posture, in addition to a more open chest (and deeper breath as a result). Some individuals do need multiple reinforcements of certain positive changes, them not occurring that quickly and easily. The above method is a good start to establishing those changes as permanent, however.
To me, such a process is along the lines of what my father advised me to do in that little shop/gallery; with more to experience than one can take in at one time, and more than would even be useful to, pick one focus for now and then “take a second time around”. True, we can also strive to take in and balance the most possible sensory information in our yoga practices (before becoming unproductively overwhelmed) at one time. We can alternate that with other times of letting ourselves feel, as we will, as a good overall balance of work and rest. Another option between those extremes is to fully attend, but only to so much at one point – with the awareness and acceptance that there is a next time to specifically explore something else. I believe we, as practitioners and instructors, are blessed with the fact that yoga is a journey that we can travel on all our lives. There is thankfully always another time to discover something new and amazing.
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