Friday, June 22, 2012

Practice, Still Point, Presence, No Dancing

"At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure."

T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

During practice the past two mornings (today and yesterday), I decided to continue to work on bringing more inner body awareness into the asanas and the transitions between them. I decided to do this despite the fact that in my last post on this issue, a couple of commenters have mentioned that maintaining this awareness is difficult and impractical to do for a practice like Ashtanga, in which one is continually moving from one posture to another. Tom has also pointed out that Richard Freeman, for instance, gets around this problem by not sticking so closely to the "orthodox" sequence of postures in Ashtanga and introducing extra postures.

I'm too much of a stickler for orthodoxy to try the Freeman route, but I remain unconvinced that there is no way to bring more inner body awareness into a constantly moving practice like Ashtanga, even within the confines of the "orthodox" sequence. Some people may think that because Ashtanga practice consists of almost-non-stop movement, there is no "still point" for the mind to focus on and bring inner body awareness to: I'm guessing this is what at least one of the commenters on the last post has in mind.

But here's another way of looking at this matter: Even if everything is constantly in motion in the practice, might it not be possible for the mind to designate its own still point? I'm thinking this is ultimately what the drishti or gazing point is for in the practice: Even though everything is constantly moving, so long as one fixes one's gaze on the indicated drishti, one can achieve stillness in the midst of constant motion. But here's something else: I also think that another possible still point the mind can focus on is any particular part of the body we are trying to "open up" or bring more awareness to. Here's a personal example: When going into Kapotasana, my mid-back has a tendency to open less than my shoulders/upper back and lower back. By bringing the "mind's eye" to focus on the middle back while going into Kapotasana, more awareness can be brought there. And in so doing, the mid-back becomes the still point of the posture while going into Kapotasana. And then, after I have gotten into the posture, I usually need to remind myself to engage the quads/psoas more, rather than simply use the back muscles to hold the posture. Thus I now bring my mind's eye to focus on the quads/psoas, and in so doing, make the quads/psoas the new still-point of the posture. The general idea here is that the still point of the practice--indeed, of even one particular posture--is something that is constantly changing. Although the still point is constantly changing from moment to moment, what makes it the still point at any given moment is the fact that the mind attains one-pointed focus by bringing attention to bear on it at that given moment in time, thereby attaining Presence. Beautiful paradox, don't you think? ;-) 


In addition to this realization about the still point, there was one more tangible benefit from bringing more inner body awareness into the practice yesterday and today: On both days, my Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana felt very stable: There was virtually no dancing.

Here's one person who probably never dances in UHP; if she did, she would have fallen into the Hudson.
(Sorry for the cheap shots I have been taking at you in this and the last post, Claudia. But I'm guessing you are probably evolved enough not to be bothered by such cheap-shotting ;-)) 
[Image taken from Claudia's blog]

I don't write much about UHP, but I've always been a dancer in this pose: For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it means your body sways and shifts all over the place while in this pose; a very dangerous thing to do in led class, as you might crash into the practitioner next to you and pose a safety hazard :-). Honestly, it's almost a miracle that I have yet to kill anybody in led class with my dancing... Anyway, what all this means is that UHP has always been a pose that I approach with this get-it-over-with-quickly-so-I-can-do-more-exciting-poses attitude. Which is another way of saying that UHP is a not-so-favorite pose of mine. Now you know :-) But here's what's really cool: Both this morning and yesterday, my UHP was very stable. No dancing at all. I'm thinking that all this focus on inner-body awareness has had the effect of making my feet more stable. I don't want to jinx myself by saying any more than I have to here, but I'm cautiously optimistic that this whole inner body awareness thing is doing a lot of good for my UHP.

So yeah, what can I say? Inner body awareness (and with it, Eckhart Tolle and Taichi and all the chi-cultivating disciplines) rocks!


  1. ha ha ha... You know, funny enough the one thing that helped me get the dancing out of UHP, other than Sharath screaming "no dancing" which was funny, was to videotape the pose... I did a "before" and "after" once, a few years ago, and just having the camera rolling for some reason got me very focused... maybe not the yogic focus, more the "showing off" kind of focus, but it translated into internal focus in further practices... I know you dont quite like the videotaping route... but thought I would mention it anyway

    1. There is definitely something to be said for the "showing off" kind of focus: I always find myself subconsciously focusing more when I am in a class or at a workshop. Actually, I'm not totally against videotaping. The main things that have been stopping me from doing this so far are: (1) Lack of appropriate equipment/setup, (2) reluctance to stop my practice just to set things up. But maybe I'll try filming my entire practice one day, just to see how it looks like "from the outside."

  2. Here's a neat trick for learning UHP, although it's a bit ambitious perhaps. I've been taking figure skating lessons and am currently working on skating backwards on one foot, inside and outside edges.

    Suddenly balancing on one foot standing still doesn't seem so hard, not being on skates and not moving forwards or backwards. Of course that intense hamstring stretch still throws the whole thing off sometimes.

    Funny about the still point. I feel as if I reach that point much more readily and deeply in a moving practice than in any seated meditation I have attempted.

    1. I discovered a couple of years ago that I have very limited mobility on skates (both in-line skates and roller skates): It's all I can do to stay balanced on two feet. So trying to skate backwards is out of the question :-)