By Eryn Dioli for Yoga Medicine®.
You might think that the first step in practicing yoga is to get a yoga mat, or maybe a cute yoga outfit. Maybe even sign up for an asana class. But actually, how to do yoga is to first know what yoga is. Yoga is an eight limbed path to enlightenment. A spiritual, physical, mental and energetic practice that once started is quite hard to stop.
In the West, we often associate yoga with the asana practice. Or perhaps with a pranayama practice, or we envision someone seated on the floor with exceptional posture and a serene expression as they vibe out in meditation. Those things are definitely yoga. But before you arrive on your mat, in order to practice yoga you will first want to learn about ethics and morals.
“Say what? I thought this was going to be a workout that makes my butt look fabulous…?” You may be thinking this and well, that may happen! But it isn’t where we start.
To begin a practice of yoga, you first begin to live an ethical and moral life. You are
given a set of guidelines that are considered the right ways of living. As you practice these, and begin to understand them, your asana and pranayama practice begin to develop as well.
How to Do Yoga?
The first step is to inhale, then exhale. Did you notice where you felt your breath? Can you identify where in your body you felt movement? Did you inhale through your nose? Are you comfortable paying attention to your breath? Do you want me to stop asking questions? Do you believe that in order to do yoga you have to already be healthy, physically fit and mentally tough? I can assure you, you do not have to be any of those things.
However, as you practice yoga you will experience existing within those states. A state of health, physical fitness and mental toughness. Yoga teaches you how to train the mind, the body and the senses. Through each practice, you develop a more keen sense of awareness of yourself and what it really means to be alive and be YOU in this present moment. This can sometimes provide surprising or even unwelcome insights. This is why it is truly essential to begin each practice with an attitude of observation sans judgment or reactivity. Simply allowing the space to be – to
practice and experience all that your existence has to tell you can progress you further along the path of yoga than muscling through 108 chaturangas. Don’t get me wrong, you may come to a point in your practice when you flow through 108 chaturangas. But if you are practicing yoga, and I mean REALLY practicing yoga, you won’t need to force it or muscle through it. You will find yourself in a flow that feels easeful, controlled and strong. You will be present and simply move through your asana practice in a state of yoga. Maybe you don’t even count the number of chaturangas and it is only when you’re done that you realize you’ve reached 108. Look at you!
To practice yoga is to practice presence. The word yoga means to unite. “The practice aims to create union between body, mind and spirit, as well as between the individual self and universal consciousness.” So how do you go about uniting yourself with yourself? Furthermore, how do you go about uniting yourself with the universal anything when everything seems like it exists in polarity?
The beauty of polarity is that two things can, and often do, exist in opposition to one another in such a way that harmony and balance is created. In fact “polar molecules must contain one or more polar bonds” – which tells us that not only can opposites exist within the same space, but in order to exist and function there must be some bond. Something that unites them even in their oppositional states.
When we think about polarity in the context of humans, it can be easy to use the example of politics. There is certainly polarity between the two party system of American democracy. And democracy is that polar bond. Ideally, the aims and goals of democracy are what keep the polar opposites of democrats and republicans functioning. Because at the end of the day, despite their opposite natures, they are united by the same bond: the desire to see democracy thrive and continue. Whether or not this aim is achieved is not up to me to decide, but it is worth noting the value in a shared bond. A shared value that we can all return to. What causes the polar molecule to explode and become something else is the moment when the bond becomes too unstable to maintain relative stability of oppositional elements – whereupon we have a new molecule. Maybe it is polar, maybe one of the elements got kicked out and it’s something new. There are a lot of maybes here.
How to Be Present within Polarity?
When we think about how to be present in the midst of polarity, it may at first feel overwhelming. How can I be present in the middle of two (or more) conflicting ideas, thoughts, needs, desires, hopes, fears, and experiences? To be present within polarity requires the ability to find your own center – where you too have polarity. We all have oppositional elements existing within us. Opposite ideas and beliefs that we can hold in our mind. Being in the midst of chaos often creates an opportunity to find intense moments of presence. When you are within chaos, you are intensely present because whatever is happening in that chaotic moment is all consuming. You don’t have time to get distracted by the other parts of human existence. You can only focus on the you you are now. Here at this very moment – in this brief episode of chaos. Often, these moments are not focused on us. Instead, we tend to focus on me, myself and I. That’s actually counterproductive if we are to be present with polarity. Rather, our focus should be on the “us” of human existence.
To be present in chaos is the most intense type of presence there is because allowing the mind to slip away from the chaotic present for even just a moment, losing focus for even a little while, makes it that much more challenging to re immerse yourself back in the present, back in the chaos.
That is life. Life is chaos. Chaos is everywhere, in everything and truly one of the only constants that remains all through life. We are frequently alternating between intense periods of presence amidst the chaos, and varying durations of escaping into the past or future. When we establish a yoga practice, a daily yoga practice, it provides us a stable point within the chaos to return to presence.
Why would you want to be present within chaos? Because trying to fight it by escaping will simply intensify the chaotic nature. Chaos is like a fractal, and it repeats infinitely, getting more and more complex as it goes. If you become a part of that fractal, and embed yourself within it and it within you, the chaos feels less challenging and more like a natural state of being. More like your own natural environment, because in a sense it is your natural environment.
When a human is overwhelmed with the chaos, we may try to hibernate. Taking a cue from nature as we have for the entirety of human existence. Humans attempt to hibernate with screens and digital devices and external stimuli that keeps us from actually experiencing the present moment. The easiest way to leave the present moment, the present chaos, is to open a phone. Or any technology with a screen that provides access to the internet, games or even a camera. When we multiply the chaos of the present natural world with the present chaos of the digital world, we are in too many levels of chaos for us to determine which to prioritize, which to live in and which to use to inform us for how to move through and experience life. This is why the practice of yoga may be more essential now than it ever has been for humans.
The first four limbs (yamas, niyamas, asana and pranayama) of the eight limbed path of yoga are where you begin. This is how you do yoga. You open your heart and your mind to learning. You allow yourself to be curious. You leave space for questions to remain unanswered, and trust that in time they will be.
4 Steps You May Use as a Guide to Begin Your Practice Yoga
Step 1: Identify What You are Uniting
- Yourself with yourself?
- Your physical body with your mental body?
- Your beliefs with your actions?
- Your individual consciousness with the universal consciousness?
- All the above?
- None of the above?
This is for you to decide, and there is no wrong place to start.
Step 2: Cultivate an Attitude of Nonjudgemental Awareness
This isn’t American Idol, you don’t get kicked off stage for being tone deaf. You don’t even get kicked out if you are judgmental. You get treated with kindness and respect, and encouraged to find a way to release your judgments.
Step 3: Release the Need to React
You aren’t judging, and you aren’t reacting. You are observing, breathing and existing right here, right now. Now this is starting to sound like yoga!
Step 4: Unite Yourself with the Present Moment
We become present by being present. We develop our tools and skills to be present with the practice of the yamas and niyamas, asana, pranayama.
With this four step practice, you are beginning your yoga practice. You are allowing
yourself to begin a practice that is done for life. The beauty of a yoga practice is that it truly does not end. If that sounds like a hellish nightmare to you, that’s okay. If this sounds exciting to you, that’s okay too. If this sounds like life in general to you, well you’re right. Life is in the breath, and breath is the cornerstone of a yoga practice. Whether you arrive at yoga for the spiritual practice, the physical practice, or the mental practice you will engage with a practice that trains them all – even if you are not necessarily seeking to do that. The beauty of yoga is that what we come to the practice in search of reveals what we really need. And often times the thing we are searching for is already within us… just hidden within the chaos.