Power in the Practice of Yoga

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I think about how we define yoga.

I think about what it means to say, “I do yoga.”

I think about it because I feel a conviction about re-choosing it before every practice in order to practice purposefully. And, more and more, I feel obligated to find authenticity in my practice and in myself.

 

Defining Yoga

If you open Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, you will find these words in Sutra 1.2: “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah.” While the Sanskrit may seem complex, it actually helps us to define what yoga is.

There are several ways of translating this phrase, and yoga scholars toil over translating it precisely. Here is one way that I particularly like: “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga” (Satchidananda, 2007, 3). In other words, through yoga we learn to manage stillness in the mind.

But achieving this stillness is no simple task.

Here in this post, I want to cast a light on yoga that illuminates its connection to power. Power has many meanings, but, simply, it is the ability to manage thought and behavior. Specifically, I want to discuss how, in mastering the fluctuations of the mind, we are facilitating and strengthening a flow of power within us.

To clarify, I am not referring to powerful control over others; rather, I am referring to the mastery of one’s own mind.

Why is it useful to have this discussion of yoga’s relationship to power? It is useful first because power is both elusive and necessary: it is difficult to define, and yet it is a force that we all need in order to move freely and kindly in our worlds. Secondly, it is useful because yoga may not only help us to recognize the presence of power that exists already—for it is often the realization that power is even present at all that is a first step in channeling it—but it may also help us to strengthen it in our lives.

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Power imagined

As an idea, power may be known to us by the dream of what we could do with it, or by how we feel “without” it. We may believe that power will help us to rise above or push through the difficulties of anxiety, chronic illness, conflict, unhappiness, or pain. In so doing, we may believe that it will bring us the energy, strength, motivation, or courage to negotiate those difficulties.

On the other hand, and rather than reaching for the dream of power, we may find ourselves feeling a deficit of power: downtrodden, weak, frightened, at the mercy of something else. In all of these aspects, we are right about how we imagine power.  For each of us as individuals, purposeful and nurturing power is both needed and deserved.

 

Power and protection

A few years ago, a friend asked me how I could possibly commit to practicing first thing in the morning every day. She said, “I would much rather just let my day unfold, to see what happens.” To her, I responded: “That is why I practice. I want to prepare myself for what might unfold.”

Before I began my journey with yoga, I had adapted over decades to awakening in fear and compulsion. It was a ritualistic stress inoculation that I developed as a small child in a stormy, inappropriate grown-up environment. My power took the form of a clenched-hearted surveillance: what could possibly happen today that I won’t expect? What mistakes might I make? How might I upset someone else, or become upset because of someone else? Whom might I disappoint? What if I become hungry? Or tired? Or confused? What if my world is unsafe today? My unending anxiety was a power-draining illness. It presented in my little body with physical symptoms, and it stayed up all night in my dreams.

Of course, we can get used to almost anything, and this form of power stayed with me for many years as if it were my own skin. To be sure, it consistently felt much more like prison than power.

 

Power re-imagined

As many do, I stumbled into yoga. And the shift was immediately palpable. Through yoga, I felt a quieting in the mind. Some days subtle, some days profound. Each day a relief. But also a fear: would this relief take away my power as I had known it? Would I become vulnerable without it? Could I even survive?

“The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” As Pattabhi Jois said, “Do your practice, and all is coming.” Over years, and with dedication to practice (a daily leap of faith), my power has been transformed. Indeed, it was a kind of power that gave strength to the vigilant fear-noise, the angst-ridden fluctuations of mind that aimed to protect me from what might happen. But the quieting of the mind has freed a dynamic flow of power that is composed of:

~the endurance I have always had and the fortitude I have built,

~the spirit I was born with and the wisdom I have developed, and

~the dream of self-love that has stayed with me and the realization of worth that has emerged over time.

In practice, power feels like breath, balance, courage, calm, strength, love, patience, acceptance. In my life off the mat, power is a graceful presence that weaves together the mind, body, and spirit into something not needful, but rather abundant and authentic.

In as much as it is these things, it is also—always—the relief of that hypervigilance that I remember viscerally. Sometimes it feels like floating in the absence of anxiety. And it takes some time to realize that the floating is not vulnerability, but power.

 

Power manifested in practice

Yoga allows us to sense power in multiple forms. Maybe it manifests itself as the audible, palpable release of breath through discomfort, whether it be in the physical body or deep within the emotional or spiritual realm. Perhaps, while we struggle with feeling overtaken by chronic illness, our practice reveals to us a power to maintain strength or comfort or even resilience in the body.

At other times, power manifests as a kind of will, as in a challenging pose: the body wrestles with fear or memory, but the will convinces the fear to abate. Sometimes, power manifests as a peaceful overthrowing of accumulating anxiety: the storm of anxiety rages, but peace floods in and reigns over it with calm.

Or, the presence of power can be as simple (and as challenging) as finding the strength to pull oneself out of bed, into the uncertainty of the day, and onto the mat. To be sure, many days of early morning Ashtanga practice have begun that way for me: on those days, it is enough just to find the ability to push through the morning melancholy and aching desire to hide from myself, in order to find my feet standing in Samasthitihi. Sometimes, I don’t know quite how I got there at the top of my mat, other than to trust that I must have transitioned from bed to mat by a gentle power that I have cultivated over time.

All the while on this journey, the memories of transformation remain steadfast and continue to accumulate. Perhaps they do for you, too. This presence of power—still fleeting—can itself be a reminder of the difficulties we have experienced, and might still be experiencing. Why didn’t I discover yoga as a child? Where was this power when I needed it? And worst of all: what if this power goes away? Although the anxiety is painful to remember, painful to process, yoga is there for us to take its shape in the body and find the breath.

And as we transform, we can hold our memories with some warmth when we consider the wise words of Richard Freeman, who has said, “Yoga ruins your life.”

It does. It ruins it beautifully.

 

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Rebecca Ingalls, Ph.D., BSN, RN, is a former Associate Professor of English, and is now a registered nurse and a nurse-midwifery student. She is a mother of two, and she has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for nine years. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

Ashtanga Yoga: A Practice of Faith

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Awakening is recursive. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, the breath leads the body in a sequence of memorized poses (asanas), the yogi comes to the mat daily to practice that sequence, and the teacher offers additional asanas one by one as the student is deemed ready. In this style of yoga, the wisdom in the dynamic, conscious repetition is that it is never truly repetition, but rather an energy of awareness that reverberates in a folding and unfolding. The awakenings that develop repeatedly fall back to sleep, only to be revived when the student returns to the breath and to the spirit of the practice.

The practice

Ashtanga is a 6-day-per-week, early-morning practice. There is no practice on Saturdays, New or Full Moon days, or during Lady’s Holiday (the menstrual cycle). On all other days, there is practice.

Mysore-style Ashtanga—the method that is practiced in Mysore, India, where Shri K. Pattabhi Jois (“Gurujii”) developed the Ashtanga Yoga Institute, and where his grandson Sharath leads the institute now that Gurujii has passed—involves an intimate relationship between student and teacher. Around the world, those who have been trained in Mysore are given permission to cultivate this relationship with students in the shala, the yoga space. Traditionally, the student arrives at the shala each day and begins the series of asanas that they have been practicing. There are 6 series, and everyone begins with Primary series. Asanas are given by the teacher to the student when the teacher deems the student ready. For each student, the practice progresses uniquely: although there are standard sequences, the work of the teacher involves helping each student to find the shape in their body. Fundamental to the practice is the philosophy that all humans can do it, regardless of age, sex, gender, or limitation. Moreover, amid the enculturated pressure to compete or to worry about lack of accomplishment and the constraints of time, there are these traditional words from Gurujii: “Do your practice, and all is coming.”

7th Series

Gurujii used to say that family life is 7th Series. After practicing Ashtanga for many years with beloved teachers, I returned to school full-time to study nursing and nurse-midwifery. In my previous career as a professor, I could connect with my children before leaving for the shala; but my new nursing school schedule meant earlier morning classes, and I could not bring myself to go to the shala in darkness without bonding with my small children at the beginning of the day. The choice was as natural as the commitment to practice itself had become.

And so, my practice is now self-led at home, where I place my mat right in the middle of the morning’s motions—roll it out, chant, begin. From my mat, I watch my little ones eat breakfast and wiggle into their day. In the 90 minutes that it takes to move from first asana to last, I negotiate the breath and body while wiping a nose, relaying a reminder about putting one’s bottom in one’s seat, snuggling, settling a dispute. My partner moves through the space between kitchen and table, in charge of the morning’s routines while I practice, and the breeze of the back-and-forth is ever present.

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Me, in Kapotasana at 37 weeks pregnant

On some days, it feels especially challenging to work around obstacles like sickness, interruption, stiffness, soreness, or stress. But the difficulty works with and through the soul, and I strive to rest in that difficulty. In this contested space, I do the same asanas I have been doing for years, and each asana is a new iteration because change has occurred in each one of us. This practice is “mine”—it happens to my body, my mind, and my soul. But the awakening that emerges—so unlike the one before it—is a synergistic event in which I become more aware of my pain and fear, my purpose in my world, the ever-developing energy of my children, the inspired growth of my partner, expectations, presence, memories, sensory connections, fatigue and renewal, will, and love. Although I have much to gain when I reconnect with a teacher in the shala, my practice in my home amid stormy, delightful family forces is also a powerful teacher.

Mind, breath, body, light

The noise in the mind is as loud and incessant as torrential rainfall. In this yoga, we move with the audible ujjayi breath from asana to asana, choosing to devote our attention to the breath and away from the mind noise. The asanas ask us to develop comfort and calm in the challenge of discomfort—to find opening in the body as we breathe through struggle, fear, and the egoic joy of accomplishment. The practice offers a way through darkness. The series is a dense forest, with gnarly roots, creatures known and unknown, patches of clearing, the sound of adventure, and the ache and vulnerability of getting lost. With its spirit of healing and inquiry, the practice has accompanied me off the mat through childbirth, relationships, parenting, decision-making, anxiety and depression, work. It has light and lightness to offer in exchange for a deep commitment, even when doubt persists. The body opens, the mind’s Watcher witnesses, and awakening occurs.

No two humans in the same asana experience revelation in the same ways—and yet, the connection is there because revelation is happening and we honor the breath that keeps us alive. Not only do we realize that we have strength in the arms, legs, and belly, but we see how that strength—and the calm that accompanies it—radiates through us and into the lives around us. The deep awareness that grows in awakening leans toward peace and humility, and into fierceness of compassion. The asanas become a practice of faith that we vow to continue, and the challenge of maintaining that practice presents resistance that we decide to overcome. When we move through struggle, we see possibility and hope. As we bend, we listen. As we experience lightness, we offer light. Beginning the day in a conscious nexus of mind, soul, and body is not an inoculation for what is to come—it is a heartfelt immersion in being. In our humanness, we connect; in our connection, we transcend our humanness.

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Rebecca Ingalls, Ph.D., BSN, RN, is a former Associate Professor of English, and is now a registered nurse and a nurse-midwifery student. She is a mother of two, and she has been practicing Ashtanga for nine years. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.