Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Physical Culture in Yoga

My friend Matt Borer posted something on his wall that really made me think.

“Asana is to yoga, as a hammer is to a house;
a useful and necessary tool, but it is not the house.”

This comment got a lot of support from teachers and yoga practitioners. But I wasn’t so quick to hop on board.

I pondered and contemplated. What is the role of physical practice in this thing we call Yoga? Truly Matt and I are fellow pilgrims through this multifaceted training, but I am fascinated at the differences in our views of physical practice. For me this thing we call yoga has an indispensible physical culture component. If yoga was all about chanting, praying, meditating, contemplation of out actions, sutras and focus of the mind without distraction, I would have nothing to do with it. I view the physical practice as the foundation of any spiritual growth.

So odd that I would find myself (who can’t do many of the “fancy” poses) embracing the physical culture of yoga more and more while people like Pamela Beauchamp and Matt (who are amazing physical practitioners) are kind of seeing it as a smaller and smaller component of your yoga. I could never see the physical practice as irrelevant; I see it as part of the any house I live in.

There is this prevailing attitude in the ATX yoga community (and beyond) that the physical practice is not as important as the “spiritual journey”. Oddly this attitude often comes from those, like Matt and the people responding, who have a vigorous physical practice. I understand their viewpoint that yoga is not simply a set of acrobatic, contortionist moves. There is something more going on when we get into these poses.

However, sometimes I think the “spiritual practice” of some is every bit as hollow as those people who take a fancy pose with no spirit. How could we neglect this beautiful physical vessel and claim spirituality on any level?

Maybe it is simplistic, but living in that moment of practice is more sacred to me than rubbing beads in my hand and speaking a prayer in a language I don't fully comprehend.

Please believe me when I say I am not demeaning praying with beads, I know there are some who chose this path and I respect them. I am simply stating how it is for me.

When I see some people do those “fancy” poses, I DO see them reach a spiritual state that is quite beautiful to behold
. Sure I notice some people who do the beautiful pose and have no....spririt, and that is empty exhibitionism. Yet, as I write this I think of Pamela in Warrior 1; who would say there was nothing spriritual?

I remember this man I knew from Tai Chi, and his physical practice was (to be blunt) terrible. He always wanted to discuss the metaphysical aspects, which he espoused were the true essence of Tai Chi. But his movements in the physical practice were disjointed, lacking integrative integrity. Because he lacked integrity in his physical practice, I could tell, in a very real way, he had no clue about the metaphysical things he discussed. The physical practice showed a lot about him and the state of his spirit. He was a good person, I just felt he was really missing something. In contrast, I knew a woman with Lupis who engaged her weakened body and SHOWED her big beautiful spirit.
The physical practice also allows us to connect, as a community without religious barriers. When we practice the phyisical asana of yoga, we are able to connect in a fundamental way that transcends our religious thought. Christian, Hindu, Muslim and Atheist can all find common ground in the physical practice. The physical practice leads us in a subtle way to certain truths about ourselves as humans. Because it is rooted in the undeniable presence of our physical body, unsupported dogmatic beliefs are burned away. We are left with a pure, undeniable (and unexpressable) bond, shared in our Kula.

So I say to you Mr. Matt, Mizz Pamela and all you beautiful people in my Kula, please keep at your physical practice and show me your big beautiful poses they are an inspiring spiritual expression.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Breaking a Fall

Last night we practiced sweeping and throwing. As with many martial arts techniques, I think this family of techniques can teach a lesson that transcends the mat.

Fear of Falling

I must confess that throwing (or rather being thrown) scares the hell out of me. I found myself reacting in a way that is not typical in a Tukong class. My intense spirit is challenged by these techniques. After slamming to the mat a couple of times, I find my enthusiasm, and strength wither.

The internal struggle began before I even tried the techniques. When Master Ali demonstrated the throw, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped. “I can’t do that! I thought. “I am over 40, isn’t there a modification? That looks dangerous”

We began to practice, and Haemy, a young lady who is probably half my weight, threw me over her hip. She actually had doubts that she could throw me. However, she executed the technique quite effectively. When I hit the mat I was stunned for a moment, but still had the presence of mind to shrug it off, laugh and smile; there were a lot of lower belts around and I didn’t want them to get scared. I even managed to make a good point, laughing and saying “That technique is quite” rubbing my butt “effective against a larger opponent.”

However, in my mind a struggle was beginning. I was getting very anxious about the days practice. I glanced at the clock; we were only halfway through class, and already we were going in the air.

As we progressed to an over the shoulder throws, the falls got even higher and harder. I started to feel weak, like “that is enough for tonight”. I had a pain in my hip and ribs, and I was inflating it to a potential fracture in my mind. But, when I truly examined the pain I could tell it was just a minor soreness. I was not injured, yet I was convincing myself I was because I didn’t want to do that technique again.

Realizing this, I immediately lined up with my brother Casey who slammed me to the mat even harder. Also, because I was freaked out, I didn’t control my fall. Martial artists learn to fall well, to spread the impact out, and land on the most resilient body parts. I think they can even distribute the impact into the floor. But I haven’t learned this yet. When I am flying through the air, I go blank for a moment, until the floor wakes me up. So, I was just being flopped around.

Why Falling is Hard

Personally, I am not surprised that I would find falling a hard technique to master. Balance and centering are some of my better qualities in Yoga and Martial Arts. Even without the extra body fat I carry, I am a pretty solid dude who can lower his center well. I love standing on one leg, or getting into horse stance. In sparring I often grab my opponent and pull them off balance before striking. I like wrestling and grappling.

I consider the ground my friend, my support, and the source of all power in my techniques. But, all these tools of balance, lowering your Tan Tien and grounding are not available when you are thrown. You are without support for a moment, hanging in space. So instead of having support from the ground, it was now a weapon, which was slamming into me.

Consider falling, essentially, when being thrown the martial artist must handle a moment where they have absolutely no support. We are free falling and can only prepare for the mat which rushes up to meet you; sometimes we hit something harder than a mat.

Off the Mat: Breaking a Fall

In our day to day existence, everything we count on can fail. Our jobs can disappear. Our savings and investments can dwindle or sharply decline. Our house can lose it’s value. People we love can become distant at precisely the moment we need them most.

In fact, like the ground in throwing exercises, things we counted on can even turn on us and inflict pain. The bank can be your savings, or take your house. Sometimes families turn on each other in times of crisis.

So, what should one do when they are falling, with no support?

Don't Fall: First, I highly recommend learning to balance and center one’s self. Find the ground and root down into it. If someone, or something is trying to throw you, lower your Tan Tien, and let them pull themselves over. Give ‘em a little push if they need help. I think it is best not to get thrown.

Throwing an Opponent: If you are in conflict with a highly grounded opponent, remember that they probably cannot deal with losing the support. So if you are having a conflict in your life and need to exert your will, remove the opponents base, and they will likely lose all control. Undercut their authority or reputation and they will crumble. More importantly, be very wary if an opponent tries to undermine your reputation or authority. In other words, don’t get thrown.

Be Prepared: If one is not ready to be thrown, then when that moment happens, and you find yourself in the air, you will lose your mind, and the impact of the fall will hurt. So we must be prepared to be thrown. The key to success is breaking your fall.

Break Falling: There are several different directions the human body can travel, and for each there is a way of falling that can make the impact negligible. For instance, if you are thrown forward, one can tuck, and roll along the ground. I have personally experienced this on a bicylcle, flying over the handles, hitting the pavement, rolling and coming to my feet unharmed. We call these techniques “break falls” in martial arts.

In life, we can practice the art of breaking a fall by being aware at all times. While you are in the air, keep your mind strong. Don’t give into fear, panic or despair. Instead, relax your body, feel the direction of your fall, and with great and speedy calculation, prepare your body to hit the floor in the least painful way. A martial artist sends the force of their impact into the surrounding ground, preventing injury to themselves. In daily life we can distribute the impact by relying on friends, family, even strangers to help us. If your support network wont help with all your problems, get them to help a little, ask a friend to help a little, and even ask help from acquaintances, strangers and institutions. If you remain calm and relaxed, you will hit the ground with minimum impact.

We often cannot control how life comes at us, even our own body will cause us pain. We have very limited control. But we can engage in a form of practice where we maintain our calm, and relax. So that when we hit the ground, with great force, we can spring to our feet and take on the next challenge.