(First published 27/10/09)
“A major part of the art and skill in yoga lies in sensing just how far to move into a stretch,” writes American yoga teacher, Erich Schiffmann, in his book, Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness.
The skill comes in knowing the middle path, the line that falls between “not enough and too much”. If we do not make enough effort to move our body into a posture, there will be no stretch and the body will remain in the same state – which for many of us, would be “stiffer than we like”. But if we push ourselves too much we risk pain and injury. And although this advice might appear obvious, it is so easy to either end up pushing ourselves too much, or, remain in our comfort zone, never developing.
Knowing and experiencing this balance can be found in every posture.
The art comes by knowing where your limit lies and bringing yourself close to that edge and riding along it, so that we develop and gradually move the edge – for example, becoming more flexible and stronger.
That is one reason why we learn to hold yoga postures for some time, thereby allowing time to move into the pose and then deepening it – finding the edge of our stretch and holding it.
There are different opinions about the length of time we hold a posture: ranging from styles such as Ashtanga Vinyasa, which moves through postures rapidly, to styles like Iyengar that holds poses for longer and goes deep into the positions.
Both approaches work close to the edge, and share the same principles of knowing your limits and how far you can go safely with awareness. From my experience it is a good idea to mix your personal practice, so that you sometimes do a sequence, flowing from one to the other after a few breaths, while at other times, doing fewer postures and holding each one for longer.
Schiffmann writes that the “overall feeling in your muscles and body is the sound of yoga.” He says that the sound is a “feeling, a tone, a feeling-tone”, which is very much like singing a note. And in terms of a yoga posture, if a particular line of energy is not tuned just right, it will either feel “flat” or “sharp”. He adds that, continual readjustment is necessary to stay perfectly tuned.
Added to this awareness of our limits and moving as close as possible to them, is the breathing. This is, as with so many aspects of yoga, one of the major keys to a successful practice.
The breathing will show you how close to the edge you are. Its rhythm and texture is an excellent gauge of our situation. As we sink into a posture the breathing might feel quicker or more stressed, but as we adapt and adjust to the position, tuning the posture, the breathing will find a smooth rhythm. If it does not become smooth and steady, the posture needs to be adjusted.
We learn to be sensitive to our breathing, so that we can be precise with the stretching and effort made to get into and out of postures.
This is where yoga becomes an art.