Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Asana as Balanced Brain Yoga

Yoga is a powerful vehicle for personal transformation, yet it also contains the potential to entrench our existing preconceptions and limitations. How do we employ the techniques of yoga as a vehicle for growth, rather than as another reinforcement of our existing challenges?

Yoga in the West has become very precise, telling us how and when to breathe, the precise alignment of the body, where to look and how to hold our internal musculature. It’s a powerful means for developing the body and mental focus, but does it help or hurt our deeper yogic inquiry?

As a culture, we’re already proficient at doing things. To some degree we work and manage money, we get ourselves around, feed ourselves and plan for the future. This is the province of the frontal brain, and we’re masters of this domain. As a culture, we also see an epidemic of the overactive front brain; anxiety and worry are pervasive, obsessive thinking runs many of our lives, and who hasn’t lost a night of sleep worrying about the future? Our cultural paradigm is heavily invested in the frontal brain, and we’re the recipients of the suffering associated with this over-reliance.

The funny thing is, the yoga that’s proliferated in this country is frontal-brain driven. We learn the proper techniques, and apply them diligently to the body. In addition to deepening the rift between body & mind (mind directing every movement/action of the body), we further exercise the front brain, while the back brain withers in disuse. The yogic path asks us to delve into the unfamiliar, which for most of us means developing a relationship with the back brain.

The back brain is that part of the brain we share in common with the animals. It’s the sensing part of our brain that’s very ancient, that houses intuition...the same perception that guided so many Indonesian animals into the hills hours before the tsunami devastated their land.

How do we develop this dormant capacity? It’s really about learning to observe without immediately adjusting or changing what you find. The previous essay on Authentic Breathing was the first step in this process. Can you observe your breath as-it-is, rather than imposing your ideas on the body? This path is also about trust, or faith. Can you trust that there’s an intelligence within your body that’s not based on your mind? Put more concretely, can you trust that your body knows exactly the roadmap for keeping adequate oxygen supply to the tissues? If we can get the frontal brain out of the way (worrying, stressing, tensing muscles), the latent intelligence in the body will determine the optimal depth and length of the breath. This is Authentic Breathing, and it’s the first step in moving away from the Westernized controlling approach to Yoga.

The next step is about harmonizing the relationship between front and back brain within asana. The yogic approach is not to abandon all technique in favor of the Anything Goes paradigm. When thinking of the Anything Goes approach (what we used to disparagingly refer to as Flow & Glow Yoga) I immediately think of the old Far Side cartoon of the Boneless Chicken Ranch and imagine a room full of listless yoginis and yogis lying in a heap on the floor. Taken to an extreme, back brain yoga can be just as out of balance as the front brain approach. As in everything, it’s about the unification of opposites, or finding everything within everything.

We will demonstrate the Alignment Yoga integration of Front & Back brain within Virabhadrasana II in an upcoming video. Please check back for this posting.


From the boneless chicken ranch said...

I find that having grown up in a "take-charge" world, with many responsibilities and a strong decision making role, it is a challenge not to immeditately "take charge" and solve or manage any perceived issue with my yoga pose. So this advice is very timely and very applicable to my situation. On the other hand, I am prone to laziness and can easily swing the other way, landing me squarely in the boneless chicken ranch. How long does it take to find a balance? How do I know when I am making progress?

Anonymous said...

This really got the wheels of my mind to go 'round & 'round. It is a good reminder for me to allow the control freak in me to take a vacation. If not, something has got to give! I was hungry for something substantial in regards to this subject but was finding nothing more than 'tic-tacs' to curb my appetite. Thanks for the meal. :) George C.

Scott Anderson said...

Within Yoga we are constantly challenged to find this middle way. How do you know you're on the right path?

You'll find yourself more often in the state of contentment, or as expressed in Sanskrit, santosha. You'll also find yourself more tolerant of faults in others, and perhaps as importantly, more tolerant of the faults you start to see in yourself.

In short, this practice of yoga is "working" when you find your day-to-day, moment-by-moment life a bit smoother, calmer and more compassionate.

How long does it take? With the awareness you've found, the process has already begun. Likely you've already started to notice the effects, and the good news is that the positive changes just keep growing & expanding.

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