The miracle is not to walk on thin air or water, but to walk on Earth.
-- Thich Nhat Hanh
Saturday, March 5, 2011
Making choices in practice: limbs, branches, and paths
Yoga texts and articles, ancient and modern, abound with metaphors for the choices we make in our practice. The eight components of Astanga Yoga are often referred to as the eight "limbs", while the different approaches we can take to practice are often called "branches" or "paths" of yoga. (Different sources list varying numbers of "branches" - raja, karma, bhakti, and jnana are usually included, and then many modern descriptions include hatha, tantra, kundalini, and various others). These metaphors obviously resonate with people because they have stuck around. The metaphor of the journey is one that I have always connected with personally, hence the name of this blog. My practice is not static, but evolving. It grows and changes, depending on my needs. The deeper I go, the more committed I am to practice, but also the more willing I am to take detours and walk different paths for a while.
I'm beginning a yoga teacher training program in less than two weeks, so I've been thinking a lot about my personal practice and what kind of a teacher I will be. It's definitely important to me to be flexible in my practice and to learn about different limbs/ branches/ paths/ [insert metaphor here] so that I will be aware of my choices when my needs change. It's also important to try different styles of yoga to find which you connect with most strongly. Any path can be a road in.
If yoga is a journey and there are many paths in the woods, I think these paths intersect in various places, so there's no need to pick just one. There have been times when reading and studying the philosophy of yoga has been how I've really been able to connect. Sometimes, I just want to do asana, and other times I want to meditate or chant or help others. I am grateful for all these choices because they allow me to remain engaged with my practice no matter what is going on in my life.
However, I also think it can be useful to explore the paths that seem a little darker and less inviting to you. You may decide not to stay on that path after all, or you may discover that it was something within you that was blocking your path and perhaps you were meant to walk it for a while after all. Sometimes it is exactly the practice that challenges us, the one we resist, that is the one we need the most. Sometimes, I think it's possible to use the concept of "different paths" to avoid exploring an aspect of practice that scares us or promises to be difficult.
After a long time practicing mostly off the mat, I am coming home to hatha yoga. I say coming home because, like many so-called Westerners (we really need to find a better term for that), hatha yoga is where I began. I must say it feels like home, and I'm happy to be practicing mostly hatha at the moment. That doesn't mean I'm sticking with one style of asana practice, though. Some days I do a lot of pranayama and meditation, and other days I just want to do a million vinyasas. I'm enjoying exploring different styles in my home practice and in the classes I attend. I think it makes me a better person, and I think it will make me a better teacher too.
On the other hand, I'm aware that this might just be a personal preference. Some people probably prefer to commit to a path and follow it deeper and deeper. There isn't any one "right" way to do it. Each yogi has to find - or make - his or her own road.
If you practice yoga, what has your path been? Have you focused on one or more limbs and not others? Have you picked a branch and gone way out, or are you swinging from branch to branch as you go along? Do you feel like you've found "your path"?