Saturday, April 11, 2015

Steadiness Requires Readiness: Yoga and Preparation

"Study to show yourself approved," is a biblical quote I'll always remember my father saying throughout my childhood before tests or performances. When I looked it up I learned it comes from the book of 2 Timothy in the New Testament. Verse 15 of the King James version reads, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." At the time the King James version was written, "study" carried the meaning of striving or working diligently. I can understand why my parents used that verse to encourage me and it helped me set a pattern of preparing well for exams.

These days, as a yoga practitioner and teacher, I sometimes think of that verse in relation to yoga. The "study" aspect, taken literally, makes me think about the self-study and scriptural study aspects of yoga, from the yoga concept of Ishvara pranidhana. More recently, though, I've been thinking about how it relates to the concept of purvanga, translated as preparation.

Purvanga (preparation) is meant to apply to all aspects of our practice and life. Generally, the more prepared we are for anything we do, the smoother it all goes down. In the meditation courses I took in the past, meditatators were instructed to prepare their own space for regular meditation to maximize comfort and minimize distraction. I apply this instruction for both my postural and meditation practices. I remember one of my yoga teachers describing how the simple act of making one's bed in the morning can set the right tone for the day, making everything run more efficiently. I also find this to be true and dislike doing my practice at home with an unmade bed or an untidy space. I also dislike jumping right into any sort of physical practice without an adequate period of warming up my body--the preparation for what's to come.

I had a very literal reminder of the importance of preparation during my home practice this week. I was in my tidied practice space, going through my postures and beginning to work on bakasana, crow posture. This next part may seem made up, but it's not: my phone rang and my neighbor informed me that my garbage cans sitting on the curb were being attacked by crows! I had to pause my practice and go outside to clean up and put lids on the garbage cans. My wonderful spouse had taken the garbage out without lids. Immediately I thought about preparation: were we prepared to have our garbage collected having left off the lids? Wasn't that a part of the necessary preparation? In addition, I had accidentally left a kitchen drawer partially opened and while I was practicing, my dog had pulled out a container of sandwich bags and strewn them all over the living room floor during my sun salutations. These two oversights, the missing garbage lids and the opened drawer, created distraction and interruption, as the outside as well as the inside of our home have a direct effect on my home practice.

As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul! - Hermes Trismegistus. There's another concept related to being prepared, and reminding me of another Bible verse attributed to Jesus about preparing the inside as well as the outside of the cup. If we are truly studious and diligent, everything is important. Nothing can be neglected on the outside or the inside for a truly successful physical, mental or spiritual practice of any kind.

So how does this wisdom help us with our day to day practice, besides reminding us to put the lids on our garbage cans and secure our drawers and pets? I think it's a good way to think about streamlining our lives and remembering what's essential. It's a good reminder to come back to our simplest and best intentions and remove anything and everything cluttering our space, our minds and our lives. For example, I have a goal of some sort of healthy physical exercise each day, and I am more likely to remain true to that goal if I don't put lots of extra pressure around it, such as the number of miles I must walk or run, the number of fancy yoga postures I must execute or any number of extra obligations I pile on top of that simple goal. Another example is the goal my husband and I share to spend time connecting with one another and our kids: we are more likely to achieve that goal when we keep it streamlined and simple, not signing up for more and more "family" events packaged as quality time, like saying yes to each and every birthday party, fundraiser and extracurricular activity and spreading ourselves too thin. Sometimes we need to stay home and cook and play a game instead of piling into the car and heading out to another gathering.

As a rule, I believe that good preparation in yoga practice and life translates as "less is more." As I am discovering this, I'm including fewer yoga postures in the classes I teach so they don't feel so "busy," and fewer physical obligations in my home practice so that I don't intimidate myself into showing up on my own mat: "Do what you feel like doing today and include time for rest," has been good self-talk for me lately. I'm feeling freer and more focused as a result. I'm also feeling stronger. Streamlining your life and slowing down the tendency to over-effort (common in our culture) does not mean slacking--in fact, it takes more concentration and intentionality to live this way.

When we intentionally prepare and streamline our yoga practice, we train ourselves to focus on what's important in our lives and begin to experience more peace and ease. Don't take my word for it: try it yourself. Review your personal goals this week and make a list of what you can eliminate from your practice and daily life that may not be serving those goals. Take extra time to prepare yourself, tidying up what's already in your life and being more intentional about each thing you add to your space, your body and your consciousness. Pay attention to yourself on the inside and the outside and you'll feel better when life's real tests come, as they always do.

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