Sri K Pattabhi Jois said, "Yoga is 99 percent practice, one percent theory." This blog is a resource to explore the one percent theory and to inspire you on the mat.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Intensity: Finding the Balance

Hello Students,
I am on a remote island on the Andamman Islands and when the internet connection is available it is only dial up! I have had this post ready for the past week but variables have made it impossible to get it posted. Needless to say, I'm having an amazing time swimming and practicing in a yoga room up in the jungle. Its truly incredible to have this time to study and practice. I feel very fortunate. This time has made me think a lot about the intensity of practice and the struggles we daily go through for our Yoga calling. Please enjoy and I hope to have another post for you in the next week.

Yoga seems to be asking for an ever increasing commitment from me in order to progress. Whether due to Kali Yuga, aging, unclarity, or reasons unknown, frequently what I gave yesterday to get results, doesn't feel like enough today.

I personally want to practice with fresh intensity everyday, yet I also know the challenges of maintaining a steady, serious practice. Yoga gives me everything--!-- from the food I eat and clothes I wear to the deepest sense of purpose and connectedness. I feel the benefits from my skin to my depths; I know how good I feel when I practice thoroughly. I even day dream about practice when I'm not practicing: about how good the challenge of Yoga is, the connection, the discipline, the focus, the physicality and how steeped with intensity I'm going to be when I step on my mat the next time.

But strangely often when its time to practice, I feel like there's still an outward pull, something that causes my monkey mind to take the stage or my body to lack the necessary power. Whether its an injury or a heavy physical state or mood, a thought I can't get out of my head, or some fantasy that arises and fools me into thinking it's more interesting than the actions in the asanas, the flow of the breath or the inner silence. This juxtaposition of intending to really go deep in practice and then not feeling able to tap or sustain the intensity gives practice a mirage like quality. It can feel like true, in depth practice is ever receding, staying just out of reach.

However, I also feel that I can be extremely self critical, to the point of not necessarily having proper perspective on the depths of my efforts during practice. There is a built in dissatisfaction in yoga practice. As if my effort will never be enough. So how can I be realistic about the effort I do put forth? How do I accurately assess whether I practice too intensely or too mildly and in either case effectively? And what level of mildness or intensity is right for me at this time? How do I know the difference between being too hard on myself and fooling my self? If I'm too intense, I'll injure my self or I'll be overly critical of myself, and I'll be striving for the wrong reasons and having no fun doing it. If I'm too mild and let too many other things get in my way, then I'll squander my best opportunities for diving in to self knowledge.

How many hours a day is really enough? Is it one, two, three or more hours? How many series are enough? How much focus is enough to truly take me inwards? To purify my mind and body? To know Spirit? How can I continue to progress, to go further inward to discover further truths about who I am, what connects me to this world without thinking I need to give up everything and retire to a cave, without getting overwhelmed and giving up, or striving on in some distorted way that perpetuates harmful self criticism or self hatred?

To answer these questions I will need to create a practice that is able to alternate between serious, sustained, willful effort that includes intense struggle, pain and hardship. And on the other hand I'll need to simply open and enjoy and let go. I'll trust that the Lord, The Awakener, The Power of Goodness, or my perfect Self brings to me the exact set of circumstances and experiences that will enable me to grow even if I feel stuck or don't understand its outer workings moment to moment. Ultimately I will create a balance between actively and willfully making progress happen and allowing progress to happen in its own way, on its own time.

To achieve this balance between serious effort and trusting the Source requires a rigorous sorting through of my constantly fluctuating mental states. This working with my mind involves inquiring into my questions, joys, flights of brilliance, doubts, rage, sadness, judgements, assessments of reality, etc. To work with these fluctuating states is the foundation of the focus that leads to understanding the mind's limited role in helping me to progress. As I focus during practice my mind can shine with intelligence, can lead me to express the most creative and profound art and show me the way to kindness and spiritual wisdom, the pinnacles of consciousness. Or my mind can also become grandiose and can lead me to think I'm better, smarter, more powerful than I really am. Or my mind can also be extremely negative or savage and unruly, can attack me, lead me to undervalue myself and my dreams. Either an inflated or deflated mind can sabotage my efforts to grow and transform. With a wrong bent of mind, I can lose even basic perspective about the quality and balance of my practice. These inconsistent mental states require me to cultivate a vigilance, an inner trust, a long term commitment to listen and feel within.

Listening and feeling within involves a certain 'heart donkey' work in doing long periods of zen koan like, inward turning puzzle solving that takes the form of active thought and struggling for answers on how to progress. This effortful work alternates with suspending willful striving, receptivity, trust, and letting go enough for answers to arrive on their own. Largely Yoga is about the relationship I develop with my own mind, its entire range from brilliant to brutish. And as I struggle, sort through, let go, and clear my mind, then my connection to the Source can take the lead. Practice that is defined as 'time spent on the mat trying' can provide the perfect opportunity for such reflection. Eventually I will win a solid base of psychological stability, I'll gain enough mental power to see through the ignorance of the mind, be able to ride the variety of mental and emotional twists and turns, see beyond the forms created by the mind, enjoy the emptiness and silence within, experience my continuousness with everyone, and the flowing, singing, rhythmic dance that everything is inextricably swept along by.


  1. David, this is one of the most inspiring pieces you've shared with us. It's so good to know about a teacher's struggle to remain true to himself/herself and how to deal with seeming contradictions so integral to this practice (of growth). As a friend often says, if we take one step towards the point, it takes three towards us. An older stranger I crossed paths with yesterday asked me "how I was doing," when I reciprocated he said, "I am blessed; I woke up this morning" with a big smile on his face. Blessings, David.

  2. Lovely post full of familiar thoughts and feelings. Thank you!


David welcomes comments on his posts, however, due to time constraints he is not able to respond to every comment.