I want to share with you an interview I did with Integral Yoga Magazine, in which I discuss the benefits of a regular practice of Yoga and how obstacles to a consistent practice of Yoga can be overcome, allowing us to still the mind and develop a relationship with the Self. This interview was originally published in Integral Yoga Magazine’s Fall 2011 issue, and is reprinted with their permission.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Would you discuss the benefits of developing a consistent practice of Yoga?
Natasha Rizopoulos (NR): The more I practice, the more I realize that Yoga gives us a perspective on our often wayward thoughts and feelings. Anyone who ever had a puppy remembers the initial stages of trying to walk said puppy on a leash. One word: anarchy. And yet that puppy is positively sedate compared to most of our thought patterns. Left to its own devices, my mind is like that puppy—on steroids. The beauty of Yoga is that, over time, you learn to use some tools and (“little by little,” as Pattabhi Jois used to say) you get somewhat more adept at not giving each and every thought or feeling your full and undivided attention. I’m convinced that my puppy actually got a lot happier when she learned to proceed at a more stately pace. And, in many circumstances, she now prefers to be on leash than off. I think it reassures her so she is more focused in her perambulations.
IYM: What role does asana play in a consistent practice?
NR: Asana is a very big part of my Yoga practice. The reason it’s powerful for me, and for so many other people, is that on the Yoga mat we can use the gross body as a way to locate ourselves firmly in the present moment. When we are in the present moment we are less prone to succumbing to the mental chatter that directs us away from our true Self. We can use the details of the asana practice as a way to literally tether our scattered mind; asana corrals our attention into the present moment. The mind is still operating, but it’s being used to think about, engage in and understand the present moment. When the mind is no longer moving to the future, moving to the past, judging and evaluating, there’s a tangible sense of freedom. Our asana practice reveals our life patterns in a very vivid and distilled way. The obstacles that we face in life are often those that we face on our mats. We come into direct contact with the mental chatter that inhibits us from achieving the goals we set for ourselves. We create these thoughts and distractions. “I feel bad. I can’t do it. I am not good enough. What is the point?” These self-defeating thoughts and feelings are quite repetitive and cyclical. The physical practice of asana teaches us about the power of ekagrata, or one-pointed mind. And asanas prepare us for a seated meditation practice. Sometimes we need several years of asana practice before our minds are ready to be still. It’s in this stillness that our true Self is unveiled. A consistent practice of Yoga helps us to realize our true Self, yet our thoughts distract us from the very practices that have the potential to aid us in the goal of quieting the mind
IYM: So, listening to and responding to our own somatic experience of the present moment can be a form of disciplined inquiry?
NR: Absolutely. I would say the reason alignment is important in asana is that this is how we avoid himsa, or harm. There is a real danger of developing repetitive stress injuries or of pushing too hard, resulting in self-harm. Alignment helps us to rein in our ambition and to work with the reality of the body. When we learn to practice with compassion for our physical self, we are more likely to be consistent. Consistency is invaluable in disciplining the mind. Of course an asana practice makes us stronger, more flexible, we sleep better and all those benefits, but an asana practice is primarily creating a space in which to develop ekagrata. Human suffering comes due, in large part, to our conflation of Self with our ego. If we identify with things that are going to change, we are going to suffer. The essence of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is that you have an eternal soul. The idea is to remember that and see if you can create some amount of space between your idea of who you really are, and all of the aspects of self that are going to change: our body, mind, position, relationships, finances. I think that one of the ways we can learn to identify with that which is eternal is through an asana practice. If you do asana mindfully and with consistency, your typical thoughts and feelings come up on the mat, but you can start to develop a practice of not engaging with these thoughts. The thoughts don’t stop, but they become background noise. I can disengage from the thoughts, observe them and understand that they are not permanent. What is permanent is our soul.
IYM: How do we build a regular practice with the competing distractions of work, social networks and family life?
NR: Creating a balance between developing our relationships with the external world and our inner world is really hard and really beautiful. When I began practicing asana, I didn’t have a cell phone and there was no texting, instant messaging or Facebook. On some level these technologies make us more efficient and, on another level, they can be addictive. It can be really tempting to think that we need to be connected outwardly. Social expectations have also changed about how available we are supposed to be. These expectations discourage the time and practice it takes to develop a relationship with one’s Self. It isn’t reasonable to assume that people are not going to be engaged with technology, but it also isn’t reasonable to say I am not going to develop a relationship with that which is permanent, with my Self. The good news is that we are talking about practice. We’re not talking about perfection! Sadhana is an ongoing and evolving relationship with one’s Self. If we can have a consistent asana practice, we learn that we choose what to put our attention on. This sounds very simple, but it’s huge. I needed to practice a long time to understand that when a thought or feeling came up I didn’t need to do something about it. For several years, I just practiced asana, and it was in asana that I learned to be a better observer of my thoughts and feelings. Asana is a forum to pay attention to the subtle changes that we experience on a daily basis.
IYM: What are the benefits of practicing in a group versus developing our own personal relationship with Yoga?
NR: There are great merits to both. I have a 99.9% home practice that allows me to really move within. One of the beautiful things about a home practice is that you can directly work on those things that are hard for you. We learn how to overcome the obstacles which beset us personally, and the motivation to be self-aware begins to come from within. There is also a preciousness that comes with a group of individuals all of whom are seeking to experience the world and themselves free of thoughts, free of likes and dislikes. In a group, with sangha, we are willing to work a little harder. In a group we can get in touch with the enthusiasm necessary to sustain a consistent selfawareness practice.
IYM: How can we develop a consistent practice and encourage our students to do the same?
NR: Try to do sadhana regularly, whatever is reasonable. This could be five times a week for forty minutes, when you put down your phone, turn off your computer and say, “I’m not going to be distracted by the external world.” I think we’re really challenged in this day and age. One of my concerns is that Yoga is in danger of becoming another form of distraction. We go to a Yoga class and it’s about music, getting hot and sweaty, having a physical experience. It’s possible to go deeply inward with distractions, but I question whether it’s possible to go deeply inward when we are craving stimulation and sensation. Yoga teachers have a great responsibility to discuss the merits of quieting the mind. The physical practice of asana is to prepare the mind for a seated practice of meditation in order to still the mind. We need to try and translate the experience of being still for individuals who may have very little experience, desire or understanding of stillness. Encouraging our students to move within and to cultivate self-awareness and an ability to reflect on their relationship to technology, culture and Self is powerful work Get More Information. It’s a privilege to offer a structure in which students can develop these skills. As Yoga teachers we need to take this responsibility, this privilege, seriously. We need to demystify Yoga and make it accessible to everybody. At the same time, we need to challenge our culture’s rejection of the Yoga philosophy, Sanskrit, chanting or anything that is considered vaguely unfamiliar. Instead of rejecting the tradition, why not figure out a way to translate the texts and the ideas so that they are accessible. Our job is to be accurate and skillful translators of the Yoga tradition so that people can see what is beautiful and powerful within us all.