Self to Skin and Skin to Self
The different practices of yoga—posture, breath work, meditation—are often thrown together in a disjointed fashion. The physical and breath work can be considered as preparations for the core practice of seated meditation. One of B. K. S. Iyengar’s innovations was that the physical practice can be performed in such a way as to encompass the entirety of yoga. In performing a pose, one can unify body, mind and soul into a meditative whole.
From The Tree of Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar:
“The body cannot be separated from the mind, nor can the the mind be separated from the soul. No-one can define the boundaries between them. In India, asana was never considered to be a merely physical practice as it is in the West. But even in India nowadays, people are beginning to think in this way because they have picked it up from people in the West whose ideas are reflected back to the East…
“…When we start working on the performance of asanas, we all begin by just scratching the surface of the pose: our work on the pose is peripheral, and this is known as conative action. The word ‘conatus’ means an effort or impulse, and conation is the active aspect of mind, including desire and volition. Conative action is simply physical action at its most direct level.
“Then, when we are physically doing the pose, all of a sudden the skin, eyes, ears, nose and tongue—all out organs of perception—feel what is happening in the flesh. This is known as cognitive action: the skin cognises, recognises the action of the flesh.
“The third stage, which I call communication or communion, is when the mind observes the contact of the cognition of the skin with the conative action of the flesh, and we arrive at mental action in the asana. At this stage, the mind comes into play and is drawn by the organs of perception towards the organs of action, to see exactly what is happening. The mind acts as a bridge between the muscular movement and the organs of perception, introduces the intellect and connects it to every part of the body—fibres, tissues, and cells, right through to the outer pores of the skin. When the mind has come into play, a new thought arises in us. We see with attention and remember the feeling of the action. We feel what is happening in our body and our recollection says, ‘What is this that I feel now which I did not feel before?’ We discriminate with the mind. The discriminative mind observes and analyzes the feeling of the front, the back, the inside and the outside of the body. This stage is known as reflective action.
“Finally, when there is a total feeling in the action without any fluctuation in the stretch, then conative action, cognitive action, mental action and reflective action all meet together to form a total awareness from the self to the skin and from the skin to the self. This is spiritual practice in yoga.”
Iyengar’s method begins with effort. With effort—intelligent, discerning and well-placed—we awaken the body, the mind and the self. The practices of Yoga tend to be founded on the notion of tapas, or spiritual “heat.” You cook the raw clay of your body, mind and self with that heat into a strong and light ceramic pot of single-pointed focus. With that focus you are then able to discern between what is real and unreal, between that which draws you away from your true self and that which brings you into it. It’s a method that takes you from inertia into movement, from stagnation to transformation.
Although I would call myself a teacher in the Iyengar tradition—if you know something about yoga and took my class you would surely classify me as such—as the years go on and I deepen my personal and teaching practices, I feel less and less that what I am teaching is Iyengar Yoga. The teachers and writers I take my inspiration from (some of them not yoga-related all) work very differently. Rather than imposing form and structure on the body as Mr. Iyengar does, they are all looking for an underlying intelligence that already exists within the body and mind, and are simply trying to allow that to develop.
This is what drew me to AT (Alexander Technique) in the first place. Rather than taking a pose and imposing a series of actions on them and working to make them stick, AT looks for a softness of awareness and action. There is an acceptance of habit and pattern in the body and mind, and a slow lifetime-long unraveling of the effects of those habits to find poise and freedom in every moment of living.