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Routine vs. Wonder

“Yoga practice is like life. Each circumstance in which we find ourselves is like aDSC01851 pose. Some poses are hard to hold, others are pleasant. It is how we hold the pose that determines whether or not we will suffer or grow, and whether or not we will listen to the drama of the ego or the wisdom of the spirit.” Darren Main

In our asana practice, just as in life, we are guided through a sequence of poses that range from familiar and “easy” to novel and “difficult” or even sometimes “impossible” (at least in the moment). It may not seem obvious at first, but everywhere along this spectrum we encounter both challenge and possibility.

In an “easy” pose like bharmanasana (table pose), we risk being too casual, of dropping our experience down to the level of routine.   Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said “routine is resistance to wonder.” It denies our connection to bliss and the Divine, and instead fetters us to suffering. Here we are on hands and knees. When can we move, to do something? Hands anywhere, anyway, knees assymetrically arranged, feet forgotten somewhere back behind us, our gaze and mind shifting forward or wandering elsewhere to something shinier and seemingly more significant. Our body squirms and fidgets independent of the rhythm of breath. Rolf Gates often reminds us that the pose is just what we are doing, Yoga is a particular way of being in the pose. How can we use a simple pose like this to express Yoga?  Each pose can be approached in three parts – our breath, our gaze or drishti, and of course the physical form.  The physical form begins in our foundation – wherever our body meets and draws energy from the earth. In bharmanasana we need to establish and stay connected to a slow, deep and steady breath; to set our gaze down and forward; and be mindful as we carefully organize hands, knees and feet and then spine. If we do all these things skillfully, attentive to whatever arises with a gentle inward smile, we experience a union with all that is sacred and miraculous in the present moment.

At the other end of the spectrum, we may be led towards an asana or through a transition that is beyond our current ability, for many possible reasons.   Sometimes we grimace or resist, give it a chagrined effort, or even launch ourselves heedlessly with excessive effort and insufficient skill. Maybe we look around, compare ourselves to others and feel separated from a universe conspiring against us. We are self-critical regarding our failure or outwardly critical of our circumstances. We long to get away from this moment (aversion, dvesa) to another moment (craving, raga) that will be better. However, if instead we are immersed in our breath practice, set our gaze until our face can be soft, our heart tranquil, and then start working the physical form from the foundation – what a different experience! We set our body on the earth carefully and work from there physically and energetically until we find a balanced expression of the asana.

Whether or not we contort ourselves or levitate, our pose is perfect for NOW. The pose might be bharmanasana (table) or bakasana (crane). The pose might be standing in line at the grocery store or being with a loved one in the midst of trauma. Yoga is how we want to be, regardless of what we do. We let go of the drama of the ego, and bask in the wisdom of the spirit. In this way we connect to what is sacred, recognize the omnipresent miracle and fill ourselves with wonder!

Bryan Kest’s Powerful Approach to Being More Gentle

Bryan Kest is the founder of Original Power Yoga, a unique style of physical yoga that he developed over the course of his yoga training, which started at an early age.  After taking up the practice of yoga at the age of 14, Kest soon discovered the profound physical and mental benefits derived from an authentic and dedicated yoga practice.  One of the most interesting, and perhaps encouraging, things I’ve learned about Bryan Kest is that even as a power yoga teacher, where classes are physically challenging and often times to his dismay, competitive Kest himself believes that yoga is not a physical practice.  He says that we can certainly make yoga a physical practice, but that’s not what’s important.  Kest is on a quest to bring more gentleness into the practice of yoga.

I showed up to Bryan Kest’s workshop at Moksha Yoga in Chicago on a late September night in 2013 without ever having met the man or experiencing one of his classes.  I was pleasantly surprised to hear this western yogi talk about the lack of importance on the physical aspects of yoga.  Power yoga should mean powerfully meditative, Bryan told us.  That made complete sense to me.  As a yoga teacher who tries to convey this very message to her students, it was comforting to hear a popular, western teacher talk about how yoga is not about what you can do physically but about how you can train yourself to be mentally.  Kest explains that all of the physical stuff we do in any given hatha yoga class is just a warm up for the mind to get quiet.  The goal of yoga is not to look better naked or to be able to twist ourselves into a pretzel.  The goal of yoga is enlightenment.  We have to approach this ancient practice gently but with a strong mind set, Kest urges.  We have to pay attention.

So often we go about our lives mindlessly, without paying attention to the things we say, do and think.  Our minds wander every second we are not present.  Science has proven that getting too caught up in our minds can destroy our health.  Research shows that 88% of diseases in the body are psychosomatic.  Holistic health expert, Deepak Chopra explains that, “Inner silence promotes clarity of mind; it makes us value the inner world.  It trains us to go inside to the source of peace and inspiration when we are faced with problems and challenges.”  Kest fortifies this notion by reminding us that yoga is not about how strong and flexible we can be but how calm and peaceful we can remain.

While, yoga is not about competition, comparison or vanity these characteristics might be found in many western yoga studios today.  You mightl find people practicing yoga to try to change something about themselves.  And here is where Kest makes a very clear and powerful statement:  “Yoga doesn’t want to change you.”  He explains that yoga doesn’t care what you look like or how much money you make.  Yoga doesn’t think you’re fat or ugly.  Yoga accepts you, exactly the way you are.  This is the beauty of yoga.  It’s so simple.  And yet, many of us have made it into something so complicated.

After about an hour and a half of discussion we moved into the physical portion of the workshop.  Bryan Kest is a power yoga teacher and is known for leading challenging and physically demanding practices.  So here I was, ready to bust out all kinds of difficult arm balances, inversions and contortions but instead, what I got was straight-forward and simple poses.  And with that, I also got a hell of a workout.  My body dripped with sweat as I held plank for what seemed like minutes at a time.  My arms trembled as I rested in downward dog and my legs quivered from long held chair poses and lunges.  Kest joked that he should change the name of his studio in Santa Monica from Power Yoga to Grandma’s Yoga because there was nothing he had us do in class that our Grandmas couldn’t at least attempt.  He presented hard sequences and a physically demanding practice but the poses were not complex nor did they require immense flexibility or range of motion to execute.

I also really appreciated the way that Kest brought a sense of gentleness into his teaching.  He delivered the class sequence in a clear yet permissive way.  Kest teaches as though everything he is asking you to do is totally optional, and he makes you believe that opting out of a pose or variation in no way makes you “less.”  In fact, he calls this way of tuning in to your body one of the smartest and most important things we can do to stay safe and healthy while practicing asana (physical yoga poses).  Kest allows everyone a chance to attempt each pose, but only if they want to.  He constantly reminds the class that he is offering suggestions and not commands.  This brought me back to one of my favorite yoga teachers from Arizona, Maredith Schroeder, who would always give the instruction for a challenging pose followed by the comforting reminder, “and that is not a command.”  This is the kind of yoga teaching that has always spoken to me so perhaps that’s why I try to teach my classes with the same permissive tone.

I find Kest’s style of teaching very similar to my own as he encourages students to “do it, if it feels good” and to “don’t do it, if it doesn’t feel good.”  Physical pain has a purpose and that purpose is to signal us that something is not right.  In a society that tells us to ignore pain and push past our limits, so many westerners have this mentality that stopping or backing off is a sign of weakness, when really it’s a sign of intelligence.  Kest would say things like, “If you’re strong enough, put your knee down.”  He’s attributing strength to integrity instead of physical prowess.  As Kest so beautifully explains, if we are measuring our progress by our physical prowess, then we have no choice but to digress.

By the end of our 2 hour sweat session, Kest had us sit quietly in meditation for 10 minutes before taking final rest in Savasana.  He called everything up until this point “our warm up.”  Now was the time for the real yoga.  Now was the time to integrate body, mind and spirit.  Now was the time to get our minds to quiet down, to turn off our judgments, to let go of comparisons and to be free from attachments.  As I sat in the stillness of that room, surrounded by 75 others who had made their way onto their mats just as I had, a quiet inner peace took over my entire being.  I thought to myself, this is yoga.

What it all comes down to, according to Kest, is self-love.  We don’t need to push further.  We don’t need to touch our fingers to our toes or jam our head to our knee in yoga poses.  What we need is to cultivate awareness and have the intelligence to recognize what we are feeling.  If you get to a point in a pose and you feel something, that’s it.  You have arrived at your destination.  And that might look very different from the point at which your neighbor on the mat next to you has arrived.  Maybe their hands are flat on the floor as they fold over their legs, but as long as they are experiencing a feeling that isn’t too much or too little, then that’s where they are supposed to be.

We have a tendency, in western society to over-do things.  Kest warns us that the harder you are on something, the faster you will wear it out.  You can apply this logic to everything from marriage to cars to your own body.  So, what we need is less aggressiveness and more gentleness.  And in order to be gentle, Kest explains, we have to pay attention.  When we are paying attention, we are fully present.  When we are fully present, we can turn off the thoughts, turn off the judgments and turn off the vanity.  When we are fully present we can recognize the qualities of mind that harm us, and we can take action to stop feeding those harmful qualities.

I came to Bryan Kest’s workshop that night to learn more about Power Yoga and the man behind the brand.  What I got was a guided realization that the true teacher is within, that the truth behind physical practice is the quest for inner peace and that the key to being more powerful is to approach things more gently.