This is from my friend Domagoj who lives in Croatia. I asked him to read my blog and see if he wanted to submit anything as a contribution. He wrote this piece and I feel it is quite valuable so I recommend you have a look.
From: Domagoj Orlic, yoga practitioner from Zagreb (Croatia), Carl’s friend and student of Mark Whitwell’s
Some thoughts on personalized yoga practice
I think that what Carl calls “personalized approach to yoga” is primarily based on one fundamental premise: yoga can be practiced and taught safely and effectively only if there is a proper respect for the individual practitioner. This respect includes all kinds of things, as we shall soon see, but some of the most important ones are her/his current abilities and limitations, which are the two sides of the same coin that we might call the dynamic balance of what we actually are and what we feel we should be.
I am also advocating the same approach to teaching and practicing yoga, and have been trained in the same Krishnamacharya-Desikachar tradition of adapting yoga to the individual instead the other way round, which is still the most common way yoga is taught and practiced in the modern world. I feel there are some serious problems in presenting and teaching yoga as a system of more or less standardized sets of exercises and techniques, either mixed with some religious ideas or not. However, I will talk about it a little later. Let me now quote T. Krishnamacharya, who was not the originator but certainly the greatest proponent of yoga understood as a natural expression of our individuality and yoga taught as an actual exploration of that very individuality, and who said these four principal things:
1. Everybody can practice yoga.
2. There is a right yoga for everyone.
3. Yoga should be adapted to the individual rather than the individual to yoga.
4. The teacher should teach what he knows and give what the other can receive.
(The first three quotes were taken from T.K.V. Desikachar’s book Health, Healing and Beyond, whereas the fourth one was taken from the last edition of a former publication of Desikachar’s yoga institute called Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram Darshanam, no. 4/1996.)
In my opinion, these four basic principles, although open for interpretation, cover the most important truths about how we should approach yoga creatively, both as practitioners and teachers. The whole methodology of transmitting yoga as human activity of mutual caring between student and teacher is also implicitly delineated in them. However, we should always bear in mind that teaching/practicing yoga is quite a delicate and complex matter, and an enormous personal and social responsibility. This is one of the reasons why we are having this discussion in the first place, besides the fact that self–study (svadhyaya) is an integral part of a yoga practice.
Although the first premise that everyone can practice yoga or find something in it for her/himself is almost obvious, the second principle, that there is an appropriate yoga for everyone perhaps is not nearly as clear as the first one. What is the appropriate yoga for me? Simply the one that works for me in the sense that I feel good about myself while practicing it and am able to enjoy my life as a whole when I am not formally practicing any yoga. It takes some time to develop such a yoga practice and find a teacher who is competent and sensitive enough to teach us such a highly individualized and personally empowering yoga. Otherwise, we are usually in for a lot of trouble, and not so only due to the great risks of injury, but also because we may get the whole thing wrong and reject yoga as dangerous and/or ineffective, which is so unfortunate, inaccurate and unnecessary. Krishnamacharya was fond of citing Svatmarama Yogendra’s Hathayogapradipika in this respect to warn both the teacher and the student to make sure their teaching/practicing is actually meeting the real needs, interests, desires, aspirations, abilities and changing circumstances of them both in their respective activities or involvement with yoga:
ayuktabhyasyogena sarvarogasamudbhavah (2. 16),
which translates as: “Inappropriate yoga practice can lead to all types of disease.” This indeed is a serious warning and the yoga tradition(s) abounds with them. I think we should take them pretty seriously and do our best to get our yoga right for us. The seminal work on yoga, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, gives us some useful pointers in this direction, as Carl has already pointed out:
tapahsvadhyayaishvarapranidhanani kriyayogah (2. 1),
which is, incidentally, exactly the Sutra that I have recently studied with Mark Whitwell, and he interpreted it in this way:
“Yoga practice consists in the removal of what we don’t need, self-understanding and the surrender of prana to Ishvara, of our life to the Whole of Life.” This is the classical definition of a yoga practice and it indeed is very helpful when we are trying to determine what are the components of a right practice that provide the quality of practicing that we as practitioners need in order to be able to practice our yoga: the yoga that suits us and helps us participate in Life to the best of our abilities and human potentials. We are certainly not interested in practicing someone else’s yoga, someone’s imposition on our own system and frame of mind, for yoga, if it truly deserves this name, should endow us with our innate freedom to be what we are supposed to be as individuals and unique human beings with our specific destinies of being fully alive and creative in our own way in this world. Patanjali further states the following:
tasya bhumishu viniyogah (3. 6),
which can be translated as: “Yoga practices are to be applied gradually and carefully by respecting the individual capacity for change.” And
yathabhimatadhyanadva (1. 39): “The state of yoga can be achieved by reflecting on anything that is of interest to the student.”
These two Sutras specify that each and every individual should, preferably with the help of a trustworthy and compassionate teacher, find her/his own way into yoga and her/his own expressions of Life that is moving our breath, beating our hearts and shining in our eyes. Self-reflection (dhyana) is crucial in this process, as well as in yoga and life in general. The student should make an effort, relying both on his intuition and the acquired information, to find her/himself a suitable teacher and pay close attention to what she/he is doing while practicing yoga. As for the teacher, let me quote the Yoga Rahasya of Sri Nathamuni who lived in the 9th century and was a direct ancestor and preceptor to Krishnamacharya:
yogaprayogam kurvita jnani mauni jitatmavan (1. 30),
which translates: “The teacher who is learned, reflective and disciplined should apply yoga appropriately, only after considering the time, place, age, activity and strength of the student.” In his commentary, Krishnamacharya adds that “the teacher must teach patiently and with humility, and that he must not be misled by the eagerness of the student, but teach only that which is appropriate at the time.” It might be a good idea to look for such a teacher if we want our practice of yoga to be pleasurable and fruitful, which it should be if it really is a yoga practice!
And as the last quote, allow me to dive into the book of my own yoga teacher Mark Whitwell, who in his Yoga of Heart says that “there is no ‘bad yoga’, only yoga.” For something either is or is not yoga, just as the expression “authentic” or “true” yoga” is a tautology. There is only one Yoga, the yoga that we are practicing and living, which is fully our own and right for us because it allows us to be fully human in our own unique way, and Yoga that is the organic Unity of Everything with Everything, both of which are one and the same process of Existence. And, in my experience, this Yoga is a devotional practice and the very essence of human religiousness.
So, to put in a nutshell this whole method of practicing yoga, we can say the following: through the proper application, that is the one carefully tailored to the individual, of asana (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises) and other supportive practices such as bandha (locks), mudra (seals), etc., we slowly remove all the impurities from our system (tapas), become capable of reflecting on our actions (dhyana) and develop greater self-awareness about who and what we are (svadhyaya), so that we can fully participate in the flow of Life as Life, knowing that there are things in the universe that are beyond our control and that in the quality of our actions, not in the results, lies the peaceful power and powerful peace that is our true nature (ishvarapranidhana). Besides being utterly individual, each yoga practice is always a twofold process of viyoga (disconnecting ourselves from everything that is detrimental to us) and samyoga (connecting ourselves with what is beneficial to us). The central element of self-observation, together with the yamas (moral observances) and niyamas (yogic life-style), should help us in distinguishing the two, both during and after our daily personal practice. A well meaning help from a teacher or friend either in technical matters or personal issues that we may have is usually essential in this process of getting your yoga right for you. And the yoga that is right for you is “a natural and actual discipline of pleasure done just for the sheer pleasure of it”, to paraphrase Mark Whitwell once again. The important thing is to approach yoga hesitantly, with your eyes wide open, and yet with an open mind and clear heart, so that you can find the yoga that suits you best without your blind conformity to rigid patterns and styles of yoga that the “authorities” have established through propaganda, commerce and doctrine as the only “real thing”. The quality of our practice and the quality of life that we feel yoga gives us is what really matters, not following this or that system of practicing. So, it’s the balance of all these elements that ensures the right practice for the individual: the practitioner her/himself, the teacher, the relationship and the quality of yoga that happens between them.
To conclude: in my opinion, yoga is not about crossing our limitations, it’s about getting in touch with them, being intimate with them as part of who we are. Yoga is about relaxing into what we are, easing up the effort in trying to reach our yogic and existential goals. So getting in touch with my own reality is what interests me in yoga, getting to know the complex reality of being alive in the world as a human being that has to deal with both the means and the goals, the process and the result, the way and the destination. Yoga is supposed to give us great benefits, and there is really a lot in store for us in yoga, but it is also useful to think in terms of what we can give to yoga. We can, first and foremost, give yoga our honest and passionate, devoted and dedicated effort (anusthana, sadhana or abhyasa) to learn about ourselves through yoga and do something creative about our life if we feel we are somehow or somewhat restricted without, of course, being obsessive about it. It’s all about balance and equanimity. It’s also about transformation and change, but we cannot transform into anything if we are not clear about our intentions and needs, and we cannot change if we do not know which direction to take. So yoga is primarily about making the conditions for a desired change right, not about producing, enforcing or imposing it, for it would be a violent attempt at crossing our limitations instead of knowing and respecting them. So yoga teaches us how to change naturally, how to flow with the change that is our reality, under favorable circumstances, in acceptable manner and at appropriate pace. Yoga is therefore both trying to do something about the restrictions in our lives and enjoying the peace and power that we already and utterly are. We can definitely do it through a personal and enjoyable practice of the ancient tools of yoga adequately applied to our own situation, which, in time, will help us partake of our innate freedom more fully and be the Fullness of Life that we originally are. The doing of yoga thus becomes the living of it, which opens the door to previously unknown dimensions of our existence and so turns it into a beautiful adventure and superb mystery of discovering the infinite depth of the wonder that is this Life on Earth of which we are part.