Here in Vancouver, Canucks fans are thrilled. Their team made the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 17 years. Me? I’m a sporadic and superficial sports watcher. I might half-watch Olympic events, Wimbledon finals, NCAA playoffs, Tour de France stages, hockey games. I might enjoy the drama and athleticism. But I am rather clueless about the actual sports.

Watching a hockey game, I know I’m catching only the gist, barely keeping my eye on the puck. When I moved to Canada, I had to Google “hat trick,” “penalty box,” “power play,” and “Don Cherry.” I can’t recall who won the Cup last year. Plus, I didn’t grow up skating or playing team sports. And I’ve never had to fight for my life.

Unlike those who have played hockey themselves, I am not vicariously experiencing the action. And unlike those who follow the NHL, I know nothing about the coaches or players or teams. I’m only skimming the surface.

Likewise, I am probably only vaguely experiencing pranayama (see here for Yoga Journal‘s summary of six lineages’ approaches to pranayama). I’ve irregularly practiced pranayama over the dozen-plus years that I’ve regularly practiced asana. It is a challenge for me to sit or lie still and even harder to smooth the breath and still the mind.

In Iyengar yoga, taking the physical form of pranayama is the first step. I can lie on an appropriate arrangement of blankets for supine pranayama; I can sit in supported Sukhasana or Virasana for seated pranayama. But after that the practice is very subtle. My teacher says there should be minimal effort—and no ambition—in pranayama. If you try too hard, you tighten the throat and force the breath.

So, I lie or sit there, taking the physical form and watching my inhales and exhales. I am following instructions. I’m not attracting attention or causing a stir. But inside I know that I’m only skimming the surface.

I felt similarly when I tried Zen meditation a while back. I sat on a zafu and zabuton like everyone else at the zendo. I sat for 40 minutes each time. But was my mind still? Who in the room had a still mind anyway? One’s outer form doesn’t necessarily reflect one’s inner state.

If I want to be a savvy hockey spectator, I have my work cut out for me. If I want to go deeper in pranayama, I also must work, regularly but without ambition.

Image: Halfmoon zafu and zabuton

One of my students, Anna, is debating whether to continue yoga classes this spring. The class she attends, on Mondays from 12:45-2pm, immediately follows three hours of her own work, introducing music to babies and toddlers. As a Music Together teacher, she must be “on”: engaged and animated (the under-four set won’t cut you any slack!).

She has no time to catch her breath or to gather her thoughts (or to eat a snack) before yoga. She’s also busy in her personal life, raising a young son with her husband.

While she enjoys the class and the way it pushes her physically and mentally, she’s also feeling swamped with her overall life. What should she do?

I’d love to see Anna in my class. She’s an attentive, appreciative student who would benefit from regular asana work. But I can empathize with her dilemma. Sometimes, one must take care of pending “business” before one can fully commit to yoga (or any other practice).

Finding space in your life

A decade ago, when I took a Zen Buddhist meditation course taught by Reb Anderson of Green Gulch Farm, a student asked him sitting in zazen at home. He first discussed the “logistics” (my word, not  his) of home practice.

I can’t quote him precisely, but here’s the gist:

  • You need the support of your household. If your family or partner is opposed or otherwise unsupportive of your practice, it will be difficult to find the time or the right mindset to sit.
  • You also need to manage your other priorities (work, travel, child care, pet care, domestic chores, sports, hobbies, etc) to open a space in your schedule.
  • You can’t feel rushed, guilty, or distracted when you sit. You can’t meditate if the phone keeps ringing or if you’re trying to feed your kids breakfast at the same time. A chaotic environment (whether in your environment or in your mind) is not conducive to meditation.

I find his advice apropos to my yoga practice. When my life is stable, when the sea is calm, it is relatively easy to plunge into my home practice. Class time, too, feels focused and healthy. When I’m crazed, I can feel it in my practice. I can tell by the way my mind wanders and gallops, compelling me to stop and jot notes in the midst of an asana sequence!

For me, savasana (which I discuss here) is the best barometer. I don’t even attempt savasana if my mind is too stormy. My friend Catherine says that her tadasana is affected when she’s under stress. It is harder for her to “find” her tadasana. In such pure poses, there is no hiding from the truth.

Yoga requires a regular and wholehearted effort. If you’re feeling scattered, do a focused five-minute asana rather than a lackadaisical two-hour practice. Or get your ducks in a row first.

Image: Hilary Walker, RedBubble