Posted by: Bruce Black | November 1, 2015

Firm Roots

“The practice of yoga will be firmly rooted when it is maintained consistently and with dedication over a long period.” – from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

I love the image of a tree that Patanjali paints with a single word: rooted.

And I love how he suggests our practice is like a tree, rooted deeply into the earth, expanding toward the sky, bending with the wind, swaying, dancing, celebrating the miracle of our bodies, the joy of life, the mystery of the divine.

But what does it mean to be firmly rooted?

Perhaps it means feeling not just that our roots are planted in the earth, but that they are held in the earth’s embrace in such a way that they form a strong foundation for our practice and our life.

How would you describe the “roots” of your practice?

What might you “plant” into the earth to gain stability, firmness, confidence?

My teachers often invite us to plant our feet in class so that we feel rooted to the earth. It is a very physical action requiring us to use our bodies in a certain way.

But might the roots of practice be something unrelated to our bodies or to physical action?

Roots might mean, as Patanjali suggests, something more abstract, such as our willingness to dedicate ourselves to our practice.

Or roots might mean love, as in how much do you love stepping onto your mat?

Or faith, as in how much faith do you have that you can enter into an unfamiliar or challenging pose?

So, you might think about love and faith and dedication as possible roots for your practice.

Or you might think about determination, too, as another root.

That’s because if you have no determination to persist when a pose gets hard, you’ll give up your practice.

The deeper our roots, the deeper our commitment to yoga.

Patanjali offers two ways to establish deep roots.

First, he advises us to maintain a consistent practice.

Not just an oh-I-happen-to-feel-like-doing-yoga practice, although that might be a way to start, but, rather, a consistent way of coming to the mat. Once a week, perhaps, in class. Or twice a week in a home practice. Or three times a week after work or before breakfast.

If you create consistency in your practice, you’ll be able to watch how your roots grow and how your commitment to your yoga practice deepens.

Patanjali also suggests maintaining your dedication to the practice for a long period of time.

I find this helpful to remember, especially after a discouraging class when I’ve had trouble in a particular pose, or the next day when I feel especially sore or tired. He reminds us that we can’t judge the worth of our practice in a day or after a single class.

For those of us practicing yoga for a while, Patanjali reminds us that we didn’t come to our understanding of yoga in a week or month. It has taken many years for most of us to begin to understand the benefits of the poses. Likewise, it has taken time to admit what we don’t yet know about yoga or about ourselves. Our strengths and our weaknesses are revealed over time, just as over time our poses reveal the fears that we need to overcome.

In this fourteenth sutra, Patanjali offers us a guide to deepening our practice so that it can sustain us when the strong winds of life threaten to sweep us off our feet.

With firmly planted roots, we can keep our balance in our practice and in our lives.

Practice Journal: Do you practice yoga with consistency? How does that consistency influence your sense of feeling deeply rooted in your practice? Write: 10 min.

Note: “The practice of yoga will be firmly rooted when it is maintained consistently and with dedication over a long period.” – from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer (Bell Tower, New York, NY).

Posted by: Bruce Black | October 1, 2015

The Practice of Yoga

“The practice of yoga is the commitment to become established in the state of freedom.” – from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

What strikes you about this statement, the thirteenth sutra, as significant?

Is it the word order? Is it the explicit offering of a goal? Is it the strong suggestion of a cause-and-effect relationship?

Three words in the sentence echo in my mind: “practice,” “commitment,” “freedom.”

These three words epitomize my understanding of yoga and why I find the practice of yoga so compelling.

Yoga is, indeed, a practice, which, in my mind, suggests being willing on a regular basis to try different poses, to experiment with different ways of seeing the pose and oneself in the pose, and to be willing to lose one’s balance and fall out of a pose and stand up and try again.

Practice means being willing to take risks and make mistakes. It means not only being able to learn from one’s mistakes, but also being able to learn in a way that allows you to keep practicing.

The first time you kick into a handstand, you might be able to lift your feet over your head without effort. That’s great. But most of us need to practice many times before we can find the balance, strength, and confidence to kick up into the pose.

So, for weeks or months or years, we might practice handstand by placing our hands at the base of a wall and slowly lifting one leg, then the other, not even trying to kick one leg up against the wall.

Or we might learn first how to deal with our fear of being upside down, or with our weak shoulder muscles, or with our lack of trust in our bodies to support us.

Practice, in this light, is essential to one’s growth on the mat, just as commitment is what brings us back to our mat again and again.

Our commitment helps us return to explore our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, our sense of inadequacy, and our assumptions about life. It gives us a chance to learn how to deal with our limitations in a new way.

Our commitment, according to Patanjali, is our practice. And it’s this commitment to practice that lets us find a sense of freedom.

Freedom isn’t simply an abstract word in this context. It’s a concrete state of being, a state in which we can enjoy the freedom of being ourselves… if we care for our bodies and commit ourselves to the practice of yoga.

Patanjali refers to a ‘state of freedom’ rather than simply to ‘freedom.’ Why might he do this? How does practice lead to this state of freedom?

Is he suggesting that a state of freedom is more permanent?

Or is he saying that you can arrive in such a state only by committing yourself to your practice?

Practice Journal: How would you interpret the three words—“practice,” “commitment,” and “freedom”—and link them together to help you better understand your own yoga practice?

Note: “The practice of yoga is the commitment to become established in the state of freedom.” from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer (Bell Tower, New York, NY).

Posted by: Bruce Black | September 1, 2015

“Five types of mental activity…”

“There are five types of mental activity. They may or may not cause suffering.” — from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

When I first read these two sentences, which form the fifth line of The Yoga Sutras, I was surprised since it’s the first time that I’ve heard the word “suffering” mentioned in relationship to yoga.

The other surprise, as I continued reading (lines 6 – 12), came from Patanjali’s assumption that there are five types of mental activity: understanding; misunderstanding; imagination; sleep; and memory.

And I can’t help wondering why Patanjali divides mental activity into these five categories rather than into, say, any other categories.

Perhaps if we look at his definitions of each category, we’ll have a better understanding of what Patanjali means to say.

“Understanding is correct knowledge,” suggests Patanjali (in line 7), “based on direct perception, inference, or the reliable testimony of others.”

“Misunderstanding is the delusion,” he suggests (in line 8), “that stems from a false impression of reality.”

“Imagination,” as Patanjali defines it (in line 9), “is thought based on an image conjured up by words, and is without substance.”

“Sleep is the mental activity,” writes Patanjali (in line 10), “that has at its content the sense of nothingness.”

And, memory, we learn (in line 11), “is the returning to the mind of past experience.”

In summing up these mental states (in line 12), Patanjali tells us “These five types of mental activity are settled through the practice of yoga and the freedom it bestows.”

What these categories of mental activity illustrate, I suspect, is how our thoughts—our ways of thinking—can take us out of the present moment, distorting our view of the moment so that we might miss it.

Each category of mental activity, then, becomes Patanjali’s way of offering us a window into a deeper understanding of our relationship to the present. Yoga is the key to a settled mind and to freedom (from misunderstanding).

Understanding refers, I think, to understanding the present moment…and who we are in this moment. In order to understand ourselves and the world fully, we need to use our mental abilities, as well as inferences from what we see, hear, taste, feel, etc., and sometimes we need to rely on the reliable testimony of others about the world to gain a clearer picture of where we are and who we are in this moment.

Misunderstanding is a crucial mistake that we can make that distorts our understanding of the world and this moment. Hence, misunderstanding leads to delusion, as Patanjali warns, because we end up basing our decisions, our understanding of the present moment, on a false picture of reality.

Using our imagination to help us understand the world is almost as dangerous as misunderstanding the world, according to Patanjali, because imagination is based not on reality itself but on words or images that represent reality. This discrepancy between words and reality can lead us away from, rather than toward, a clearer picture of the moment.

Sleep is not helpful either in terms of understanding; it’s a kind of neutral zone, a nothingness in which our senses and thoughts are removed from reality.

And memory is returning the mind to past experience which means, according to Patanjali, that we are not seeing or experiencing the present, only the past, and, hence, missing out on this moment right now.

In the end, I find these categories helpful. With them, Patanjali shows us how our thoughts can take us out of the present or draw us deeper into the fullness of this moment.

And isn’t the fullness of each moment where our yoga practice can take us if we slow down and notice our mental activity in each pose?

Practice Journal: How does understanding a pose help deepen your experience of it? And how does misunderstanding a pose lead to distortion and delusion (and possible physical injury)? Have you ever relied on your imagination to escape a pose? Have you ever lost yourself in a memory to avoid a painful position? Write: 10 min.

(“Five types of mental activity…” and lines 6 – 12, from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY. 1982).

Posted by: Bruce Black | August 1, 2015

“Our essential nature…”

“Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.”

These words form the fourth statement in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and I find them disturbing.


I find it odd to suggest that the activity of the mind—the act of thinking—hides our essential nature from view.

Isn’t thinking what gives us the chance to make choices, to decide how we want to live our life, to determine our destiny? Don’t our thoughts help us form the words with which we need to communicate and function in the world?

How could we care for ourselves, bathe, cook, clean, write, read, or do anything else, without the intelligence—the activity of the mind—to figure out what needs to be done, and to do it?

Even on our mats, we need to think, don’t we?

Are our bodies in proper alignment? Am I pushing too hard or not hard enough? Am I standing too close to my neighbor? Will the wall interfere with my Half-Moon pose?

In this light, thinking appears to be the very thing that illuminates our essential nature and lets us see our humanity more clearly.How, then, can Patanjali suggest that, no, thinking does just the opposite, and, according to the sutra, overshadows our essential nature?

Well, perhaps he is pointing out that there are different kinds of thought, different ways of thinking?

And perhaps he is suggesting that certain ways of thinking—thoughts that are filled with fear or anger or despair—may, in fact, cloud one’s vision and keep one from viewing one’s essential nature?

Or perhaps it’s simply the act of thinking itself, the act of being in our head rather than in our body, that is suggested here as an act that takes us out of the moment.

If we are thinking about the moment, we cannot be in the moment. Our thoughts about the moment take us instantly outside the moment.

In this way, the activity of the mind can overshadow the essential nature of life. Fear, anger, distrust, confusion, all these things can pull us away from the moment.

Think about it: if you are fearful of stepping into headstand, you will have trouble seeing the pose and yourself attempting to do the pose. Instead you will see the cloud (your fear) rather than the pose.

If you are anxious about balancing in Tree Pose, you may find anxiety acts the same as fear and transforms how you perceive the world and your pose, as well as how you see yourself in the world and in your pose.

In this way, thinking about something—whether positive or negative thoughts—does have the power to distort, to overshadow the experience.

We can experience life, but what we end up experiencing are our thoughts about life rather than life itself.

To experience life itself, according to Panjali, we need to settle into stillness.

We need to learn how to let go of anxiety, fear, guilt, worries, distress.

This is how yoga helps us experience life in its fullness. Our asana practice of movement in our body lets us move past our thoughts to the unspoken, inarticulate essence of our nature.

Practice Journal: How does your yoga practice help you cast aside the shadows usually hiding your essential nature from view? How does it help you reduce the activity of the mind so it’s not distracting you?

Note: “Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.” from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY, 1982.

Posted by: Bruce Black | July 1, 2015

“Unbounded Consciousness”

“When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness.”

This is the third line in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and it’s both comforting and puzzling.

When I practice yoga, I practice to learn more about my essential nature — not just my essential nature but the essential nature of being human.

So, some of the questions that I bring to the mat include “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to be this particular person in this particular body at this particular time in this particular place in time?”

And I find it comforting — and one of the reasons why I continue my practice — when my asana practice reveals the answers to these questions.

But there’s a difference between discovering our “essential nature” and reaching a state of “unbounded consciousness.”

That’s the puzzling part of the statement.

I’m not even sure what “unbounded consciousness” means.

When I think about our “essential nature,” I think of qualities of the heart — qualities like kindness and generosity and confidence and faith—which form the essence of being a human being.

And I’m always grateful for a practice that helps me notice when these qualities are present in my heart and when they are absent.

But when I think about “unbounded consciousness,” I come up blank. It’s such an abstract thought, so amorphous, so open-ended. And yet the open-endedness of the statement implies freedom.

Only here’s the next question: what does freedom have to do with our essential nature?

Perhaps part of the answer is that “unbounded consciousness” also implies that life has certain constraints, certain boundaries, certain limits or limitations, and that yoga can help us discover how to free ourselves of such constraints and limits.

There’s an interesting link inherent in the statement between the constraints of the body and the freedom of the mind.

Indeed, the statement suggests our essential nature is unbounded, pure consciousness. Pure thought.

What might keep us from being in touch with our essential nature? An unsettled mind.

After practicing yoga for more than a decade, though, I have to admit that my mind is rarely settled. I’ve noticed a handful of times when my thoughts have quieted into silence. But, for the most part, the space inside my brain is pretty noisy and unsettled.

If I do experience something that might be called “silence” or “settling,” it’s the “sleep” that I experience unexpectedly in Savasana at the end of class.

But is “sleep” what’s meant by “unbounded consciousness?”

I have the sense that “unbounded consciousness” implies something more … a consciousness that may resemble sleep, perhaps, but which lets us notice our thoughts while we lie quietly in a meditative state.

Perhaps it’s that state during or after our asana practice when we can feel ourselves connected to the divine source of energy that is constantly creating and re-creating the universe. Or perhaps it’s during those moments of life when we feel at one with our self and those in our life and everyone who we’ve ever come in contact with.

Whatever “unbounded consciousness” may mean, it isn’t easy to settle one’s mind or get in touch with our “essential nature.”

What yoga offers us is a path past the whirl and bustle of our lives. It’s a path that leads to a different world, a world where we can settle into the mysterious essence of who we are.

Practice Journal: What exactly does “essential nature” mean? And how does settling our mind lead us to it? And how is that nature linked to a state of “unbounded consciousness”? These are the questions that I’ll be asking the next time that I step on my mat. What about you—what questions will you ask the next time you practice yoga? Write: 10 min.

Note: “When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness.” from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY (1982).

Posted by: Bruce Black | June 1, 2015

“Settling the Mind…”

“Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.”

This is the second line in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and it’s both mysterious and profound.

What makes it so profound is its assumption that the mind has the ability to settle into silence, that we have the ability to quiet our thoughts rather than let them run wild through our minds.

And what makes it so mysterious is how the process works, how yoga can help us find a way to settle our minds and discover a silent space within ourselves where we can experience the joy of peace and contentment.

I find interesting, too, how the statement points out that yoga is the settling of the mind. Yoga is not struggling to settle the mind, nor is it trying to settle the mind. It is the process of settling the mind.

That’s a fairly expansive definition of yoga, isn’t it? It suggests that yoga is anything that helps you settle the mind into silence.

The yoga poses—the asanas—that we spend time learning in class, and which we work to refine day after day, are part of this process of settling the mind, of coming to a place of peacefulness and contentment.

But yoga is more than asanas, if I understand the statement correctly.

It is breathing deeply… if breathing helps settle the mind.

Or meditation… if meditating helps settle the mind.

Or running or bicycle riding or swimming or dancing or, or, or… whatever helps settle the mind.

Would sipping a cup of warm tea constitute a yoga practice? Yes… if sipping tea helps settle the mind.

What I love about thinking of yoga in this light is that yoga can happen anywhere–on our mat or off our mat–at any time of day, at any moment of our lives.

It can happen when we’re showering or eating breakfast or driving our cars or walking to work.

It can happen while we’re hugging a friend or kissing a grandparent or making love to our partner, or while we’re gardening or cleaning the bathroom or doing the laundry or writing in our journals.

Our lives are full of opportunities to practice yoga.

Practice Journal: What is yoga? How would you define your yoga practice after thinking about the implications of the words “Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.” What causes your mind to race with thoughts? What causes your mind to settle into silence? When do you feel most at peace and most content? Write: 10 min.

Note:  “Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.” from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY (1982).

Posted by: Bruce Black | May 1, 2015

Puzzling Out Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

“And now the teaching of yoga begins.” 

These words form the opening line of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the ancient collection of aphorisms compiled around 400 CE, which I’m reading for the first time in the hope of gaining a better understanding of yoga and my practice.

As an introductory line, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? The words invite the reader and yogi into the tradition of learning that is at the heart of yoga practice.

To learn yoga, the words imply, you must be willing to adopt the attitude of the student. You must cultivate a perspective of curiosity and a willingness to be open to new ideas, new ways of seeing the world.

And you must be willing, as well, to take risks based on what you learn, to test the evidence in your own way, and to trust your inner teacher as you listen and learn from an experienced teacher.

The words imply that you must become a student.

And to be a student, the words suggest, you must find a teacher.

The words suggest, as well, that at the heart of yoga is this relationship between student and teacher, and that learning yoga isn’t done alone or in isolation but rather as part of a community of students who take the time and make the effort to study with a teacher.

What qualities should you look for in a teacher?

The words don’t suggest specific qualities. They simply invite you to welcome the teachings into your life.

In order to learn yoga, this opening line suggests, you’ll need to find a teacher.

Sometimes you can find a teacher nearby, sometimes far away.

Sometimes your teacher speaks in a language that you can understand, sometimes in a language that you need translated in order to understand.

Each time I open the pages of The Yoga Sutras in the weeks and months ahead, Patanjali will be my teacher.

Perhaps he will become your teacher, too?

Practice Journal: As you step onto your mat, think about these words: “And now the teaching of yoga begins.” What do these words mean to you? Can you remember what your first yoga teacher taught you? Do you recall how he or she began your class? Can you describe how having a teacher has made a difference in your practice and your life? Write: 10 min.

Note:And now the teaching of yoga begins.” from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY (1982).

Posted by: Bruce Black | April 1, 2015

Cracking Open Your Heart

Over time I’ve noticed how my heart often wants to withdraw behind a thick shell.

When expectations are dashed or hopes crushed, or when I suffer a bruise from a relationship or a deeper hurt, my heart seeks safety behind a shell that only gets thicker with each perceived injury.

I might be talking to someone and feel slighted or not heard, or a long-held dream might come crashing down, or my efforts on a project, despite long hours and hard work, might meet with disappointment (or, worse, failure), and I’ll watch as my heart retreats into its shell.

It was my yoga practice that made me aware of this thickening shell, this impulse to withdraw, this process of seeking protection behind a wall whenever I felt threatened or vulnerable.

To be vulnerable, after all, is to be exposed, and to be exposed is dangerous because the more you are exposed, the more open you are as you meet the world, and the more open you are, the easier it is for someone—or something—to pierce your heart and leave you wounded and in pain.

And so I learned over the years to build a shell, a wall, a barrier in the hope that I could block the pain and keep it at bay.

But my yoga practice reminds me that life consists of pleasure and pain, and that trying to build a wall to keep frustration, disappointment, and pain at bay is futile.

Our yoga practice is designed to help us embrace life—all of life, not just the parts that give us pleasure but the parts that are frustrating, disappointing, and painful, too.

It reminds us that life is to be lived not behind a wall but with a heart that is open, soft, accepting, nonjudgmental, and vulnerable.

If we are diligent in our yoga practice, we can develop the physical and emotional strength that we need to crack open the thick shell that we build around our hearts each time we feel we are hurt.

Yoga teaches us how to pay close attention to our bodies, how to notice when we feel tense and uncomfortable, and how to stay with these feelings rather than run away from them.

Each time we attempt a pose too challenging for our skill level, we learn simultaneously how to face the pose and how to face a challenge in our life that may be beyond what we imagine we can deal with.

Each time we confront our fears in a difficult pose, we learn simultaneously how to face the fears that keep us from living fully, from reaching out in unfamiliar directions, from pursuing uncharted paths, just as it is fear of falling (and failing) that may keep us from finding our balance in Headstand or Tree Pose.

Yoga teaches us to stay with discomfort so we can explore a pose rather than fear it. Each time we enter a new pose, we are given an opportunity to notice how it feels to step into the pose. (And we can give ourselves permission to try the pose again and again until we learn what we need to learn to stay in the pose a little longer.)

It’s this act of exploration—whether we’re exploring the pose itself or our fear of the pose—that lets us move beyond our fear of failure, of falling out of the pose, of being vulnerable or exposed to others.

Each time we step on our mats, we are given the chance to crack open the shell around our hearts a little wider and let in a little more light, more faith, more confidence, and more love than the time before.

Practice Journal: How does your yoga practice help you crack open your heart? Can you list one or two experiences that may have caused you to build a shell around your heart? And can you describe how yoga has helped you crack open the shell so that you can live fully in each moment? Write: 10 min

Posted by: Bruce Black | March 1, 2015

Restoring Balance

I don’t know about you, but I look forward to my yoga practice as a way of quieting my thoughts and finding a sense of calmness in a world that never seems to stop running.

Slowing down on my mat helps restore the balance that I try to maintain in my life, and helps me put aside the worries and anxieties that accompany an endless stream of text messages, e-mails, and phone calls during my day.

The moment that I step on my mat and lie on my back, reclining in order to flex my ankles and windshield wiper my legs, I can feel my body letting go of stress. With each movement, my mind shifts, my thoughts slow, my pulse lets go of tension.

Often, I find myself counting softly as a way of being mindful of my breath. The simple act of counting helps synchronize the movements of my body with the movement of my breath, and I can follow the inhale and exhale of my breath with a kind of mindfulness that is often missing at other times of the day.

If I remember to return to my breath, to stay in the moment of that breath’s inhalation and exhalation, I notice how the world around me slows down even more, just as the world within my mind slows down.

And if I learn to slow down in my poses, to breathe in and into each pose, I can begin to hear my body speaking. I can hear it telling me where I feel tight or constricted, vulnerable, exposed. I can feel the pain in my knee or hip or wrist, and adjust my poses so that I don’t do further harm to that part of my body.

One day I might hear my muscles whispering “Give us a rest!” while on another day I might hear them shouting “We need more stretches!” Slowing down gives me an opportunity to listen to these voices, to what my body needs. Often, slowing down reveals the way that I need to go in my practice.

Slowing down can mean no longer needing to push so hard to improve myself or strive to become a better yogi. It can mean simply shifting my practice to a gentler form, a practice that doesn’t demand anything more than being in the moment.

Over the past few weeks, since I started attending an inspiring Yin Yoga class at Yoga Libre in Sarasota, I’ve thought often about the benefits of slowing down. On the first night of class, my teacher, Nancy, suggested that the class was about “learning not to strive,” and her insight struck a deep chord into how I might practice yoga whenever I step onto my mat.

Now, as I move into a pose, I try to notice the different muscles that help me enter and stay in the pose. I may not know the names of the muscles, but I can feel them working. I can feel the parts of my body that come into play when we stretch out in Restored Bound Angle (Supta Baddha Konasana), for instance, or lean forward in Forward Seated Bend (Paschimottanasana).

There’s a rhythm to my practice. And I can feel that rhythm not only within each class or session, but within my life, too.

Some days, I might need an energetic and demanding practice that challenges me to go fast, build strength, gain stamina.

But other days, I might need the opposite—a calming, less active practice, or a class that challenges me to slow down, develop patience, accept my thoughts as they arise and learn to let them go in the same way that I let go of each breath.

What kind of practice I create for myself depends on my needs in the moment. It also depends on my ability to listen closely to what my body asks of me.

Today I hear it asking these questions: Can you practice without striving? Can you accept yourself as you are in this moment?

Practice Journal: How do you restore balance in your life when you feel it’s spinning out of control? Are you able to slow down? What questions is your body asking you? Can you accept yourself as you are? Write: 10 min.

Posted by: Bruce Black | February 1, 2015

What We Take For Granted

Our yoga class begins the way it always begins with our teacher inviting us to kneel in Table Pose on all fours.

Gently, we breathe in and release our breath, our spines unfolding upward, rounding toward the ceiling, and then dropping down again so that our bellies reach toward the floor.

Ordinarily, these basic poses–Cat and Dog Tilts–provide gentle stretches for the spine, but this morning these poses prove painful because of a sharp twinge that I feel on the outside of my left knee.

The simple act of kneeling feels like I’m pressing my knee into a sharp tack rather than into a soft foam mat. The pain shoots up the left side of my knee so that I have to come out of the pose.

Until this moment, I’ve never given much thought to what’s required to kneel in the pose. Indeed, I’ve taken my knees—and the simple act of kneeling itself—for granted.

Why is it, I wonder, that it often takes the loss of something–something that we usually consider “ordinary” and hardly ever notice–to remind us of what we take for granted?

Loss is only one way for us to become mindful of what we take for granted.

Our yoga practice can also help us discover a new, more mindful perspective of what seems “ordinary” in our lives.

Each pose can help us see time unfolding as a succession of moments, each moment connected to the moment before it and the moment after it.

It’s rare that we see time this way, however. Too often on our mats and in our lives we focus on a goal–a certain number of Sun Salutes, say, or reaching for our toes in Uttanasana (Intense Forward Bend), or staying in Plank for a minute or longer.

Focusing on such goals means there is something in the future that we want to achieve, some far-off destination that we want to reach, or some plan that we are hoping to complete.

We end up focusing on any place but the one where we happen to be right now.

We worry about the past, about what we might have done differently.

We worry about what we should have done.

We are unable to see life unfolding moment-to-moment in front of our eyes.

We end up missing these moments, this moment.

If we use our practice to help us become more mindful of each moment, though, we can learn to see each pose as a sequence of events, or, rather, as a succession of moments.

When seen from this angle or perspective, the final form of the pose doesn’t really matter.

What’s important is not if we can lift our bodies off the mat into Upward-Facing Bow, or whether we have trouble raising our leg to mid-thigh to balance in Tree Pose.

What’s important are the steps that we take along the way which let us move into these poses.

“There is no arriving,” my teacher, Jaye Martin, likes to remind us, “only practice, practice, and more practice.”

How can we avoid the the trap of thinking that the pose itself is the goal, of taking for granted the steps that move us into and then out of the pose?

We can avoid the trap by becoming more mindful, more self-aware, qualities that the process of yoga can bring to our lives if we let it.

In the process of practicing yoga–taking the incremental steps that make up our poses, each step leading to the next–we are able to discover yoga.

And in discovering yoga, we are able to discover what we may have once taken for granted: the power of this one “ordinary” moment.

Practice Journal: Do you take anything–or anyone–in your life or in your yoga practice for granted? Spend a few minutes making a list–it can be as long or as short a list as you’d like to make it–and then write down the things that you may overlook as “ordinary” in your practice and in your life. Write: 10 min.

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