Athletes understand the need for conditioning. And conditioning really is at the heart of what yoga does. If you want to run a marathon, you would prepare yourself well. You can’t sit in the chair for months and then jump up and go for that run. You have to prepare the body and the mind.
What yoga has recognized for thousands of years, is that we are constantly conditioning ourselves. Yogis would say that every moment conditions us for the next moment.
The problem, especially over time, is we tend to specialize. Through all the choices of life, we find the sports we like and things we like to do, and our path tends to narrow a little. We condition ourselves in less and less broad ways. If we enjoy a sport or an activity, we might like to spend most of our free time doing it, and the body begins taking that shape. This narrow conditioning ultimately leaves us a little less free than we might be. If we are a biker or a runner, the hamstrings might get tight so we lose the freedom to be able to touch the ground easily. Similarly, if we love competitive sports we might inadvertently condition ourselves to be competitive at all times. We lose freedom and we might get channeled into less optimal choices because our range of motion is limited.
Here’s a little trick: lay your hand, palm up, on the table and note the shape of it when it is relaxed. Now make a fist and hold this fist tightly. We are conditioning the hand. After about thirty seconds, relax your hand but don’t stretch it out. What you will see is it does not relax back to its original position. This shows you that when you contract a muscle and then relax the contraction, the muscle stays shorter. Now, stretch your hand out and relax it. It goes back to its original shape. Now you can see if you go out for a run and then just sit down and get back to regular life without doing anything to stretch the contracted muscles, they are going to shorten.
We use yoga asana to cleanse the body, using movement to recondition it to a healthy, neutral state. Yoga cleanses the busy mind through stillness. In our yoga practice we do these two things together; we use the work of the body to focus the mind. We cleanse the mind by not letting it think about this and that, but making it notice sensation, from moment to moment. As the mind focuses it begins to participate deliberately in the choices the body makes on how to do things. Through this reflection, we can pull apart some our body’s habits in order to develop healthier habits. We don’t practice asana while we watch tv or read. Even music might be a distraction to our efforts to condition the mind and body to work together. In this way, yogis can become stronger while maintaining flexibility and range of motion.
We maintain the proper attitude by focusing on the three acts of yoga. Tapas, Svadyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana. Effort, reflection, and surrender or devotion. It’s nice to ultimately know the Sanskrit, because the meanings are a little bit different than what we associate with the words in English. Tapas, effort, is the easiest thing. That’s why it is at the beginning. With beginning students, I don’t exhort them to “relax” or “release” because that won’t do any good. I am going to ask them to make an effort. Once there is effort, we can practice Svadyaya, self-study, reflecting on the results of the effort. Frequently, we don’t know what the right thing to do is. We take a stab at it and then we reflect on the results to see if our action carried us in the direction we wanted to go. There is this constant back and forth between effort - reflection, effort - reflection. And this is all occurs in a context of surrender or devotion. Ishvara Pranidhana means literally surrender to God. The word God here is Ishvara. That’s not a deity. Ishvara can be translated as the fabric of life. Surrender is the recognition that ultimately we are not in control. We didn’t chose to put ourselves here on earth; we probably won’t chose the moment we leave. A lot just happens to us and we are at the mercy of our circumstances.
Yoga asks us to remember that always, so we can keep our attention where it can do some good -- through the quality of our effort and the quality of our reflection on effort. This is the philosophical background for the practical, physical work of our yoga practice, how we condition the self to build strength -- physical, mental and emotional -- as we maintain freedom and full range of motion.