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Feeling as Method in the Practice of Yoga, Peter Thomson

This is an edited version of a talk given by Peter Thomson at the IYISF in November 2014.
Welcome, many of you have been doing the workshop this weekend so some of you have been "inducted" so to speak and some of you have not. But just in broad terms, I would say I am a yoga teacher, rather than a lecturer and when I am teaching, people say they can’t shut me up and when I am giving a lecture, I have probably nothing to say! My topic is “Feeling as Method in the Practice of Yoga”. I chose the topic so I only have got myself to blame! However it is subject of some importance to me so I should give it a go.

I should say really that at some point in the practice and teaching of yoga I started to see asana more as energetic structures or an architecture of energetic or connected relationships. Really this process started for me with the backbend intensive that Guruji taught in 1990. During this intensive he used the notion of a "dome shape" to explain the underlying energetic structure of a backbend and as I worked with this more and more over the years it became clear that really the notion of asana as energetic structures applied to all asanas and not just to backbending. I think this was very much Guruji's point that in teaching backbending he was also teaching all asanas or, in other words, the practice of yoga as a whole. I think also that in the intensive he laid down a methodology, a way in which the "dome shape", asanas as energetic shapes, could be constructed in a progressive coherent way. At another time Guruji said very clearly and emphatically in the hall at RIMYI "all actions must synchronise" which really parallels an understanding built into the dome shape.

As I worked with the "dome shape" over the years however it became clear to me that that structure was not simply a result of flicking a switch and "all actions synchronise". It was not random or chaotic or "higgeldy/piggledy". Rather it was the product of, and it demanded, a coherent method; an understanding of where to commence an orderly and systematic progression from a starting point and following a certain logic. "All actions must synchronise" also implies that action must build on action. It must be a creative process. It can't be that one action is at the expense of, or displaces another action, which is the case in what Guruji would call "motion" or movement. Asana cannot be movement or motion-based. That also means it can't be prescriptive or driven by an end outcome. It has to reflect the circumstances peculiar to it. It's a method rather than an answer. A method of inquiry, of investigation, of construction. The end result needs to reflect that internal process.

This process, this fall-out if you like, from the backbend intensive triggered a whole series of questions for me, really questions around method or methodology. Where do we start? How do we proceed? How do we know how to proceed? Or, put another way, why? What are our references? What are our references for knowing, for studying, for learning, for understanding? How do we know what we know? How do we test or verify our knowing?

These questions have been central to my practice since that intensive in 1990. These days I tend to see asana very much as like a language, a form of communication, akin say to music, articulated through feeling or sensation in the body and I'm interested in the way that language is ordered and constructed. I feel this language captures and expresses important aspects of the human experience again analagous to music but more importantly perhaps from a practitioner's point of view, it can function to train our ear, inculcating in us a sensitivity to, and a relationship with different aspects of what it is to be a human being. And I think it does come to a point, to some extent, where individual asanas hold in themselves a particular emphasis, a particular sensibility of flavour or a set of values in relation to our humanity. Our practice immerses us in those sensibilities allowing us to become attuned to them, often perhaps on a subliminal or subconscious level and our intuition is developed and refined.

I was talking about this in class today, say a particular asana, say in urdhva hastasana, standing with the arms up, which is more and more, the teaching of it becomes associated for me, with some kind of expression of willingness certainly, a willingness to give, to give of ourselves, so like an expression of generosity and also a way of developing generosity of spirit– for urdhva hastasana to come through, your energy needs to be given generously, without reservation. And you are doing this repeatedly in a practice; it cannot but have some effect. And also you take this into different cultures, arms up! Arms up in Japanese culture - Banzai! And you do this arms up! Arms up! Urhdva hasatana! Urdhva Hastasana! – what happens? And so then maybe when you are working with a class and resistance is there, and maybe they are not particularly enthusiastic and maybe as a teacher, you are not at your best, things are not going too well, the energy is going down and what to do? And sometimes what to do is urdhva hastasana. And 10x urdhva hasatasana, 20x urdhva hastasana and the culture changes and maybe you have got something to work off – which is quite important as a teacher because you may be working with other stuff in the practice and it is more than they can deal with comfortably and maybe the weight is coming on and the mood is sinking. When you know that you have got urdhva hastasana up your sleeve, it means you have got something that can save you as a teacher! And that means, I know I’ve got that up my sleeve, and so I stay with this process I'm engaged in a bit longer and see if I can turn things around from within what I am working with instead of having to play it quite so safe

I talk often say about sirasana (headstand) which is particularly a pose of self actualization perhaps, a pose of great responsibility and also of great personal empowerment and I remember starting off a new school some years back and just at the time actually between finishing off my old school and starting my new school, I fell off a mountain bike and busted up my shoulder and eventually had to have a major shoulder reconstruction – which I have to say was only in 2002 and where are we now… 2014, and here we are, 12 years later, I can do this urdhva hastasana like this! I haven’t been back to my specialist but I keep thinking I must send him a photo and I am sure he will be impressed and maybe surprised. But what happened in that process was that I had just started a new school, and I had a new student body, a new group of teachers and I was required to be the leader of this group and drive this group but I had no sirasana. That was like, wow, I have got my arms tied behind my back and I have to do this thing, I had no sirasana and that really brought home to me its importance.

I missed sirsasana so much at that time, both in terms of what you have to lead with but also what you have in you to drive your student body. You are carrying somewhat these things in yourself and sirasana is part of the way in which you regenerate yourself for the next day and for the next process. That not being there, it was difficult. And can I say it is not something to do with some posture that you do or some position that you take, like I should behave like this or I should behave like that. If your headstand is there, you are that, and something changes. If your headstand is not there, you are not there. And how do you correct that? You can’t fake it, it is just not there and you are having to live with its absence. Its like we can't really teach in a dynamic, creative way (which teaching really needs to be to sustain itself) if we don't have a practice behind that, a dynamic, creative, invested practice. This is what interests me in relation to practice is how it trains in us and how it conditions in us on a level which is not particularly around something we can fake or manage or contrive or manufacture. But how practice conditions in us on a level of our subconscious, on a subliminal level if you like, on a level of intuitive understanding and somehow we get access to something which is surprising even to us. I play with this a lot with animals because with animals, it is quite easy to get this language working with them because it feels to me like this language of asana is like a language that they are already in and they respond to it so strongly. They don't get caught up in the sort of things that we are caught up in and distracted by. With animals you can play these games of posture and you can talk this yoga language and they just respond. You can play safety or kindness with them and you can play interest with them and you can see, their response is very direct, it is in their posture, it is in their body language, it is in their asana. They start to talk asana back to you.

So, I became very interested then in asana as this kind of intuitive language where yoga is a way of developing some kind of facility or some kind of fluency in an intuitive language and how to train that language; a language of consciousness if you like, a language of mind. It's a language which we really cannot think our way into, but we canpractice our way into it. But really we have got to be in a place where the practice can train its way into us. Of course we have to practice! But we don't know really, how it is going to train it in us, the order it is going to be, we can’t manage the syllabus, we can't manage the developmental progression, we can’t say I want this and I don’t want that, we are just in it, we are in a stream, and we keep working with it and things change and we don't know what is going to change, when it is going to change, what’s going to happen next. We are just in a process and things are delivered to us. So I am very much interested in that, and also as a teacher, I am interested in all the ways in which we get in the way of that process and the way that we are not able to align ourselves with it, and how we can allow ourselves to align better with it. And I am also interested in the way that this understanding exists but it exists in the way that we are wired for it, particularly through our nervous system, and we may not be able to control it, but there may still be a way in which we can apply ourselves, and we can apply ourselves to the study of it, in a way that supports the development of that kind of understanding, that kind of training.

Is this getting too esoteric for you?

I actually really think that one of the things that asana does, is it configures feeling in our system. Every asana is a configuration of feeling, sort of like embedded or imprinted into the nervous system. And we are following those feeling channels, these song-lines if you like. What I am talking about with method is really the way of organizing according to the organization, or construction, the order of construction which is built into the asana itself. So asana organizes in a particular structure, feeling, and in following that feeling, we allow the asana to imprint itself into our nervous system, according to the particular structure of the asana itself. I mean … I am just making this up, but I am making it up out of what I understand out of my practice. But this understanding through my practice really comes out of a whole lot of work with my teacher and a whole lot of work with what he would (I think) call intelligent action, action in asana, which is the application of mind to create and follow feeling and basically so therefore energy in the nervous system, according to the structure of the asana we are working with.

So I think really, the practice of asana conditions the nervous system according to a structure of energy. I don't know what is built into the nervous system but whatever that energetic electrical structure is in the nervous system, that becomes the way the asana structures our nervous system. And we do the asana again and again and again and each time we are going into that, we are arriving in that particular construction – a forward bend, a backbend for example. An inverted asana like sirasana has a very different structure in practice say to an inverted asana like sarvangasana, how the headstand wires us and how the shoulderstand wires us in terms of the nervous system. There are differences between the two but also a complementarity and a reinforcement that exists. These are the cross relationships that exists say between say sirsasana and sarvangasana. But in relation to the practice, how much the practice needs all the different elements, not just sirasana and sarvangasana but all the different elements, the comprehensiveness of a yoga practice. How it needs the shoulderstand, how it needs the sensitization, how it needs the opening and to a certain extent the dismantling of our resistance, and of our defensiveness that shoulderstand delivers us into, whether we like it or not and we keep doing it for this reason or for that reason and we think it is about the reason and maybe it has got nothing to do with the reason and the next thing we know, a lot of things are being delivered to us out of that place we have opened ourselves up to.

So - that’s kind of my topic. I think where I teach is I don't particularly teach in that kind of topic very much but I teach my students methodology and methodology, really, to me is that understanding of the sequence of the order, the configuration or the arranging of our action or our minds, the sequencing of our intelligence, our minds, in alignment with what the asana requires of us. The crucial thing is being able to listen to, to access, the process, the order of construction that the asana demands of us. So mostly my teaching is around methodology but I feel that methodology is important in terms of opening us up to a much more intuitive relationship with the world that allows us to trust ourselves. And to absorb and meet it without our having to think our way through things a whole lot but rather to improvise and be a little bit more at ease and more spontaneous with what’s coming. And in a way to position ourselves so that we can appreciate, recognize and respond to what is actually happening, rather than what we think is supposed to be happening which generally can be quite a different thing.

So, that is really my topic. "Feeling as Method". Maybe though it is better if you ask me some questions. A kungfu teacher once said "if you ask big questions, you’ll get big answers". I can't promise you that but…

Q: When you were speaking, I suddenly flash down to Guruji’s medical class – how he would take someone who was destroyed in a certain area or part of their life and do things with them and then you could see that he had built, like the …..

A: I would say, this is my interpretation, a little bit from my own experience where you do get into a place where you don't particularly know, you don’t have a reason. You know the animal, the dog senses when you are unhappy, and it just comes and rest its head on your lap…I mean it just knows what’s going on and it knows the appropriate response. I think that is really … you just do things that come out of practice because the practice is training something. It’s not like someone presents with these symptoms or these conditions, then you do that formula. Rather someone does this, and you have this practice and the practice meets that situation and often you are doing things which are quite surprising even to you. Personally I don't always know where a response is coming from. But I think the more you are working with it, the more commitment is there, the more conviction and trusts starts to come. And at least some of the time and more and more of the time, you are finding that responses are appropriate, and meet the situation. And of course, just when you think you are getting to be totally like a God, you make a mistake. But yes I do believe that. And I feel that people love to formularise it. His responses in watching him are so subtly varied, according to different people and their needs and I don't think he is particularly calculating. But he has, he had, a profound discipline.

Q: I was thinking of the boy who wasn’t expected to live, he had that birth condition and his mom and dad came and he worked with him 3 times a week and he lived till he was 30, instead of 7 and you could see him becoming involved and it must have been intuitive (?).

A: I think part of the thing with the practice is you keep practicising so you keep meeting a situation and practice trains us to meet and I would hope from that we are meeting situations in life also, we are meeting people in life, without getting too "whatever" about this. I think part of the difficulty we have as human beings is how rarely we get met. I think it is also a difficulty with animals. You can almost see their grief and their sadness because human beings are so clumsy and they don't meet them and animals kind of like have this disappointment, which is enough to bring me to tears if you look at it because their hearts are so open. And they keep opening themselves and human beings – can’t get the message. It’s like what’s wrong with you people? So, I do think there is something in the practice that is about that and I think it is important. And of course, that doesn't mean to say that if you deliver yourself into that place, it doesn't mean you are always going to get met. Of course disappointment is going to be there but if we follow the normal response which is to shut down and to close ourselves off then we don’t just close ourselves off to that situation but we close ourselves off to our life, we close ourselves off to ourselves and then we lose everything.

Q: I am interested in this idea of finding the resistance and then instead of going around it, working with it and having it work with you to create the extension and to create the intelligence I guess. The example of urdhva hastasana was a really good one for me because I have stiffness and resistance in my shoulders. I guess my question is what is another word for resistance, is how and where do you find resistance in a more subtle sense? And I know the answer is you keep practicing and through that develop more intelligence. Can you talk a little more about that?

A: There are a lot of words you can use instead of resistance. Relational action. Referenced action. Action in context. Action in relation to load or weight. Alignment.......energetic alignment. Energetic support. The positioning of load or weight in relation to action. Skill! And you can pull out that drop down menu to find the word that has meaning for you but I guess when we are talking about resistance and how to work with it. We are talking about consolidated energy, energy that has not been worked with, or not flowing, stuck which also then becomes hard or felt as hardness or felt as heat or sharpness or say if it is long neglected, it is numb. So how actually we apprehend or know resistance, changes a lot for us and it changes between people. I think it is really more the practice of looking for where we cannot go forward, so where there is an obstruction, where we meet a wall. And in meeting the wall it is not like we then give up, but how we maintain a relationship, working with that wall, that resistance, that wall, that obstruction, so we include it rather than exclude it. The tendency generally in coming up against something like that is we exclude it, and in excluding it, we are creating more of a wall of it. And therefore also more of a reason to exclude it and then we start to build up favoritism to that which is easy for us to proceed and that which is difficult for us to proceed.

We have a practice and the practice is going to throw us again and again into that place, where we have to choose between something which is easy for us or something which is closed to us. I mean practice cultures us; or it should! It must! I think going into the place which is easy for us doesn't really engage us in an encounter with the limitations of our humanity. And I think that becomes a problem. I think it is very important to be meeting that obstruction because it teaches us limitations and in teaching us limitation, it brings us into a relationship with those things we cannot control or overpower. So we learn from that - empathy - and we learn compassion and we learn kindness and we learn forbearance, we learn patience and perserverence, kindness, essential kindness and that allows us to respond in ourselves, to recognise the need for that in ourselves and also in others. But when we go to the place where there is no resistance, then we learn to go for those things which are not a problem, we learn to go to those things which are convenient for us, which are agreeable for us, those things which I think confirm our narcissism, our self aggrandizement, our grandiosity and we get more and more inflated and in getting more and more inflated, we get less and less able to relate to ourselves as real human beings, we are getting further and further away from being a real human being and able to exercise care and and to meet our responsibilities. Importantly responsibilities are often not necessarily agreeable. I think there is a really important conditioning process in the practice, which is growing out of that interface with ‘that which does not move’, does not respond to our command or our wishes. There is something that grows in us that ability to meet situations responsibly, to look for responsible actions and to be accountable for our actions and to find meaning and significance in that, rather than just getting our needs met. I think there is a real danger in motion – as a basis for practice, as a paradigm. I think it can really create some dangerous patterns. So it is a practice, how the practice is going to affect us depends a lot on the ethos that we bring to the practice. And we need to position ourselves so that the practice can really work for us on all levels.

Q: You talked about both about feeling the resistance in sensations and at the same also what I have heard and contemplating is practicing where you are, not pushing yourself to do things that would be harmful or not friendly to yourself…

A: Do you get that what I would be saying to that is from the same place I think you are getting at? I think we are saying the same thing? So we meet the resistance, what we do with that in that meeting is something else again. The practice itself having made that encounter, it's the practice itself which works with the situation. Your job is to present, you can't will your way, and you can't force. If you force, you are just going to create stress, and out of that you are going to create resistance and hardness, you are going to create more of the same problem. If your mind is already on how to get past what you are meeting, your mind is not in the meeting. Your mind is in where you are going, that means it is already leap frogging, means it is going to the place which is easy, the place we think we can control. and the idea you are going to is easy. Really that is just thinking.

The actual interface with the practice has built into it real practice questions rather than conceptual questions. What is appropriate speed, what is the appropriate application of energy, what is too much, what is too little, is this accurate, is it missing, is this too fast, is this too slow? These are practice questions and their answer lies within what we are doing. How to meet that situation, is built into that situation itself. It doesn't need anything else, and it should not be governed or prescribed by anything else besides itself. You are trying to get contact and what you do from there is in the situation itself, and that becomes the next thing, it is a process of formation arising out of the contact. Your job is to make contact. You don't know what is going to happen from there. Some days you are going to want and it will be responsive and other days, the contact will be there, and you go back the other way. Some days you might go head on, some days you might come at a different angle.

Part of the practice, an aspect of the practice, is that there are so many possibilities and that is what keeps it forever interesting. It is why I would be very resistant to prescribing or identifying a particular way because it is not a one-way paradigm, it is so multi-faceted, flexible and dexterous and accommodating. Part of our thing is that some of our assumptions are so subtle and we can be coming at things and the assumption is that we should change it might have already taken us over but we are not really in contact with that. It is important to be really able to meet the practice and let the practice teach us. That real open-heartedness to the practice is so important.

Q: What I have experienced as resistance is blockages for me. My issue is rather than being gentle and embracing, I push through it and I never really feel it. Its like its too hard, and I found that backing off has really helped me bring more awareness to the blockages.

A: Absolutely, and what I will also say to that is pushing through stuff is really an illusion. Because if you can’t get through it, you can’t get through it. And even if you have to push and you can’t feel it, you haven’t gone through it. And that’s where we like to think perhaps we can control things. But no we can’t. Not really. Practice is teaching us that.

Q: There is a quality, there is an essence, there is a rhythm, in terms of the practice. What is the rhythm? What’s directing it? What’s guiding it?

A: I guess in that situation, rhythm is like a relationship or a synchronization with a rate of opening or responding. Our brains go fast. Our mind, our consciousness however, needs to be working at a rate that parallels the response in the tissue, rather than trying to use speed to overwhelm or bully that which is slow. Our mental speed needs to relate to the speed of the tissue. Part of the problem that when we go brain, our brain is fast and it tries to make things work at its speed and it is the function of the brain to skip, to aggregate and then to jump to the next thing. This is just "thinking". I say in relation to so much around this practice, so much of what we have to do is to slow down. Even coming back into having the time to practice, having the situation to practice in, having practice conditions that support us, the difficult thing is to getting the mind slow enough and there is so much that we are working with it, that it is speeding us up and speeding us up. And also you listen to people, the way people talk to each other, so much of it is made up of can we keep up? Are we fast enough? So of course in relation to that, we know that what we have to do is to speed up. And then we go from that and we try to practice. If I don’t keep up with my emails, I am 50 behind by the next day and if I have 6 days off which is what I had recently, I am 400 behind and it’s kind of like hurry up! Hurry up and what happens to the practice?

It (time) is really so important. I tell my students I don't really care what you do in your practice time but at least in the first instance, dedicate a time, and do whatever you have to do but in that time, that time is not for any other purpose, other than it is practice time. You can sit there thinking about your practice if you have to but it is dedicated time and preferably a dedicated space. Nothing else is to come into that time, into that space. But really in terms of rhythm or synchronicity, I guess our objective is to bring synchronicity into the different levels and aspects of our existence and synchronize them so that they are working together at least for some time. Of course sometimes things will be a bit out of sync here and there but we need time, like when you plug your phone into itunes, to re-synchronise.

That time is called practice time.

Thank you!

About Peter Thomson

Peter has been practicing yoga since 1979 and a student of the Iyengar family since 1981. He has traveled to Pune to study at the Iyengar Institute well over 20 times and has been a participant in most special intensives and courses at the Institute over the years, including notably the backbend intensive with Mr. Iyengar in 1991.

Peter is one of Australia's most senior and most experienced teachers and practitioners and has been heavily involved in the development of Iyengar yoga both in Australasian and more recently in South-East Asian region. This is so in terms of basic teaching but also in terms of teaching training and certification processes.

Peter’s particular interest in the practice and teaching of yoga is the depth of perception, inquiry and understanding that sustained practice can develop and in making that understanding directly accessible to students so they can claim it as their own in their practice and in their lives.