I’d just like to share something that I’ve found to be of value in my yoga practice recently. The other day I was reading parts of a book about Brian Eno called On Some Faraway Beach by David Sheppard. Eno is a musician and a thinker, one of the people I most admire. Anyway, there was a bit about his Oblique Strategies, not really news to me, but it got me thinking. These are some cards he’s published which provide odd instructions and thoughts for breaking mental logjams (“Try faking it”; “What would your closest friend do?”); the cards are drawn randomly and applied to the present problem. Actually this product might not be one of Eno’s more spectacular achievements, but I revisiting such ideas made me think about how this sort of randomness might be applied to my yoga practice.
At the same time I’d been thinking about creating a home practice program which directly addresses all of the areas in which I feel I can improve (a lot!). So I came up with 9 yoga poses or activities, and one added course of free weight reps, so ten activities in all. Some of them are counted (e.g. three lifts into Urdhva Dhanurasana or Wheel Pose) and some are timed (e.g. 4 minutes in headstand). Then after reading about the Strategies I thought, why don’t I just let randomness decide the order? I was going to make cards which I could shuffle, and I’ll probably still try that sometime, but I couldn’t find my card stock, so I just got out my dice and worked out a system of choosing through the casting of a die. And so now as I do my forty-minute (or so) practice chance dictates the order.
Now of course this brings up the question of whether ordering is important in asana practice. Some folks swear by strict sequences, poses building on each other. And my theory is, it’s really not all that important. I think my body is generally warmed up enough to handle any yoga pose right off the bat. Of course the pose will deepen, but I know how to start, say into Parivrrta Trikonasana, at a place where I can handle it, and then go deeper. This is not to say I don’t order my classes quite carefully, in that circumstance I want to err on the side of safety. But I think I know my own body, and I think yoga is pretty innocuous when you’re a steady practitioner. Not that injuries still might not occur, but I don’t know that warm-ups will necessarily prevent them. Now I may be wrong in these ideas, but what better way to test my theories than a project like this? And I don’t believe in just accepting received wisdom on such matters – I want to have a go at it.
So my first discovery has been that doing the practice this way makes it more fun, and more dynamic. If I did it in the same order every day, I know I’d get bored with it after all, and then my interest could wane.
Then last night I felt like watching a TED talk before turning in, so I scanned the recent talks and ended up watching one called, “Sometimes it’s good to give up the driver’s seat” by “neuroeconomist” professor Baba Shiv. It’s not a long talk and quite congenial (go watch it!), and I enjoyed it quite a bit. He talks about the dilemma of having to make some complicated choices regarding his wife’s cancer, and then how he did some studies that seem to indicate that, and I’m summarizing here, if we’re not in charge we perform better. Apparently if we’re in the driver’s seat we worry too much about our choices, and this distracts us. And so this was a key to my mind as to why my new method of practicing could be more efficient and fun – because I’m giving up the driver’s seat to chance, and therefore I can focus more on the activities themselves.
It also helped me understand, I believe, some class dynamics as well. I’ve noticed in teaching yoga that my experiments with giving students more autonomy haven’t been all that satisfying. When for example I ask students questions about class direction, if they have any ideas about what to do, or even sometimes if I give out several options for a pose, there’s usually a lot of quizzical, concerned looks. Also, I can tell classes over and over that they’re free to ask questions, but few questions are ever asked. Now this may be the flow format, of course. My ESL classes were quite different, lots of discussion. But maybe quiet and receptivity work better in a yoga learning environment. And maybe the people who come to class are more likely to be the sort who want to be passengers rather than drivers. And there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact, as perhaps we’ve seen here; maybe they’re on to something!
Lastly, I have a few ideas on how to go further with this sort of thing, too. Maybe create my own oblique strategies (using I Ching?) and apply them to performance of the poses? Maybe choose themes or sequences for classes using a random system? Also I’m going to work on some strategies for meditation, e.g. cards with different approaches such as japa, naming the breath, netti netti… O brave new world of serendipity… Any other ideas are welcome! Cheers!