Skill in Action

Four days with hearts aloft in the wind, waves and the love of friends. My Ucluelet holiday filled me up. But as I returned to an empty home, I found loneliness slosh about inside of me. Loneliness, not unlike disdain in its ability to take the juice out of one’s cells, turning everything the colour of mis-tinted taupe paint. “I don’t want to be alDSC_0066one anymore,” I thought to myself. It occurred to me just as soon as the words formed, that a new script was in order. How to spin that positively? So, I tried, “I want to be in a relationship.”

Interestingly, my immediate reaction was to recoil. It pays to be precise with one’s wishes and desires. Had I not inquired of the truth, I may have plunged into the pyre of Plenty of Fish profile posting, or whatever the hip dating site is these days. Yikes. Catastrophe averted. (Alliteration catastrophe not averted; complete collision carnage).

One of the most quoted statements from the Yogic text, Bhagavad Gita tells us that Yoga is skill in action.

What is skill? According to the Oxford Dictionary, it simply means the ability to do something well; expertise. It comes from the Old English word, scele, which means knowledge as well as the Old Norse skil, defined as discernment or knowledge.

The asana, or calisthenics we do on our mats, if practiced with discernment and knowledge, rewards us with supple, strong bodies, clarity of mind, steadfastness of spirit. Skillful practice spills off the mat into daily life.

My personal training teacher used to tell us “Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” You become what you practice; in your heart, mind and body. Skill develops with discernment and knowledge applied to practice.

 And so, we continue our study. We open our minds and hearts to teachers who have gone before us, while at the same time sharpening the blade of inquiry. This is not to be mistaken with cynicism. For both blindly exalting a guru and hyper-cynicism dull the blade of inquiry and stunt our growth and learning.

For myself, I like to add one more element to my practice, and that is playfulness. Because gosh darn it, life without humour and whimsy is quite dull, don’t you think? Alas, the evidence of 12 years with a poodle companion.

After all this talk, I thought it would be nice to share something practical, like a simple pose often practiced, but possibly without the necessary skill in action. Skill applied to physical movement begins with correct postural alignment. Muscles and joints engage most efficiently and effectively when the joints are in their sweet spot throughout the range of motion. Many yoga poses take us far beyond what is considered normal alignment. However, the actions of alignment are always in motion throughout the expression of the pose. For example, even as the arms interlace in front of the body to round the back in Eagle posture, we assert the opening of the heart by drawing the shoulder blades toward each other, and lift the sternum to extend the spine. This is the difference between an advanced and beginner practitioner; not how fancy the pose looks, but how well a yogi is able to honour the body through skillful action.

Here is a straight legged seated posture (dandasana) often done before folding forward. The stretch is felt primarily in the hamstrings. Since the hamstrings attach to the pelvis, when the muscle is stretched, it has a tendency to pull the pelvis along with it, there by tipping the low back into a flattened position. Practice holding the pelvis in alignment in this pose, and take this principle into every pose that challenges the hamstrings: down dog (adho mukha svanasana) , wide legged forward fold (prasarita padottanasana), legs together standing forward fold (uttanasana), etc. Maintain lumbar lordosis until the spine is no longer in danger of undue disc compression or posterior ligament stretch, usually, when the pelvis is supported by the thighs.  And remember, there are exceptions to even this rule.

Apply discernment and knowledge to your practice on and off the mat in order to nurture skillful action… with a generous sprinkling of play.dandasana