On Transition

Are you hanging onto your knowledge of how things are?  Are you looking for proof?  Are you debating the cause of a particular circumstance in your life?  What are your ideas of yourself?  How did you come to these definitions or ideas?

Life is an experience of constant transitions.  We grow from embryo to fetus to newborn to toddler to child to adolescent to adult.  We then transition from life into death, death back into life.  Nothing is constant:  Jobs come and go; relationships come and go; the seasons come and go; our wordily belongings come and go.  Our bodies are always changing.  Our life circumstances too, are in a constant state of evolution.  Yet, somehow, we all are guilty to some level of grasping at the opposite of change. 

“How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change.  And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.”  -Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open:  How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow

Transition is a process, a movement, passage, or change from one position, state, concept, subject, etc. to another.  Simply put, transition is change.   In the English language, transition words, such as and, however, moreover, furthermore, are phrases or words used to connect one idea to the next.  They are used by authors to help the reader progress smoothly from one significant idea to the next.   In his book, Ashtanga Yoga:  Practice and Philosophy, Gregor Maehle describes how the Ashtanga Yoga system is like a yoga mala:  The body is used as a mantra, the postures represent the beads, and the breath, bandhas, and dristhi form the string that holds the garland of yoga postures together.  I like to think of the transitions in yoga as those spaces between the beads, the gaps, or leaps from one bead to the next.  These gaps or movements are just as important as the beads themselves; they create the space that helps us visually understand each bead is an individual bead.  The negative space in between helps us understand and perceive the positive space of the object.

The Ashtanga Yoga practice is a practice of transition.  Yes, there are 38 plus “jump backs” in the primary series, which we typically think of as the transitions in the primary series.  But, the postures themselves, as well as the movement between the, are also in transition.

Let’s first take a look at how postures in the Ashtanga Yoga practice are a form of transition.  First, you have a student who is working on “getting” a posture…..you know, that “dreaded” Marichasana D or Supta Kurmasana.  More often than not, the mistake a student initially makes in working toward “achieving” this posture is that the posture is a goal, an achievement, something to be “had”.  It is treated as an object, something to attain and hold onto, perhaps place in a pocket.  And yes, when that bind comes for the first time there may be that initial rush of excitement and pride which feels great.  But then what?  Along comes another asana, and with that asana more work to be done.  If your focus as a yoga student becomes this achievement or goal of collecting asanas, you will only find suffering, because just like they come, asanas also go.  However, if you take the time to observe the process you are going through over a period of days to weeks, maybe months, to work your way into that particular asana, you will experience transition in your physical body and in your mind.   It is this transition that is the true teacher, not the posture itself.  Don’t rush this process.  Relish in it.  Learn from it.  What is going on in your day to day life and how is it affecting your body’s ability to move on a particular day?  Listen to what happens in your mind.   The growth you experience on the mat will carry over into your daily life, and that is the real experience of yoga.   

It is also important, however, to not brush of the transitions between postures.   Ashtanga yoga sometimes gets a “bad rep” because of all the jump backs and jump throughs(I once heard it called “jumpy uppy downy yoga” which I find amusing).  Often, teachers or students will just overlook the ability to do these transitions, deeming them less important.  On the contrary, some teachers and students place too much emphasis on them, leading themselves and students down the path of learning “tricks” instead of focusing on the yoga.  While there is most definitely a fine balance between the two, I am a strong supporter of giving the transitions in Ashtanga Yoga as much love and attention as we do each posture.  Why?   These transitions are an important opportunity for growth, and they ultimately help us understand growth within asanas themselves (the beads on the mala!).

Many of you (my students) may know that I won’t let you be lazy with the seated vinyasas (or any vinyasas for that matter).  If I see that you are not at least trying to lift yourself up off the ground, I will get on you about it.  If I see that you are lifting up but giving up on moving forward, I will harp on you about it.  Yes, I have heard every excuse in the book:

“I’m not good at it”

“I just can’t do them”

“My arms are too short”

“My legs are too long”

“My feet are too big”

“My hips are too wide”

“My hips are too tight”

“I don’t think they are that important”

“I don’t have the strength”

And the list goes on.  But these are just the vrttis of our mind, circling about telling us who we can and can’t be, what we can and can’t do, and by spouting out these excuses we are choosing to listen to those vrttis and avoid CHANGE, GROWTH, TRANSITION, and SELF-REALIZATION.

Students, I know I often do this in class, but let me remind you:  Anything you put your mindset to and work hard on, you can achieve.  Will it be beautiful and perfect?  Maybe not.  Will you grow from the experience?  Absolutely YES.  When I first started this practice, I could not lift up and jump to chaturanga.  In fact, I could barely just lift my butt off the ground.  I learned over the course of 5 years of practice that with hard work, putting aside self-defeating thoughts, practicing with patience and devotion, that I could one day lift my ass off the ground and jump back gracefully without touching.  What is important here is that I grew as a person in the process of working on this:  I became more patient, more willing, more submissive, more positive; I became more aware of how capable I am of letting my mind take the steering wheel and drive me to a complete stop.  I also learned that I can sit back, observe my mind and all it’s craziness, and just let it be.  The process I went through in learning these difficult vinyasas was the important component of the practice, not the fact that I actually “achieved” or “got” it.  And guess what?  Now that I am 5 months pregnant, there is no lifting my heavy butt off the ground now!! (wait….is that an excuse??  Uh oh….)

I was working with a student last week in Mysore on an important transition into Ubhaya Pandandgusthasana.  It was interesting to see, how no matter what I said initially about keeping her legs straight as she rolled up into the posture, she continued to bend her knees, literally before she even started to roll up and balance!  (wonder what this posture and transition is?  Check out this video here ).  I knew that she had the mobility in her hamstrings and shoulders to keep her legs straight, and that part of it was a core strength/bandha issue.  But, the more she attempted and continued to bend those knees, the more I observed and realized two things.  First, she was containing herself in an old habit, allowing her body to reflexively do what it always has comfortably done, rather than allowing it to actually attempt to make a change.  Second, fear of that change came from her mind’s desire to achieve the “end result”:  the posture itself.  THIS realization is where we grew and transitioned together as student/teacher.  I cued her to just roll back and forth, and forget about getting into the posture for now.   Just work on keeping those legs straight and rolling up and down, feel what that is like, break the habit by practicing it in a new way without concern for the end result, while at the same time building the necessary strength.  Did she roll up into the posture?  No.  But did she learn something?  Oh yes, yes she did.  She learned to let go of the end result (which we have already discussed is not really an end result right?  We just have a habit of treating postures this way!), let go of the fear of not getting there, experience something new and different, and find a new inner strength she didn’t know she had.

Yes, transition is difficult both on and off the mat.  If we continue to resist transition, or try to understand causality of why transition occurs, it will only lead to suffering. 

The Yoga Sutras, Chapter 2 on Sadhana Pada (On Practice) touches on our attitude toward change: 

Sutra 11.3 reads, Avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah:  The causes of suffering are ignorance, egotism, excessive attachments, unreasonable aversions, and fear.   For example, when we become excessively attached to a certain object or situation, change in that object or situation can lead to suffering.  We may also have an attitude of fear toward change, and when change then occurs, we may suffer. 

Sutra 11.24 reads:  Tasya heturavidya:  Thinking that these causes are yours is ignorance.  Ignorance is belief that stems from false knowledge.  False knowledge makes us believe that we are our mind (with all of its emotions and thoughts) and our physical bodies; this results in imprints, or samskaras, and we become bound up with external, constantly changing things.

Finally, Sutra 11.39 reads:  Aparigraha sthairye janma kathamta sambodhah:  One who establishes a non-grasping attitude gains a deep understanding of the meaning of life.

It is so easy to say to someone, “sit back and watch, observe for a time” or “don’t react” or “change happens”.  It is much more difficult to experience the change for ourselves, because of our grasping, attached attitude toward our physical bodies, thoughts, emotions, and external circumstances.    It’s hard to stop and remember in the middle of an emotional event that your body is ever changing, the world is ever changing, the universe is fluid, and you, the Self, is untouched by all of that transition.  But if we can catch a glimpse of this, just on our mat alone, we are making great strides in our self-realization and journey to peace. 

“Light precedes every transition.  Whether at the end of a tunnel, through a crack in the door or the flash of an idea, it is always there, heralding a new beginning.” 

-Teresa Tsalaky, The Transition Witness