When you go to India to study with the Iyengars you learn that they have an amazing gift for language. The English they speak is maybe not exactly the same English that you speak, but BKS Iyengar, as well as his daughter Geeta and his son Prashant, all speak with great poetic power and creativity. Prashant Iyengar’s classes are peppered with aphorisms that have come to be called Prashantisms: “Do pragmatically, not dogmatically”; “If you want to learn you must learn to teach yourself”; “Evolve the connectivities”; “Asanas are to be done by the body but for the mind.” Attend enough of Prashant’s classes and you will figure out that what he most wants to teach you is how to be a better practitioner, how to make your own practice better.
When we start doing yoga, it’s usually by going to classes. Starting a practice of our own is a major step, and learning how to practice is a long-term endeavor. What asanas should we do? How long should we hold them? How long should we practice? A natural first step is just to try to do at home something we’ve been taught in class. Sometimes the idea of practicing on your own is so intimidating, it seems like it’s just easier to go to class instead. But as we continue with yoga, we learn that while attending classes regularly is important, there’s something about practicing at home that can’t be replicated in a class. And it is as Prashant says, you have to learn to teach yourself.
On my last trip to Pune in June 2011, Prashant was asking if we could name what he called the 18 major kriyas (actions) that should be going on during our asana practice. I’m not sure I got all eighteen of them, but I know that one of them he calls vachika kriya, by which he means an act of speaking. Not that you are actually speaking aloud while practicing, but that you are silently speaking to yourself about “the whys and hows” of what you are doing in order to improve your level of engagement in the practice. This vachika kriya helps you to “do pragmatically, not dogmatically.” It helps you not to imagine that there’s only one right way to do things (e.g. the way you were taught most recently in a class), and not to think that you should always practice that same way. You use your asana practice as, to use Prashant’s word, a “laboratory” in which you are constantly checking in with yourself about how the experiment is going, and what the effects of your practice are.
Another one of the 18 kriyas Prashant refers to is the kriya of commencement, the arambha kriya. This is what you do when you begin your very first pose of the practice. Often during the first pose of Prashant’s classes, he will give the instruction to “evolve the connectivities,” by which he means that you remember that you are not just engaged in some physical activity, but you need to start to weave together or to knead together your sense of your self, your mental faculties, your body, and your breath. It is all of these aspects working together that make up a yoga practice. Then as you practice, by noticing how your body, your breath, and your mind are interacting, you begin to realize in your own way that “asanas are to be done by the body but for the mind.”
Learning how to practice seems like an endless task, but even for someone who is just beginning a home practice, these aphorisms of Prashant’s can be a big help. Suppose you are just going to practice four or five poses. Say they are Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog), Utthita Trikonasana (triangle pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (side angle pose), Uttanasana (standing forward bend), and Savasana. In the first pose you “evolve the connectivities”: you check in with various parts of your body; you remember actions you have learned and try reapplying them today: you check in with your breath and maybe see what actions work best on the exhalation and what ones on the inhalation; you talk through all of this with yourself in your mind (vachika kriya) and as you do so, you notice how your mind is feeling as you begin the practice. You continue to work pragmatically through your chosen set of poses, remembering that you are doing these asanas with your body, but for your mind, aiming for a mind that is focussed, fully alert, and calm.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Lucey teaches Tuesday and Friday evenings at Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco