Teach a Man to Fish
by Andrew Sugerman
I teach yoga. If, a dozen years ago, you’d told me I’d say that one day, I’d have thought you completely daft. Based on my experiences back then, the impression I had of yoga was that it was basically a form of exercise accessible only to the very limber. At the least, I was looking for a teacher who could show me how to stretch my stiff body. Beyond that, I was really wanting a practice which could affect change on levels deeper than just the physical. The turning point came around ten years ago when I met Gary Kraftsow, the premier American teacher of Viniyoga, a highly personalized approach to yoga. This teaching opened a doorway to me through which I did learn how to stretch, but more than that, with particular breathing exercises and meditation, I now have the means to bring about equanimity into my life. It was my reverence for this wisdom carried forth from antiquity that inspired me to become a teacher. Over the years, I’ve trained with Gary, a student of TKV Desikachar; with S Ramaswami, a student of T Krishnamacharya; and studied in Chennai, India at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. Currently I am a yoga therapist with a private practice, and I am on staff of the American Viniyoga teacher training, where one of my roles is teaching chanting of the Yogasutra of Patanjali, the two thousand year old principal yoga text.
Like a coin, the Viniyoga practice has two sides. One side is the meditative focus on breath control. In the Yogasutra, Patanjali defines yoga as a meditative practice in which the mind is consistently focused with the purpose of mitigating distractions. The Viniyoga approach requires steady attention to the relationship of breathing and micro movements of the spine, where every inhale and exhale is long and smooth; the holds in between inhale and exhale are practiced for a chosen duration; the neck and shoulders are relaxed and the abdominal musculature is engaged to promote full effect in the thoracic and abdominal regions.
The other side of the coin is the physical posture. Each yoga posture is categorized by its function, and each posture contains a range of variations which make it possible to really personalize the effect. During a session, the posture is evaluated by the therapist to verify that the intended function is achieved. I had a client who suffered from debilitating back pain caused by an unusual curvature of his lower spine. When he raised his arms while inhaling, I observed that his lower back flattened. This had the effect of weakening his back, exacerbating his pain and limiting his mobility. I suggested he arch his lower back during the same movement, which would strengthen his back. He quickly felt relief from pain, gained significant mobility, and found he could walk for many hours, whereas before he could barely stand for more than a few minutes without severe discomfort. Patanjali sets as a qualification of yoga posture that it must be both firm and comfortable. Once the proper variation of the posture is determined, the long, smooth quality of breathing can be correctly integrated with the movements.
The Viniyoga approach is to work with one posture at a time. The student moves from a starting position into the posture, then back to the starting position, in such a way that the slow, deep breathing sets the pace for the movement. Fundamentally, inhale is related to back bending, exhale to forward bending, so the direction of movement of the trunk and spine is purposely coordinated with the related direction of the breath. Following several repetitions, the practitioner can hold the posture and explore deepening the experience of the posture through attention to the breath. The order in which the postures are done changes the overall effect of the practice. Thoughtful choices are made to determine which posture will best prepare for those that will follow. Returning to my client with back pain, his practice began by lying on his back and elevating his hips to begin mobilizing his spine. After several postures which stabilized and stretched his back, he was adequately prepared to move on to more complex postures which require greater range of motion.
People come to me for a myriad of reasons. Many of my students are yoga teachers who feel inadequately trained to address the various problems their students present. These teachers come to have their own practice analyzed and refined. A direct experience of the process of personalizing practice enhances their sensitivity to helping their students. A basic principle in teaching is you can’t give what you don’t have. Many clients come to learn a safe, productive yoga practice which will manage pain and structural conditions, help them recover from injury or surgery, and provide the introspective depth they desired.
Through most of its history, yoga has been practiced as a solitary ritual. Following the saying—“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime,”—the majority of my students come seeking a personal practice, so my primary role is to support them in creating and refining their practice. I begin to help my students build the basics by guiding and observing breathing, offering observations intended to facilitate a deep, unfettered breath. Then, by having them practice some selected postures, I can assess their level of strength and flexibility, their posture, and alignment. I am also perceptive to students’ thoughts and feelings, such as attitudes, habits, and distractions that manifest as impediments to the desired goals of their practice. I suggest various modifications to the postures to find the optimal fit, and begin to construct a programme which will meet their objectives. Access to the mysterious human potential for healing is through the mind. A gift of the Viniyoga method of practice is the primacy of continuous involvement of the mind channeled through attention to breathing. This produces the presence of mind and fullness of breath where there is space for healing to occur. No less important is the teacher/student relationship. Whereas in a group class, the student observes the teacher; in the private setting it’s the teacher who observes the student. By virtue of my dedicated and undivided attention on one person at a time, my students learn the skills they need to direct and correct their own personal practice. As their proficiency and confidence increases, the frequency with which we meet can be reduced.
The source of the fundamental principles of breath control as a meditative focus, breath linked with movement, and dynamic and static practice, is a widely recognized master of yoga, T. Krisnamacarya (1888-1989). He was often addressed as “professor” in deference to his mastery of a vast spectrum of Indian knowledge. I attribute the examination of structure and priority of function over form to the master’s son, T.K.V. Desikachar, himself a yoga teacher of international renown. He was educated as an engineer, and I believe it was this propensity for analysis that turned his attention to the mechanics behind the practice of yoga poses. As an analogy, you can look at the face of a clock at any given moment and see the shape the hands make, or you can look inside the clock and observe the movements of the mechanism. The term viniyoga is a Sanskrit word, not easily translated, which refers to an art or skill set, such as that of a carpenter who knows precisely which tool to select for a specific task.
Through my introduction to Viniyoga, I found far more than an exercise programme that helps me stretch. I’ve been initiated into a personal practice that fosters my relationship with my teachers, with my students, with myself, and even beyond. This gift has given me the means to empower my students with tools they can use to be self-reliant in their personal health care and maintenance.