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Yoga Basics: Playing the Edge

May 7, 2010
Learning the basic shape of a pose can be inspiring and exhilarating, but it's only the beginning of the yoga journey. For most practitioners, asana and pranayama serve as gateways to a rewarding exploration of the subtle flows of energy and awareness within.

How do we bridge the gap between outer form and inner awareness? One useful strategy is to begin attending to the inner sensations you feel as you move through your daily practice. While in a particular posture, for example, ask yourself where you feel the deepest stretch in your body.

You might hold a pose for several moments and observe how the internal sensations shift over time. Or you might compare the mood of one favorite pose with that of another. You might even experiment with ways to turn up or turn down the energetic volume within a single pose: cranking up the heat of a dull and depleted dog pose, for example, or softening the pitch of a screaming backbend.

In yoga this exploration is sometimes called "playing the edge." We want to move enthusiastically toward the edge of the unknown, traveling toward new lands that offer us growth and renewal. But at the same time, we want to tread carefully so we avoid catapulting over the edge of the cliff entirely, falling into strain, overwhelm or even injury.

The ancient sage Patanjali put it another way. In his classic yoga sutras, he explained that every asana should possess the dual qualities of sthira, or steadiness, and sukkha, or ease. In other words, we should practice in a way that cultivates alertness and vitality, but that at the same time invites happiness and comfort.

As you move through your daily yoga regime, ask yourself whether you need more or less energy in your body - or even in specific areas of your body - to move into this contented state of balance that is full of vitality but that is also quiet, open and tenderhearted.

Yoga offers a big bag of tricks to help us do this. Shifting the vigor with which you tighten your muscles or stretch into a pose, for example, can help you modulate a posture’s intensity. So, too, can changing your breathing pattern, altering how long you hold a pose or varying how many times you repeat it.

Even the instructions and imagery you use can dramatically alter the mood and pitch of your practice. Like an artist, consistent practice in this way will help you deepen the range and subtlety with which you are able to fine-tune not just the postures, but also the thoughts and feelings that course through you. And this will help you open in a balanced way to the rich and revitalizing rivers of life within.

This article was originally published in Yoga Journal (March 2003)