When I began studying yoga in my teens, my teacher talked a lot about four principles that guide the practice—flexibility, strength, endurance and balance. While it might be more obvious to see the application of these principles to the body in the practice of asana, I’ve returned to them again and again over the years as guiding principles for body and mind. Skillful awareness of body and mind, or the body-mind, and the therapeutic application of this awareness “can facilitate very clear and functional connections with a person’s own wisdom, the inner knowing of how to manifest, in behaviors, one’s very best intentions.” (Macnaughton, p. 12).
The practice of yoga is expressed in the effort to realize intention. Just touching your toes in a forward bend is not the point. The incremental surrender to the pain or tightness in your hips as you reach to get to the toes is where practice lives and breathes. The Indian philosopher Patanjali emphasizes in his yoga aphorisms that the practice of yoga is never gained by self-violence. “We are not trying to check the thought-waves by smashing the organs which record them” (Patanjali, p. 19). Yoga asks something different of us and the principles of endurance, balance, flexibility and strength can serve as reliable guides for our practice.
A body-mind that endures is a one that holds its integrity through loss, discomfort, joy—through all aspects of experience. A balanced body-mind does not react to the pushing and pulling of experience and sensation but observes the drama, the play of being human, and tends to it wisely. A flexible Self knows that no one is perfect, we all fall and get back up—over and over. The tree that you strive to become in Vrishasana (tree pose) may look from one perspective as immovable, steady and rooted; from another, it rocks and sways with the wind, losing branches, leaves and seeds, sometimes suddenly. Strength, like a body that rises on the power of the arms and the groundedness of the legs into downward dog, activates resources that already exist and directs them in an efficacious, affirming way.
A yoga, Patanjali explains, “is a method—any one of many—by which an individual may become united with the Godhead, the Reality which underlies this apparent, ephemeral universe” (15). This reach towards union, toward realization of intention, takes on many shapes. The subtleties of practice often have personal contexts and idiosyncratic meanings for each of us. Yet broadly understood, a yogi is one who takes up the practice of yoga, inviting awareness of the habits of body-mind and actively works to transform them.