Yoga is, to put it simply, a process of simplifying your experience.
When I started out, I found it very difficult to stop multitasking. After all, I had trained my mind to multitask from a very young age, and had gotten really, really good at it. When I was a teenager I would practice the guitar for 8-10 hours a day, never missing a day unless I was forced to take a family vacation without a guitar (it wasn’t until years later that I learned to never travel without a guitar). If you’re going to do that much of any one thing, you’re going to have to learn how to do other things simultaneously. I can remember running through finger exercises while reading a book at the same time listening to some complex instrumental guitar music. I would even wear my guitar to the breakfast table, eating Cheerios while reading the back of the cereal box while simultaneously fingering scales. Later in life I found I could perform complicated graphic design tasks while listening to the radio, or having conversations with co-workers. If you believe in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hours-of-practice-makes-a-master theory, then I was a virtuoso of multitasking. All those thousands of hours spent conditioning my mind to be comfortable doing many complex tasks at the same time, made it very difficult to focus on one thing, let alone no thing.
When I started practicing yoga with more regularity I found myself going to a variety of classes at studios all over town. Even when I started narrowing my focus on the styles derived from Krishnamacharya I still craved variety and practiced a lot of different asanas—every day! But as I went deeper and deeper into my practice I found myself naturally simplifying more and more. When I decided to start incorporating pranayama into my daily practice, I had to make time for it so I would either need to simplify my asana practice or I would have to wake up at 3am to fit everything in (and I’m just not ready for that). At first I found editing my asanas incredibly challenging! All kinds of resistance came up—worrying about my credibility as a yoga teacher if I lost the ability to perform complex or challenging poses, insecurity around omitting traditionally “mandatory” asanas like headstand, or I would reason, “Well, I’m kinda doing pranayama throughout my vinyasa practice” to feel better about skipping it even when it was clear it was the next evolutionary step in my sadhana.
I persisted and would make a conscious decision to limit myself to a simple 12 step sequence from TKV Desikachar’s book The Heart of Yoga, or Mark Whitwell’s Promise Practice, otherwise, I would end up practicing asanas for two hours and have no time left for pranayama or meditation. But what I found is that I started to crave the relative stillness of a seated pranayama practice more and more, and that I didn’t need to force myself to do it every day. As I simplified my asana practice I found that I had more time for pranayama, and my body actually felt better too. And then I started to discover that allowing more time for pranayama led to wanting more time to sit and savour the stillness I’d cultivated. If I had to get right up after squeezing in 12 rounds of nadi sodana, it was like leaving the table after the appetizer. So, my asana practice got a little simpler, my pranayama practice a little longer, and meditation was no longer a struggle, but a delicious savoury dessert that I look forward to.
I realized that just as I had trained my mind to be masterful at multitasking, I had now started to train my mind to be better at unitasking. My mind used to crave stimulus, now it craves space.
I’ve still got thousands of hours to go before I undo all those years of being a master multitasker and start to master unitasking (aka meditation), but the progression is now clear to me, as is the brilliance of Krishnamacharya’s teaching methodology, what he called vinyasa krama, a step-by-step approach, which of course is based on Patanjali’s famous ashtanga (8 limbs) of yoga. Krishnamacharya taught that our yoga practice needs to acknowledge where we are in life, that most people can’t just sit down and start meditating. For many of us, focusing on a handful of things in our asana practice—spatial relationships of our body, regulating our breath, tension and relaxation — is still a huge challenge after the overwhelming sensory overload of a typical work day. You see evidence of this in many modern yoga asana classes — between the vast variety of asanas, the constant pep-talking of the instructor, and the diverse music playlist, there’s a lot to keep the modern mind occupied.
But if we persist and begin the editing process — first cutting the playlist, then less asanas — gradually we get more comfortable with less, and naturally move toward the simplifying of experience that we practice in pranayama, where we are no longer worried about the action of the body in space so much as we are focused on the movement of the inhalation and exhalation and the pauses in between. Some time spent training our mind to be comfortable focusing on just a few things naturally leads to the ability to keep the mind focused on just one thing—at first for very brief moments, gradually for longer and longer periods. This is the natural step-by-step movement, or krama, towards clarity of perception and stillness of mind that Krishnamacharya, via Patanjali, taught. It’s actually a very compassionate way to deal with your poor, exhausted, overloaded mind. After all, you’ve spent countless hours training your mind to do a million things at once (just consider how much information you take in when you scroll through your Facebook feed for a few minutes), so trying to force it to think of no thing is like jamming a stick in the spokes of a bicycle speeding down a hill — it ain’t gonna be pretty. But of course Patanjali realized all of this when he made the very first branch of ashtanga yoga ahimsa, or non-violence. Even 2,500 years ago, before Facebook, Instagram and Netflix, they still saw the need to spend time practicing with training wheels on before letting go of the handlebars and coasting downhill, steady and masterfully navigating any bump or curve that might arise.
The idea that you need to simplify and not complexify in order to progress in your yoga practice seemed incongruous to me until I realized that in much the same way, as I grew as a musician I found myself playing fewer and fewer notes. I remember hearing people talk about the blues when I was a kid, how players like John Lee Hooker “could say more with one note than those heavy metal wankers could with a thousand”, and I thought they were crazy. But now I see that guys like John Lee were able to focus a lifetime — his own and an entire peoples’ — of pain, joy, struggle and resilience into a single, heart-piercing, soul-rendering note that has the ability to invoke all that emotion in the listener, even over the chasm of time and space. If that’s not the work of a master yogi, I don’t know what is.
PS. Here's one of the beautifully simple but effective practices from Desikachar's book The Heart of Yoga.