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  Advice for new yoga students
By Charles Spenella, R.Y.T., Houston yoga teacher, 2002

The Non-Competitive Nature Of Yoga
"An asana is a map of the territory. It is not the territory itself " Anon

Imagine' that a group of students is taken outside to warm up for a yoga class. They are invited to run once completely around the block. For those in pretty good shape, this might not be a great enough distance, For others, not in such good shape, this may prove to be extremely difficult if not completely impossible. So as long as our intention is to perform identical actions no one benefits.

Now suppose instead that the same group was asked to run the same course, but to listen to their own bodies and to only run as far as they needed to in order to feel warmed up. Since the ability of each student varies, they would reach their limit and stop at different points along the course. By shifting the intention from performing identical actions to achieving identical effects everyone would now experience maximum benefit.

How does this apply to yoga? If a class was asked to bend over and touch their toes, some people might be able to bring their heads very near their legs while some might only be able to bend halfway. If the intention is to perform identical actions (touching the toes) some students won't be challenged enough while other students might be frustrated by their inability to accomplish the task. However if the intention is to achieve identical effects, then each student would go only as far as their personal limit to experience maximum benefit. So just like in the running example, it is not important how far each goes as long as each person honors their own limit. When performing an asana it is the edge of that limit that we seek wherever it might be for us at that moment. In fact, it is precisely at this point that the yoga effect is released.

The Edge
"What you can do, is what you should do."

Yoga must in no way be considered competitive. Not only are you not competing with the yogi in the book, on the video, at the front of the class, or anywhere around you, you are also not competing with yourself That is because the edge of your limit for any given asana will change from day to day, with, the time of day, and even from minute to minute.

So then how do you know when you are at "the edge"? The edge of your personal limit is how deeply you can painlessly go into an asana and still breathe smoothly at any given moment. Your intention should be to approach that point but to stop just this side. That is what is meant by "playing the edge". Once again, while you will often be called upon to exert effort in an asana, you shouldn't lose control of your breath and there should definitely be no pain. A slogan often heard in western exercise classes is "No pain, no gain." In yoga a more appropriate slogan would be "If you seek pain, you're insane."

The Space Between Asanas
Once you have worked the target area, you must let the muscles involved rest and assimilate the effects of the movement. If you were to attend a wine tasting, you would be urged to take a sip of water and perhaps to eat a piece of bread in order to "cleanse your palate" between samples. If you go from one wine straight to the next their distinct characteristics will become blurred and you are not likely to appreciate either one. The same thing can be said for a sequence of asanas. While the yoga effect may be released at the edge, it is not until we relax after the asana that we receive its benefit. Therefore the time spent between asanas is every bit as important as the time spent in each posture and ideally should be of approximately the same duration.


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