Creating Stability DVD - Yoga practices inspired by the viniyoga approach
Creating Stability was a title I specifically chose for this series of Yoga practices – although the word “stable” was almost ruined for me with the Strong and Stable mantra used during the last General Election. I suppose the thinking was that if it was repeated often enough, it would convince everyone that they were choosing a more stable future, although personally I found it to be a reminder of all the uncertain and complex unknowns ahead.
The Strong and Stable mantra, made me think about whether emotions like stability and strength can be externally imposed? And is it even desirable to do this? Imposed emotions require true feelings to be masked to some degree and then to live in a state of pretence. This may be sometimes necessary but I don’t see this imposition as a good thing or a long term option.
Stability, like all emotions, are responses to what is happening both externally to us in our life and internally within us. We can be told that things are stable, but unless our personal experience directly matches that, we won’t feel it with any certainty and it may highlight the opposite. Instability, the opposite, creates the sort of feelings that we are probably all too familiar with – tension in neck and shoulders, panicky sensations, a churning feeling in the stomach, restlessness, short and rapid breathing, sighing, difficulty staying focussed, repeating the same thoughts over and over in our heads on waking at 3am. We may make efforts to overcome these feelings by thinking rationally about them, but this doesn’t usually work. And why would it? Feelings aren’t always rational responses. They can be really irrational responses. And to complicate things, our responses may be not only about our present situation but may be due to what has happened in our past experience or our thinking and imagination about what the future may bring, as well as about the present.
So creating stability is tricky! Externally generated experience maybe outside of our control – it often is - and this lack of control or ability to change things around us, creates its own stress. Internally generated experience is another set of responses, for example, worrying about what may happen in the future. But internal experience is under our control, well sort of! So, is it possible to influence the internal experience without masking our emotions, so that a more stable state starts to exist within? Can something be done to create stability in our internal state?
Yes, there are real possibilities for nudging our internal experience to create more stability leading to subtle changes in our emotions. It is possible to direct the internal environment with some effect on the thoughts we have but it’s not through thinking! This is best done through some positive, physical steps or actions that don’t rely on our thinking at all – just the doing of them.
I’ve drawn on guidance from a particular text, the Yoga Sutras which is an ancient text on Yoga. It mainly considers the workings of the mind and how to resolve the difficulties that our minds present us with and on reading it, one is struck by the workings of ancient minds is not dissimilar to the workings of modern minds. We still are working with the same complexities of how to live with healthy minds in healthy bodies! The Yoga Sutras, and Yoga of the less modern variety, assumes that in order to use the techniques presented, the Yogi will already have a well-established state of mental stability. However obstacles need to be overcome to maintain this stable state and the text presents techniques that are not only good for that, but are also useful for developing a state of stability too. I’ve selected some of these for the four Yoga practices to create that sense of stability from within.
Yoga practice, in this case mainly postures (asana) with focus on breathing, has the ability to change our mental state. We experience a different state at the end of a practice compared to the start. The following ways of practising can bring a feeling of stability.
When things around you are changing, choose one thing and keep repeating it - or develop and stick to your routine.
Sticking to one thing and repeating it regularly, preferably every day, develops structure to the day. This helps to promote stability by using some fixed points and slightly reducing the changes that we experience. It might seem a small thing, to do the same thing repeatedly, but it provides an anchor point to the variability of things within and around us. Some people are very good with getting into a routine, others less so and some positively dislike it or avoid it. But sticking to one thing, one daily routine, and one Yoga practice is a simple and very beneficial way of creating stability. The lack of change in this one thing will help mitigate some of the other changes that are happening.
Try this: use the same Yoga practice for a period of time – a minimum of a month is a good time to work with but if your circumstances are still very changeable after a month, then keep going with the same practice.
The persevering practice of a single principle, keeps obstacles at a distance.
From the Yoga Sutras Chapter 1, sutra 32
Persevering practice is the effort to attain and maintain the state of mental peace.
From the Yoga Sutras Chapter 1, sutra 13
Self-reflection: Does my day to day life or my weekly life have a set routine? Or is it incredibly variable?
If my day or week is without a fixed structure, are there routines or set activities that I can include to build some in to my life? Do I have some structure with mealtimes? For example eating at about the same time each day?
Keep within your comfort zone and stick with what’s familiar
When you feel wobbly and unstable, it is not the best time to branch out into new areas and undertake new challenges. Trying hard to push your boundaries when under lots of pressure is likely to be more difficult than usual and could be setting yourself up for failure and the sense of disappointment and frustration that this brings. To create stability within a short time, return back to your comfort zone and do what has to be done and what you know you can do well.
Try this: use Yoga postures that you can manage comfortably. There might be challenge but make it manageable challenge. There will be time for pushing your boundaries later when things feel steadier. Feeling unstable and stressed is tiring for the body and mind so take this into account.
Self-reflection: Am I undertaking activities that I don’t usually do? Am I sticking to activities I usually do but they feel difficult? How challenging am I finding things and do I need to seek support, advice or help?
Practise quietening activities and work with the breath and body
It’s very helpful to start your Yoga practice with movement and gradually reduce this through the practice. Move to a state of stillness and spend some time using breathing. These two approaches, going from movement to stillness and using breathing whilst still, will help to reduce the activity of the mind within the space of the practice. Using a regular and steady breath ratio is ideal for steadying the mind. This will focus the mind as well as promoting change of the mental processes and works particularly well if the exhalation and the pause after the exhalation is lengthened.
Try this: go from moving, dynamic postures to slow and still postures within the practice. Use a regular length of breath within the practice. A further refinement is to lengthen the exhale part of the breath and use a pause after the exhalation, whilst keeping within what is comfortable in terms of breath length or holding length. This would work best towards or at the end of the practice, whilst sitting with focus on breathing.
The mind also attains serenity by prolonged exhalation and holding the breath.
Yoga Sutras Chapter 1 sutra 34
Self-reflection: Do I want to use this idea of breath regulation (pranayama) as part of asana practice or as a separate seated practice? Do I find one easier than the other? Do I notice the effects of working with breath more or less than working with the body?
We all need stability in our lives.
We don’t all need the same amount but we notice in the body, our breathing or our mind,when we don’t have enough. Stability and developing more stability is a fundamental aspect of practising Yoga and the ideas used are ones that are essentially practical. They don’t rely on you changing your mindset or developing super willpower, but they do need to be thought about, put in place and practised to start to feel like habits. A bit like brushing your teeth - something we do without thinking or overthinking.
Stability helps us deal more skilfully and gracefully with life’s challenges and in Yoga it also prepares the mind for the deeper practices of controlling the senses, concentration and meditation.
Translation of the Yoga Sutras from The Essence of Yoga by Bernard Bouanchaud