Every year Lino Miele gives a workshop in Kovalam, India. It takes place over the months of December and January and students from all over the world welcome the opportunity to study with one of Guruji's most senior teacher. Because it takes place in India, it is more affordable to go for the entire two months should you be lucky enough to get the time off. Although the shala is fairly sizable, it can get pretty crowded during peak season. So students get time slots when to begin their practice to cope with the sheer number of them. It's a bit like Mysore - only a little smaller. If I am there, I am usually put in the first slot early in the morning which is fine as I'm used to practicing early and the temperature is still pleasant at that time. When I get to the shala, there is always a number of students warming up with stretching exercises. It feels like coming into a gymn rather than a yoga shala. The atmosphere seems filled with expectation...
Pattabhi Jois always used to say: "no stiff body - stiff mind". If you go to practice in Mysore, stretching before practice is a big no-no. If students waiting for their practice turn start stretching, Sharath is quick to tell them: "no stretching - just sitting." In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it says that posture is mastered by reducing the tendency for restless-ness and meditating on the infinite.
We "modern" practicioners are always quick to say that a little stretching and warming up the body can't hurt. But can it? Don't Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois and Sharath know what they are talking about? Is it ok to just dismiss what they are saying? Will yoga still work or is it even still yoga?
Yoga chitti vritti nirodah- We practice yoga to gain a one pointed mind. To control our mind and to stop random thinking which results in needless suffering. To train our mind we practice the asana system. With total focus on moving with the breath, control of bandhas and observing the drishtis. Doing this slowly and mindfully our muscles with strengthen and lengthen in their own time. The focus is in the present moment without the desire to achieve anything in particular. If we feel the need to stretch our muscles before practice, maybe we should ask ourselves why. Is it because we want to avoid pain because we are practicing too hard? Do we want to achieve a certain kind of asana level?
Are we shying away from were the real stiffness sits? How can we learn to control our mind if we avoid going there?
If when doing asana we concentrate too much on muscle and too little on the mind our development is going to be very limited. Our body will only go as far as our mind will let it. A good teacher may be able to coax you into letting go so far but in the end it's up to you to challenge the rigidity, fear, and doubt that is your thoughts - your thinking mind. It takes honesty, strength, faith and patience to do this. But first and foremost we need to be willing to face the reality of our stiff mind. After all, who tells the muscles to tense in the first place. It is not the muscles themselves that decide to do so. Our body is neutral. It reacts to messages from the nervous system which in turn gets its instructions from our very own brain. So to do warm-up stretches or even preparatory asanas in the yoga practice is avoiding the issue. It is a comfort zone. A knowledgable teacher will know this and (try to) stop their students from stretching prior practice.
Maybe that is why all the stretching stops the second Lino enters the shala ...