Posted on April 15, 2017
Ālambana – A Key Aspect to Living a Yogic Life
During my recent trip to the Himalayan Institute (HI) in Pennsylvania for a 10 day intensive yoga teacher training, I discovered an aspect of yoga which felt very foundational and woven into the practice and living a yogic life. Ālambana revealed itself to me as a positive influence for any student or teacher of yoga, as well as in our overall lives.
Though I may have heard the Sanskrit word ālambana before, this time it’s essence ingrained in me. Sanskrit words typically carry the vibration of many english words, encapsulating much essence in their meaning. Therefore in looking up ālambana on Wikipedia, you will see a long description for english understanding. That said, my during my studies, what kept standing out for me was the essence of support and foundation that ālambana offers to our lives and our practice.
During my stay at HI, I could feel ālambana vibrantly in the community living environment. There are around 100 people at any given time, who live there or come and go, through this amazing facility every week. Everyday we come together for practice, share our meals, enjoy conversation, meet new people and connect. The feeling when you walk though the halls is community support, all are included and no one feels alone. It is a beautiful experience that brings to mind how much happier we are when we feel connected to and the support of our communities.
While on course there, I chose to share accommodation with another lady also taking my course. This offered a supportive and nurturing relationship by being there for one another to download our days, discuss learnings, and feel connected. I made a new friend and felt a balance of support and autonomy though our time together. The feeling of connection truly supported me in my growth and enjoyment of the whole experience. I believe we gain more together than we do alone.
Turning our attention to the foundation of yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, you will discover how ālambana is woven into living a yogic life. There are foundations which move from one teaching to the next and from one practice to the next. For example, in the eight limbs of yoga, when integrating the 5 yamas (restraints for a wholesome life) into your life, you first need to follow the foundation of ahimsā (non-harming) in order to practice satya (truthfulness), followed by asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (moderate lifestyle), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The same can be said for the second limb, the niyamas (observances for a healthy life). Each supports the next in how we can use them to live a joyous and self-aware life.
When we look at the third limb of yoga, the āsanas (postures), ālambana offers diverse supports. In āsana, the postures begin from the foundation of the floor as you in moving in and out of postures. We also use the support of the breath through the movements, which I will touch more on later. In my training, I discovered more ways of using supportive props such as blocks, straps, chairs, and blankets, as well as modifications to the poses to cultivate a more individual and beneficial practice. Learning about these supports and seeing the differences they made for each of us doing similar postures reiterated to me the need to ensure as a teacher and a student that we must learn to work with our body, as it is today, rather than trying to force our body into a perceived notion of what an āsana, or any other aspect of life, “should” look like. Though I have known this on some levels, it certainly has me looking deeply at my perceptions.
On another level of āsana, we can look at the breath and its relation to our practice, as well as our lives. Our breath is an indicator of stress and unease or comfort and calm in our body and mind. For instance, when we feel anxious our breath quickens and when we feel relaxed it slows down. In our āsana practice, learning to be aware of the breath supports us in understanding ourselves and our needs. If we are striving to get somewhere in our practice our breath will likely quicken or become shallow. However, if we move mindfully with gentle effort in our postures, allowing our breath to maintain a deep and smooth flow, we help bring balance to our nervous system and feel better in the posture. This in turn helps us when we encounter effort or agitation in our daily lives, to remember to breathe and be more calm in our actions.
The final aspect of ālambana, I want to share today is in meditation. When we sit down to meditate with supports we can deepen our experience. First, we need to sit comfortably in a supportive posture where our spine can be straight. This is very important for the mind to be able to settle into the meditation. If it’s distracted by discomfort your meditation will be challenging. Therefore sitting in a chair or using blocks/blankets can be helpful. In this way, the pelvis is neutral and the knees are in-line with or lower than the hips, which allows the whole body to be comfortable. It is also important to ensure you are warm. Then we can turn to the support of the breath to center the mind, allowing focus and concentration to emerge. Once we feel centred, the use of a mantra supports the mind’s wandering tendencies. It gives the mind something to do, an anchor to keep coming back to, when thoughts do come in. Now, fully supported from our practice and props, our meditation experience can deepen.
Though we each come to yoga for various reasons, such as healthy living, easing pain, or finding peace and balance in our lives, the supports we can offer ourselves are endless in our practice. It does not matter how long you have been practicing or how you feel on any given day, remembering to invite ālambana into your practice will deepen your experience every time. I invite you to also discover how ālambana shows up in your day-to-day life, in community, work and family. Please share your experience in the comments or connect with me.
OM, Shantih, shantih, shantih