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David BRISSON
Yoga Tree teacher Kumiko Koba and student Satoko Yoshikawa appeared in videos for Yoga Works.

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In Defense of the Tortoise
2014.02.04 - BLOG

Everybody knows the moral of the story of the tortoise and the rabbit: The tortoise wins their foot race first because slow and steady beats fast and loose every time. But I have the feeling that a lot of people read the story differently nowadays. In our get-it-done-yesterday world, surely the rabbit would be derided for wasting time with a tortoise. Better to dash over to Cross Fit and train with the tigers! Hurry, dude, and you can knock out a quick workout, put in face time at the office, and get home in time to boff Mrs. Rabbit before dinner.

Aesop’s fable came to mind the other day when a student asked me about starting a pranayama practice. I’ll write more about pranayama in an upcoming post, but for now let me just mention that undertaking a pranayama practice is many times more difficult than learning asana. In one of his classes at Yoga Tree last year, David Sirgany cited B.K.S. Iyengar as saying that asana is like kindergarten; pranayama is the PhD program.

Why would that be the case? Well, for one thing traditional hatha yoga posits that asanas prepare the body for pranayama and that, indeed, pranayama should be learned only after until the asana practice is well established. As Mr. Iyengar puts it: “There is no short cut.”

Well-practiced asanas, he says, bring elasticity to the lungs and stability to the nervous system. Poorly practiced asanas, on the other hand, lead to shallow breathing and low endurance. It’s not easy to give a precise definition to “poorly practiced,” but we can well imagine two instances in which the practice of asanas might lead to shallow breathing and low endurance: when asanas are performed mechanically without awareness and when students strive to do asanas they’re not ready for.

When we undertake asanas that are too difficult to be practiced with ease and awareness, the risk is not only injury. Like Aesop’s rabbit, we also waste our time. Instead of laying a foundation for a sustainable practice, we end up chasing the illusion that enlightenment lies in accomplishing an increasingly difficult series of postures. Instead of deepening our understanding of who we are, we burn out, or lose our way.

Yet most of us who practice hatha yoga have at one time or another found ourselves impatient to progress. (Yes, I certainly count myself among this group.) We recognize the familiar feeling that time is short so we hurry for each new experience. But deep down we know that the lesson of the tortoise is true. We can only proceed in our own time. Experience, in other words, can’t be hurried. When we remember that lesson, we have the deepest form of happiness: contentment.

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