Gaiam: One benefit of the challenging poses, such as the arm balances featured in your Advanced Yoga DVD, is that it allows the more experienced practitioner to be a beginner again. What can these poses teach us?
Rodney: Arm balances are really interesting because for a lot of people they're not easily accessible — you're picking a difficult subject on purpose. The important thing is to go toward something that you feel isn't in your [physical] vocabulary and find out what takes place. Do you get frustrated? Angry? Stressed out? Feel incompetent? When those things come up, how do you address it with your breath? How do you address it with your relaxation? Can you approach it more simply and build slowly toward this pose?
For those who are extremely flexible, maybe their limitation with the arm balances is having steadiness, solidity, groundedness. Maybe your real limit is not to go in your fullest physical pose but deeper into how the energy and the breath is flowing into the pose and how mindful you are in every part of your body.
Whatever your difficulty is, is actually where your work lies. It's about developing mindfulness, steadiness and ease in the midst of challenge. That is your yoga practice, much more than throwing your body around in funny contortionistic ways.
You've said that one of the great benefits of yoga is learning to profoundly listen to ourselves. How can we learn to listen deeply?
First and foremost as a yoga teacher, I'm interested in training students to listen to their body. It's only in that way that they're going to be able to do your yoga practice at home or perform online yoga and be able to balance themselves. Living in a society that perpetuates talking to an expert, a lot of people distrust their own feedback. Really the final expert is your body, your breath, your mind, your heart.
I want you as a practitioner to ask questions of yourself. What poses are difficult for you? What poses are easy for you? You want to use poses to explore who you are in your body. One of the biggest mistakes in yoga is that often we try to use our body to fit in the poses. It's really the poses, the pranayama, the meditation that are actually trying to teach us more about ourselves. This practice is for you. It's not you trying to fit into the yoga practice.
How can we begin to learn how to sequence poses for our own practice?
Sequencing is like composing music. It's an endless, boundless, creative endeavor. It starts with getting to know the fundamentals of the practice. You have to begin with just playing the scales. You have to get to know the notes and your fingers on the keyboard.
In the same way, practitioners have to familiarize themselves with the different kinds of yoga poses intimately so they'll know where to go. For instance, why do backbends? Why forward bends and not twists today? What does each group of poses do to the body? The mind? The nervous system? The digestive tract? If you don't know these things, you won't know what to sequence for yourself today.
You have to build a friendship with the various yoga poses. This is what my book Moving Toward Balance is about. Let's say when you start out, Monday you're going to do standing poses. Tuesday you're going to do backbends. Wednesday you're going to do twists. Thursday forward bends. Friday restorative poses. Saturday a mixing pot of all poses. Sunday you're just going to do pranayama and meditation. When you begin building a practice like this, you start to gain a more subtle understanding of what the poses do to you energetically. Yoga is like any language. The more you speak it, the more you listen to it, the more proficient you become at it. The more fluid, natural, spontaneous your practice will become, and the more it expresses what you really need at this point in time.
Your Advanced Yoga DVD also includes a hip opening sequence from your personal practice. How can working with the hips evolve a person's practice?
Both arm balances and hip openers are the main gateways for the breath, chi, prana. We want to open those areas up so that prana, or the vibrational forces of the moment, can flow. The hip sockets and joints are important energetic and physical channels in our body, and also emotional areas of holding tension.
The hips are probably the most neglected part of the body because we sit in chairs all day. Probably the best advice I can give anyone who's trying to explore opening the hips is Get out of your chair, cross your legs, sit on the floor. Squat. Put your legs up.
Unless you're standing or walking around, it's so unnatural to have your legs underneath, your legs hanging, and the seat of the chair pushing your thigh up into your hip socket. When the hip sockets and the hip joints are closed, digestion and other vital body systems are stopped from working properly. This lack of hip mobility can cause problems with the low back, knees and joints.
As we begin to open our hips, we'll become surprised how far they will really open. We go deeper and deeper into different poses to fully explore the more subtle tensions and restrictions inside our pelvis.
What insights can pranayama bring to our practice?
It teaches you everything. It's a great listening tool. To get to know the breath and the language of the breath is not only so intriguing; it's really the deepest way to change yourself and allow change to take place on the physical and mental and emotional levels.
At first, pranayama exercises may seem boring and almost inaccessible — but persist. Try as much as you can in every part of the day take a moment and observe your breath. Begin to know the habits of your breath. It's a very good way of knowing yourself on a very intimate level.
When you feel that your breath is not moving in certain parts of your body, you realize there are blocks. Pranayama can tell you where the misalignment of the body is.
The breath can tell you where you need to go when [working with] niyama and yama [yogic ethics]. Pranayama can tell you a lot about philosophy in the sense of when you tell a lie what happens to your breath; when you tell the truth what happens to your breath. It doesn't lie like the brain. The brain tries to go to places where you desire to go, but the breath is basically keeping you honest.
Many people think the most advanced poses are what's going to take you deeper. Often, the deepest part of the practice is meditation and pranayama. There's got to be some time when you go into the unknown.