Or what being present means to me
“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life, as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive”
— Joseph Campbell
Being Present is often described as being Here and Now. But where is this place? How do we get there? And where do we arrive when following this lead?
To me this journey starts with the most tangible, inside my body. This is the most obvious place to begin any investigation about being present as a human being in this world. Despite the many theories about the nature of reality, what I feel most real is being a creature with a body. Being Here means arriving in this animal body, acknowledging my corporeality fully, feeling it as deeply as I can. Being Now is participating in this continuous process of life as it is unfolding within and all around, witnessing it in all aspects and subtleties as it takes form in the endless moment of Right Now.
To me this is the baseline reality that I can relate to at all times, when the frantic mind takes over. It’s the antidote to a disembodied consciousness that passes as normal in the world at large today. Our world is made out of narratives and it’s all too easy to get lost in this groundless territory: Identity, language, social roles, ideology, religion, philosophy, economics, politics, they’re all purely mental constructs, living in heads alone. When we realize this to be true, our identification with this mental construct is crumbling and makes room for the felt presence of direct experience. We step into a new realm of spaciousness and unfolding potentiality. The actuality of life as a continuous process, as it is felt by our somatic perception. What I experience now are sensory impressions. The visual and auditory field, the feeling of my feet touching the ground, sensations of pressure, weight and tension, the air going in and out of my respiratory system, the beating of my heart and the pulsing of my blood. That’s it. That’s more or less the totality of life minus narrative. And this space of living presence is something we can truly create from.
So for me Being Present it’s not about transcending the body to reach an ideal state of truth, detached from this earthbound life. Rather it’s about becoming fully alive in your body and realizing the Enchanted Embodiment that is your birthright.
“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
This state is synonymous with health and wellbeing, this is the human potential we ought to develop: Our capacity to feel and to perceive. As much as possible. I see this as the uniquely human role in this big play. Not to understand, but to stand in awe before creation, like a child. This is as true as it gets. This is Presence.
This curiosity about our human potential was always what spurred my inquiries; What hinders me from living life to the fullest? How alive can I feel when all false identifications are dropped? How lightly can I walk this earth when there is no armor weighing me down, no mask obstructing my vision? How does it feel when I’m aligned with my natural state and life can flow freely? What are the obstacles we face on the way? And what are the techniques of realizing this purest state of wellbeing as a human.
The Body — Mind Continuum
Body and Mind are inseparable and any method that aims to correct dysfunctional patterns should be based on this understanding. Two further main characteristics that constitute the human condition are plasticity and the tendency to repeat. All begins with acknowledging that we are drastically malleable, and constantly changing. We can adapt to any given circumstances beyond measure, and we do it continually. This is true in the province of the mind, as it is on the cellular level, where the only absolute term is the constant flux of adaptation, death and rebirth.
The Body-Mind Continuum constantly works on maintaining a level of equilibrium that ensures life. This process of homeostasis is essential for survival, but it has one weak spot: The dissonance between the clinging to the status quo (inertia) and the ever-changing reality of all life (flux).
We blindly keep repeating the past, applying a modus operandi that once seemed an appropriate reaction, assuming that it stays effective for us. Yet we are actually stuck in the proverbial groove, a holding pattern, that can’t react to the actuality of the new situation anymore. It assumes an outdated image that isn’t real anymore.
This opposite state of Being Present — Being past and being rigid, this is what I understand as the major human pitfall.
Our Body-Mind Continuum is the accumulation of the endless adaptations we went through in our life. Every cell of our body holds these imprints of everything we ever experienced. I believe this to be true on all levels, the traumas of our life are not only manifest in our posture but truly memorized by every single cell.
This infinitely complex system of acquired behavior builds your unique pattern of how you react to life. And many of these reactive patterns governing our movements are outdated and dysfunctional as they don’t allow you to dwell in the present moment. This process of dissolving restricting and disenchanted patterns and replacing them with healthier ones, is the core idea behind my approach to Yoga.
When being asked why I practice Ashtanga Yoga, I sometimes answer the reason is Fitness. Of course this is meant to provoke a moment of disturbance, by not referring to any shiny words from the so called spiritual realm. But it is true, I just understand the word ‘fitness’ in a much wider sense. I want to be fit to make the most of this human life given to me. I want to experience the world as uninhibited as I can, and act in it freely.
And in Ashtanga Yoga I have found a sufficient method to cultivate this embodiment that makes you come fully alive. Or at least it’s the best system I came across in terms of its holistic approach and depth that you can grow into with time. It is definitely a very comprehensive and sustainable maintenance of the body and a guide for consistent self-inquiry. The rest is unwritten and can only be uncovered by individual experience.
Mysore Style Ashtanga Yoga
The Sanskrit word ‘Ashtanga’ or ‘eight limbs’ is representative of the eight-fold path of Yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This source text synthesizes the philosophy and practice of yoga and stands as the centerpiece, passing on this ancient knowledge through time.
However nowadays most students practice only two of the original eight limbs described by Patanjali, when they refer to Ashtanga Yoga. These are the third and fourth limbs, Asana and Pranayama, posture and breathing exercises. This modern interpretation of Ashtanga Yoga was created by Krishna Pattabhi Jois during the 20th century. He was a student of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who could be referred to as ‘the father of modern yoga’, since most of the popular systems practiced in the West are descendants of his lineage.
The most distinctive feature of Ashtanga yoga compared to other methods, is what is described by ‘Mysore style’: Each student in the class practices independently at his or her own pace and skill level, following a memorized set sequence of asanas. There are six of these so called series and you learn them posture by posture, as the teacher gives you the next only after you understood the former one effectively. So in the beginning your practice might take less than an hour while after some years of consistent practice it can grow to two hours or more. This means that the level of experience amongst the students might vary greatly in the room, but all are treated equally. A beginner practices next to a very advanced student who might have practiced for decades. People of all ages and all physical constitutions come together each morning, six times a week to cultivate a deeper relationship with themselves. This obvious dedication by itself creates a powerful energy in the Mysore room, an almost palpable focus, accompanied only with the sound of deep breathing.
The role of the teacher is to watch over all students and offer guidance when needed. But most importantly he holds the energetic container where the students are allowed to meet their edge. Obviously a beginner needs more cues and also hands-on adjustments. But in general it’s very much a self-practice even when the teacher is present. It’s a moving meditation where you encounter yourself and external influence is to be kept at the required minimum. The teaching is in the practice itself and only little explanation is needed for it to take effect. 99% practice and 1% theory, as they say.
Besides these outer characteristics of the Ashtanga framework there are certain main components that are performed internally and are of upmost importance to yield the full potential of this method: The most important one is Vinyasa, the fusion of breath and movement while practicing asana. For each movement, there is one breath. When this link is firmly established the mind is under control and deeper transformation can occur. By moving and breathing together we heat up the body and allow an internal cleansing to occur. Toxins and impurities are freed from the organs and tissues and are then eliminated out of the body through sweating. Bringing together fire and air, the heat of vinyasa and the air of the breath, the body becomes an alchemical vessel of purification. This cleansing effect is the main goal of the Primary Series, besides establishing a balance between growing strength and newfound flexibility.
The nature of the breath is slow, deep and steady and always through the nose. This so called Ujjayi breathing creates a rushing sound that further helps the practitioner to focus inwardly, as it provides a strong audible point of focus that stays with you and also indicates when you’re pushing too far. Each asana is held for five to ten in- and exhalations and connects to the next one in a fluid motion. The gaze follows specific focal points (Drishti) throughout the whole practice, and is never just wandering around the room. Another key principle of Ashtanga Yoga are Bandhas, subtle internal engagements that are applied to direct and channel the flow of energy. Although they are a very real and tangible thing, it’s hard to explain it sufficiently without any first hand experience of it. It’s the balancing of the push and pull in a tensegrity system, that is our body.
After reaching a certain level of steadiness in our Asana practice, and as we have refined our capacity to sense the inner stirrings of our body, we are now ready to focus on a more subtle layer of energy: Pranayama, the forth limb of the eightfold path of yoga, referring to breath control. Prana is the vital life force and energy that runs through our body. This energy is constantly flowing through us, and through all living beings. Pranayama is the act of controlling and directing this energy, namely by controlling the flow of breath.
The breath is unique in its characteristic of bridging the gap between the conscious part of our lives where we wield influence, and the unconscious workings that happen outside of the realm of will. It is like the umbilical cord that connects the gross body to its most subtle realms. This makes conscious breathing the doorway into a new depth of felt bodily integrity that was unknown to us before. And it gives us a very accessible tool to directly determine the quality of our life, as proper breathing is the foundation of healthy living. Spending life in a constant state of stress and agitation takes its toll, since the body is not designed to stay in this ‘fight or flight’ mode for longer periods of time, let alone a lifetime. The shallow and nervous breath resulting from this disembodied lifestyle is a root cause for disease. Pranayama involves many different breathing techniques that aim at slightly different results. But the general direction is to calm and heal the body by making the breath slower and deeper, as this sends a signal to the nervous system that we are safe and everything’s ok. This relaxation is inextricably bound up with the parasympathetic part of our nervous system, telling the body to rest and digest, and ultimately heal. This newfound place of peace and calm opens a spaciousness, where deep concentration can arise. If this mode of operation becomes our prevailing state of being, we thrive in vibrant health and longevity. Some yogic texts state that one’s life is determined by number of breaths, and not by number of years. The deeper you breathe, the longer you can live.
As breath starts flowing deeper and deeper through our body, it becomes a direct agent of healing, massaging and helping to melt any areas of tension it touches and moves through. And as the ebb and flow of the breath slowly melts away old restrictions and rigid patterns, we become softer and more flexible, allowing for a new receptivity to bloom. We become permeable for our body’s intelligence to take over and show us new ways we couldn’t conceive of before. Over time the trust in this innate intelligence grows stronger and we realize that structural change is happening beyond comprehension, in the body and in the mind. But to initiate this process, we have to show up for it, consistently and diligently providing the body with positive stimuli to stir up the old patterns. This will not happen without pain. The perturbation of lifelong habits will inevitably cause discomfort and confusion, as we move into the unknown. But the reason we set out on this journey was not merely to feel better, but to feel better. And to develop the quality of equanimity in the face of challenging situations. The demands we impose onto ourselves through the postures are only mirroring the activities that make up our daily life. The mat is a training ground to explore your edge. Just pay attention and keep breathing. And then act from a deep intimacy with life and not from fear.
The system of Ashtanga Yoga provides a multi-faceted tool for cultivating this presence, the ability to deal with the actuality of our human existence, as it happens right now. Instead of spending life in a confused state between habitual reaction and avoidance, created in the dull and senseless comfort zone that is modern life.
Alienated from the living world, including our own bodies, we drift further and further into virtuality, a state deprived of the nurturing immediacy of feeling truly alive in this animal body. This felt presence of direct participation in life, is what I call Enchanted Embodiment. And when this all-encompassing enchantment and belonging inform our actions on this planet, the practice becomes a deep ecological one, as our sense of Embodiment ultimately grows to include the whole of the earth.
“The perfect way is without difficulty. Strive Hard!”
— Zen proverb
This essay was a contribution to PRESENT Magazine, Issue 1