“Yoga is About the Now” – A Masterclass with Manouso Manos
Article from the San Francisco Yoga Conference Blog
“Yoga is about the now,” said Manouso Manos, one of the most senior teachers in the lineage of renowned master B.K.S. Iyengar. Of course, Manouso said, there are lots of more immediate reasons we practice—to clear our minds and to recover from injuries, for instance. But underneath all these is the attempt to still what the Indians call the “monkey mind,” our tendency to skp ahead to the future or look back into the past—indeed, to do anything but remain simply absorbed in the present.
Like Mr. Iyengar himself in his recent teachings, Manouso consistently reminded us to look through the lens of physical practice toward this larger, deeper perspective. Skillful action in asana, he said, is attained when we accomplish this absorption into the present. In a way, our task in yoga practice is to allow the pose instructions, whether they come from our teachers or our memories of past classes, to bypass the brain and go straight into the body, creating this absorption.
Yet, paradoxically, it is the minutiae of instruction which helps us do that, as Manouso’s class so amply demonstrated. When we successfully implement the details of alignment and action which Iyengar has spent decades exploring and articulating, our bodies attain an ease even in the midst of work; they’re no longer clamoring for attention. At the same time, the mind is completely engaged, unwaveringly absorbed into creating the form of the pose.
Here’s how this worked in Manouso’s instructions for Ustrasana (Camel Pose). First, he instructed us to bring the knees directly under the hip sockets or even narrower, and the shins the same distance apart. He had us try the pose with the knees slightly wider, the width most student naturally adopt, and notice that doing so instantly created shortening and compression in the lower back—a compression that is both a distraction and a danger. Next, he had us push down extremely strongly at the base of the shin, as though we could flatten the bone into the mat; reach back with both hands to the tops of the heels; take the head back; and lift the outer upper wall of the chest. He had us try a common, supposedly easier and safer modification of the pose—coming up onto flexed toes rather than onto the tops of the feet—so that we could experience for ourselves that this variation in fact again creates potentially harmful compression in the lower back.Then, once we had come into the basic shape of the pose with these actions, he had us the broaden across the very tops of the hamstrings, bringing the outer upper hamstrings forward, and move the middle portion of the coccyx back. Again, he asked us to check into our experience, and almost all of us reported these actions had given us a sense of freedom and ease in the lower back and allowed us to lift higher in the midback and chest.
This kind of detail ran through Manouso’s instructions throughout the practice. After the classic invocation to Patanjali, we began with standing poses. “Standing poses give you the best odds in the house,” Manouso joked. “They provide the highest ratio of benefit to danger.”
We practiced Tadasana/Samasthithi (Mountain Pose/Equal Standing), Utthita Trikonsasana (Extended Triangle Pose), Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), and Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I); briefly rested the thighs in a Virasana variation (Hero Pose variation) with the feet together; moved on to Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) and another brief rest in the Virasana variation; then finished standing poses with Prasarita Padottanasana (Intense Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend) to prepare for Salamba Sirsasana I (Headstand). After Headstand came Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Ustrasana, another Downward Dog, Paschimottanasana (Intense Seated Forward Bend), Bharadvajasana I (Bharadvajasa’s Twist I), and Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-The-Wall Pose).
Manouso reminded us that every pose should not be practiced in exactly the same way every time; the same pose can be practiced with different foci to create different effects. Manouso taught our first Downward Dog to wake up the legs for Ustrasana, but the second Downward Dog to counteract any compression Ustrasana might have created in our lower backs.
He also reminded us that, while we tend to desire a static, final form for our poses when we come into them, they should always be a process. According to Manouso, Iyengar’s famous dictum that today’s maximum in practice should be tomorrow’s minimum does NOT simply refer to the physical depth we go to in a pose. Much more importantly, it refers to the constant necessity for us to relinquish the preconception we have of ourselves and our capacities we must go beyond our preconceptions to become absorbed in the truth of our experience—right here in the NOW.