Working towards moksha, conscious liberation, is about internalizing limits, so that we can express ourselves within those limits in response to our inner environment or our outer environment or both.
You could think of this as creative freedom.
I first got a taste of this learning Andrey Lappa’s universal yoga system.
Previously I’d practiced Ashtanga yoga. It’s a set sequence of poses. And while that can seem limiting, there is some freedom in that practice. It’s in how you approach each pose. As an example of this, one of my students told me that when I taught Ashtanga, even though it was the same sequence of poses, each time I managed to make it feel different.
If you are doing Ashtanga as a solo practice, i.e. without a teacher, there’s also the freedom in not having to think about what pose to do next. If you’ve memorized the sequence of poses you can get on with doing them.
That being said, it is a set series of poses and I wanted the freedom to choose to do (and teach) different poses in different sequences meaningfully.
That’s where Andrey’s system came in.
As part of his system, Andrey looked at each joint within the body and suggested that each has a maximum of six useful movement possibilities. They can bend in four directions and turn in two. They can also be compressed or tensioned. These last two where, when I learned, included for completeness.
Focusing on the six "useful" possibilities, obviously some joints have less than these possibilities, the knees and elbows for example. However, with this basic model you had a way of categorizing movements for each joint.
The idea was that for any movement practice you needed to work a joint through all of it’s possible movements, or at the very least work with opposing pairs. So if you do external rotation, also do internal rotation. If you bend forwards, then also bend rearwards.
The idea in so doing was that each practice done with this in mind left the body in a balanced state.
There was a bit more to it than that though. Joints like the knee and hip affect each other. And so if you bent the hip forwards with the knee bent then you should also bend the hip backwards with the knee bent. Then you should also do both hip actions with the knee straight.
That was just the tip of the ice berg. Andrey's system covered a lot of variables. The better you knew or understood the system, the more freely you could express yourself within the context of a yoga practice. And because he looked at the body as the sum of a individual joints, his system includes the possibility of coming up with new poses. And so for example, a lot of different shoulder stretches came about because of his system. (He may not have invented them, but prior to meeting Andrey, no yoga book or teacher I'd met who hadn't worked with Andrey had any real idea of how to effectively stretch the shoulders bar using the usual shoulder stretches).
His idea was to use these guidelines to create a balanced practice, and a creative one. Hence the title of his style including the word "freestyle".
His system was much more than what I’ve described above. He looked at many variables and the possibilities for each with the idea that the better you understood the system, the more freely you could do a balanced yoga practice.
Note that he created a system, a set of limits. By internalizing or learning these limits (and that means not having to write them on a cheat sheet but memorizing them ahead of time), and knowing what you have done, you could then figure out what you need to do on the fly for a balanced freestyle practice.
Assuming you'd memorized this set of rules, or limits, you'd have the freedom to express yourself freely within those limits.
In the same way, Ashtanga gave you a sort of freedom assuming you memorized the sequence of poses. You could do the poses and not have to worry about what came next. You could focus on some aspect of doing the pose. But in either case freedom resulted from learning a set of rules.
With Ashtanga Yoga I could express myself freely within each pose.
With Universal Yoga I could express myself freely in how I chose poses.
I experienced something similar when learning Chinese calligraphy.
One of my first teachers had me copying his works. And so I would look at a short section of characters, then paint them from short term memory.
I had to look every few strokes to see where I was and what I had to paint next. I was basically learning to copy. And while it did give me some practice with holding a brush and expressing myself, I wasn’t really free because none of this was an expression of me.
That's a little incorrect. I was expressing myself, but it was a very limited expression. I was limited because I had to have the piece I was copying beside me. I was limited because I had to keep looking to see what to paint next.
Studying with another teacher, I memorized the verses that I wanted to paint. Then I painted them from memory. Repeatedly.
Now I was becoming more free as a calligrapher because I was making each character a part of me. And while initially my characters might be based on my teachers, the more I practiced, the more I began to express some of them in my own way.
In the process I began to become more free as a calligrapher.
On a related note, Haiku are poems with a strict set of rules. The more you practice playing within these set of rules, the better you get at writing haiku. The restrictions of the form set you free.
Another sort of freedom, similar to that I am learning to express via calligraphy, I learned from Andrey Lappa’s dance of shiva.
This system of movement is based on two basic arm movements.
One could be thought of as "balancing tea cups" while moving the palms in continuous spirals (with tea cups on the palms). The other movement could be thought of as a knife hand. You slice the air with the front or back edge of your hand in continuous vertical spirals.
Andrey divided each of these two movement into four parts each so that each movement had four precisely defined positions. The teacup balancing positions were called 1, 2, 3 and 4 while the knife hand positions were called A, B, C and D.
Each hand thus has 8 positions and using both hands at the same time you then had 64 possible positions (8x8).
The idea of the dance of shiva was to learn all possible movements so that from any position you could move to any other position. For completeness, there was also the option of connecting each position to itself. Call this the "zero" move.
So with 64 positions, and 64 possible movements from each position (if you include the zero move) then there are 64x64 possible movements.
64x64 movements is a lot. It can take a while to learn all of these movements, but the cool thing is that learning is a bit easier if you divide the movements into groups or categories and focus on learning a few types of moves at a time.
No one set of movements was any more difficult than any other set. However, you have to start learning somewhere, and it can be easier to have a consistant starting point for learning the moves. So you start with level 1, learn the movements there, and then move on to level 2.
When I first learned this system from Andrey, he described each level as destroying the habits learned in the previous level.
I’d say that instead of destroying habits, you learn new options.
What's the difference?
A habit is something that you can do without thinking. We tend to think of habits as bad because in general they tend to be hard to change. As an example, for me I had to work really hard to break a swearing habit. I also had to work hard to break a habit of buying and eating junk foot after school.
To help me stop swearing I had to first notice when I swore, then I began substituting silly words for my swear after the fact. Then I became consciousness enough of when I was about to swear that I could substitute a silly word before I actually swore. Then I learned to stop before saying a swear word or silly word. I could then choose whether to swear or not.
To stop myself from buying candy, each time I walked by the corner store and I wanted to walk in (assuming I had money in my pocket) I first walked by the store a few steps. If I still had the impulse to by then I'd go back. But often times I found that after walking a few steps by the store I could then continue my walk home without buying anything.
A part of me learning to deal with habits was first noticing them or becoming conscious of them. Another part of it was giving myself options.
And that's what learning the Dance of Shiva is about.
Learning each new level of the Dance of Shiva isn't about destroying habits, it's about creating options. You actually learn more habits at each level. Each habit is a move from one position to another position that you can execute without having to think about how to do it. They are still habits, but becuase there are multiple habits to choose from, not they are options.
And with the Dance of Shiva, the more movement habits that you learn, the more free you become to express yourself within the Dance of Shiva.
And that in part is what "internalizing" limits is about. By learning habits so that you can do certain things without having to think about them you free up "processing power" or consciousness so that you can focus on, for example, the big picture.
To understand what this can mean, I'll turn to motorcycling as an example.
And that's one way in which I diverged from Andrey's original system of the Dance of Shiva. To make it easier for me to learn, I gave each movement a unique name. Thus it was easy to write out the 64 different movements. From there I then created categories based on the feeling of each move.
Focusing on single arm movements first, cyclic movements are movements that go through four positions before returning to the start. Acyclic movements only go through two positions.
Then there are change movements and same plane movements. Same plane movements stay in the same plane for each repetition of the move while change plane movements alternate planes each move.
Considering both arms at the same time we then have the following groups of movements:
The reason for all of these categories is to make it easier to learn the movements within each category. No one category is necessarily harder than any other. However, each category of movements has a particular feel or rhythm. And if you start by learning one set of moves from one category, it can then be easier to learn (and practice) other moves from within the same category.
While learning the initial moves from a new category can be challenging, once learned, further moves from the same category can be easier to learn since they share a rhythm or feel.
Once all movements have been learned from all categories, you can ideally do all movements equally easily, no matter what category they belong to. And thus, you no longer need the categories of movements. Unless you are teaching the movements to someone else.
In a similar way, you also don’t really need the names of the positions and movements once you’ve learned them.
As a teacher with a group of students the names are helpful because they help you to communicate, but if you are just practicing you don’t really need the names. Unless part of your chosen practice is to be able to say the name of the position you are in without thinking.
With dance of shiva, there are two types of limits. The first set of limits is the actual positions and movements. These are what we can try to internalize so that we can do all of the movements of the dance of shiva freely.
The categories of movements are another set of limits. These are temporary limits that we can use to make learning the movements easier.
So in the dance of shiva, freedom results from learning all possible movements. The more you know, the more free you become to express yourself within this practice.
But the freedom comes from practicing little bits at a time. And those little bits are created by drawing temporary limits.
As an example of this, learning to ride a motorcycle, the learning phase involved learning to brake, steer, increase speed and change gears in a car park. Each of these where initially focused on individually. Once these skills where turned into habits, we could then drive on the road. Now each of these habits could be called into play in response to whatever we encountered on the road.
Bruce lee talks about the freedom of water to flow. That we should be like water. But water flows because of gravity.
Water fills the shape of whatever it is poured into because gravity pulls it. Gravity gives water direction. And if water flows down a river bed it is because the walls and floor of the river bed direct the water. It is only because of the water bed and gravity that water flows.
So in order to be free to flow like water, you need limits. And that’s what the arm positions and the movements of the dance of shiva are. A set of limits.
But to be free, or to express yourself freely, it also helps to have an intent.
And that’s something I began to forget while doing Andrey’s style of yoga.
I began not to worry about doing balanced routines, instead just relying on intuition, which can be good, but in this case it led me to think that something was missing. It wasn’t so much in the system, it was me missing this simple point.
But this in turn gave me the freedom to explore something called meridian yoga.
Here the idea of a practice could be to stretch each meridian (or exercise each meridian) in turn. The meridians have (or are given) a particular flow. And so the goal of my practices for a while was to follow this flow, in part using ideas of Andrey’s but using the meridians as a guide for how I sequenced poses.
The results where quite extraordinary. These type of practices left me feeling energized and refreshed without being worn out.
Note that Andrey’s system includes ideas on how to sequence poses, but following the meridians gave me a consistently nice feeling at the end of each class.
This was the pull, the gravity that allowed me to flow.
So what then is moksha? I’d say that part of it is the result of practice. It is the result of internalizing limits, so that we can choose the limits that we play within. The better you know the limits of whatever it is that you are practicing, the more freely you can express yourself within those limits.
But it helps to have a guiding intent.
As an example of what this could be, I once painted a piece of calligraphy while meditating on a friend's recently dead rabbit. It was meant as a sort of memorial. That intent subtly controlled the way that I painted, made it more meaningful outside of the words that I was actually painting.
So freedom could be thought of as the ability to express an intent freely. And it could be thought of as having the ability to express that intent despite whatever limits are in place.
Now think of Bruce Lee’s water. It is in a cup. It is poured out. While it is in mid air, it is effectively free, it is unbound or infinite. And then poured into a cup it becomes finite or "bound" again.
Now imagine that while in mid air, the water can choose which cup it gets poured into (or which vessel.)
If we are like water in mid-stream, freedom is in the ability to choose the vessel that we get poured into. Freedom is also the ability to fill any vessel that we get poured into.
What can inhibit our freedom? Our mind and the things that we think.
While conscious freedom can start with various movement practices, a big part of becoming liberated is noticing how our thoughts limit us.
Our mind is what we use to create limits. And this is a very useful tool, especially when learning. It allows us to create categories so that we can focus on learning what is within each category. However, our mind can also create limits when we don’t need them. The more aware we are of the limits that our mind creates, the easier it is to nullify those limits.
And to that end it can help to think of our mind, our consciousness having two modes. The thinking mind, is the part that creates limits. The flowing mind is the part that allows us to sense what is happening now and to respond. Both "modes" are useful.
When learning, we can create limits so that we can practice what is within those limits. We learn habits, make the practice a part of ourselves so that we can express it without thinking. Instead we can be present.
Using calligraphy as an example, I can learn a piece character by character and then practice painting it. After each session I can look back at what I’ve painted, analyze it to see if there are things that I can do better.
I might not like the transition between two characters and so I choose to practice painting those two characters in isolation. Then I go back to painting the whole thing again. This time I notice that my characters are all too big for the size of the paper I am painting on so next time I resolve to paint slightly smaller. So this is a little like learning but in reverse. Instead of analyzing before-hand, analysis is done after the fact.
What happens while actually painting? That’s when the flowing mind is engaged. The idea here is to paint without judgement, without the thinking mind interfering.
Stepping away from the calligraphy example, our thinking mind can often be judging things as we do them. It can be labelling. And that is the thing that, if we want to be consciously free, that we have to learn to be aware of. Thinking isn’t a bad thing, however it can limit us needlessly. And the more we become aware of it the easier it becomes to turn thoughts of when we don’t need them or when they get in the way of what we are trying to do.
And so becoming free is in part about practicing skills so that we can internalize them and turn them into habits. But it is also about noticing the state of our consciousness, in particular noticing thoughts so that we can switch them of or change them if we choose.
And this may be how we can flow more like water. By noticing thoughts, we can change them as we see fit. We can thus adjust our limits on the fly, or ditch them completely and switch them out with a clear intent so that we can flow in response to whatever is happening in our inner environment and/or our outer environment.
So going back to the idea of water in the process of being poured. While being poured it is infinite, unbound. In this case infinite doesn’t mean that the volume of water is extremely large. It simply means that it isn’t bound by any particular shape. Gravity pulls it, but that water can take up any number (and infinite number) of configurations.
It is potential to fill any shape completely. But until it actually meets a container and is poured into it, it is unrealized potential. Being poured into different shapes is how its potential is realized. It experiences those different shapes. And because it is water, because it is already unbound, it doesn’t need experience to be able to fill any shape, it just does.
For ourselves on the other hand, we need training. The more we experience, and the more we learn from those experiences, the more potential we have.
So that we can be more like water, there is something we can bear in mind. The process of gaining experience, and turning that experience into understanding might be more efficient if we break experiences down into basic units of meaning.
The smaller these units of meaning, the easier it is to recombine smaller units of meaning into larger units that might otherwise have to be learned individually.
Water as ice cannot uptake different forms. It has to unfreeze then re-freeze in a new form. It’s only when it is liquid that it can be pulled by gravity into various shapes. (As a gas…) As a liquid, the molecules that make water up can move freely relative to each other to help the volume as a whole assume the shape of the container it is in.
Focusing on posture and movement that could translate to learning to feel and control joints and muscles and learning simple principles that can be applied consistently to the configuration of joints and muscles for posture or movement.
Since the body is controlled by the mind (or is partnered with it), the better the mind knows the body (in terms of these smaller units of meaning, the better the two can work together. The more freely the two can work together, with response driven by whatever pulls them in response to change in the inner and/or outer environment.
Freedom then is the ability to create desired changes and to respond to change in desired ways, freely and without the need for thought. Mind, body, and the changes that are experienced and created act as if driven by the same source, like boats riding on waves being driven by the wind.
And that’s one final example of freedom. My dad told me of sailing with a friend of his in a race. Being driven by the same wind two boats were neck and neck. My dad was instructed to make slight adjustments to one of the sails, repeatedly. Despite being driven by the same wind, the boat he was on pulled ahead. One could say that the captain was more free based on his experience. He knew what to do to get every last bit of driving force out of the wind, enough so that he could pull ahead of a competitor.
(Apparently, the competition was a little exasperated. "How are they doing that?" they could be heard saying (the boats were that close).
For us humans, the more we have experienced, and the more we have turned that experience into understanding, and the smaller the blocks of meaning that make up that understanding, the more free we become.
Our consciousness becomes liberated because we’ve taken external limits and turned them into models that we can access within ourselves.
The Chinese call this Gong Fu. Inner Skill. The freedom to act intelligently and skillfully without thought.
Limits are a way of giving shape to energy. Without direction, without limits, movement is meaningless. Freedom is meaningless without limits.
The goal in learning is to internalize limits so that you can change them at will. Freedom is then the ability to choose the limits that you work within.
You could learn a forward move. One arm at a time that would be from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 to 1. The backward move would be the reverse.
Note that a move connects any two positions so 1 to 2 is a forward move. 2 to 1 is a backward move.
There is a transquarter move that connects non adjacent positions in the same plane (i.e. 1 and 3, 2 and 4). Then there is a change move that connects corresponding positions in both planes (i.e. 1 and a, b and 2).
Then there are combinations of the change move with the forward, backward and transquarter move. These then, along with the zero move, form the complete set of movements with one arm.
(In short form these moves would be:
F, B, T, C, CF, CB, CT, 0)
Combine these movements using both arms at the same time and you have all of the possible movements with both arms.
Now, say at level one you start of by learning combinations of the forward and backwards movements (F-F, B-B, F-B, B-F). You learn these till you can do them without thinking from all possible positions. Now from any position you can do some combination of forward or backward moves. There is a freedom of sorts, but you are limited because you only are allowed certain movements.
Learn more movements, say the combinations of CF and CB (CF-CF, CB-CB, CF-CB, CB-CF) then you have slightly more freedom. Now from any position you have the option of moving to 8 other positions.
Learn all of the movements and you can move from any position to any other position freely. Learning all of the movements you are now free to express yourself with the dance of shiva.
Stepping back for a moment to look at the basics, if you repeat a Forward or Backward movement four times you return to the position you started in. e.g. 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 1-1. With movement algorithms, you could have a sequence of four different moves that you have to repeat four times for a total of 16 movements before you return to the start.
e.g. F-T, C-C, T-T, CT-CF,
the first repetition takes you through these positions:
1-1, 2-3, b-c, d-a, 2-2.
2-2, 3-4, c-d, a-b, 3-3.
Repeat two more times and you return to position 1-1.
You could have the goal of developing sequences that take you through all possible positions without visiting any position more than once.
(This was a past time of mine for quite a while)