The landscape of yoga

Yoga is rich in potential for health and healing. Research continues to confirm that a remedy for anguish can be found within this old and very comprehensive art.

Expressions that weren’t typically associated with the subject a few years ago are being absorbed into the modern lexicon of yoga. One example of this is the word ground.

Ground can be defined as “the solid surface of the earth (or) an area of land used for a particular purpose or endeavour”[1]. In yoga historically, ground is used to refer to location, a place where Sadhana (practice) is conducted.

References to the need for an appropriate place for practice are found in many yoga texts, including the Bhagavad Gita:

“Select a clean spot, neither too high nor too low, and seat yourself firmly on a cloth, a deerskin, and kusha grass”[2].

Elaborating on this, the Jnanesvari- a commentary on the Gita- explains that this is:

“a place which, (when) ones resides there, brings contentment, (and) firmness of mind as armour, where practice is accomplished automatically, and experience itself teaches the heart”[3]

Here, attention is given to the need for the site to promote practice simply by means of the feeling it evokes. On reflection, this isn’t unlike the effect referred to in the increasingly used ground as a verb.

Describing the process of becoming emotionally stable, grounding refers to any method that calms a turbulent mental state. It speaks to an in-the-moment reconnection, a return to stability and a release from tension that allows us to get on with our day-to-day routine more effectively. For some, grounding happens in nature. Others might find that cooking, exercise, or engaging in a creative pursuit helps them settle. Any number of exercises can be found online to help in moments of intense stress or overwhelm.  A consistent feature of this activity is that it allows us to get on with things, the routine of our life. There is also an implicit sense that the need to ground emerges because the conditions of our life are too much, making it harder to be present and preventing us from meeting some deeper need.

Within a practice of yoga, this use of the term corresponds with an essential preparatory stage; it’s only from a place of steadiness that it’s possible to start exploring the deeper question of who we are which is inherently difficult and potentially destabilising work. From a classical yoga perspective though, this work is ultimately necessary if we are to manage our suffering in a more fundamental and enduring way.

A pivotal moment in my yoga life was an experience I had in an early class in Sydney. I had been attending for about a year when my teacher introduced Malasana. We were working with heels on a block, feet together and knees apart, squatting on haunches and then with arms wrapped low around the front of the shins, trying to throw a belt across the mid back to gain a grip between our hands.

Pictured below is BKS Iyengar in the full pose

[1] Oxford Languages,

[2] Easwaran, E. The Bhagavad Gita. Nilgiri Press: California, 1985

[3] Mallinson, J. & Singleton, M. Roots of Yoga. Penguin: London, 2017

It’s not easy to attempt as a beginner; it involves balance, strong forward extension and the use of a prop to focus work also on both the steady grip of upper arm to inner shin, and the rotation of shoulder required to access the full grip in time. No going around these to ‘achieve’ the belt catch. Within the class I was capable enough, and I reasoned that if others in the group were able to catch the belt, I should be able too. But I was wrong. One flick after the next, again and again, and no catch. I recall crying out as I looked to my teacher, eyes wide, “but I can’t do it!”

Accusation, a plea for help, indignation, frustration and humiliation all converged in that yelp. And the feeling overall is still sharp. It quietened me, and even when I managed to attempt another hopeful flick… nothing.

When my teacher acknowledged me but didn’t yield to the outburst (which I had hoped she would) I learnt a lot; about my assumptions about myself-who I thought I was-  about the layers of work available in practice, and also how teachers can help in ways that as students we don’t always understand or appreciate at a point in time.

I was able to encounter all of this because I had established a relationship with my teacher and trusted her capacity in her own practice enough to know that whatever I experienced in class was of value in my learning. I felt stable in the teaching space.

The second feature in the commentary referred to is the mention of firmness of mind as “armour.”

An association with the battlefield isn’t misplaced here. Armour is required because beyond the steadying location that we try to establish for our endeavour is the practice field of the charnel ground. The literal definition of charnel ground is a cemetery or cremation area. A confronting, even frightening place, unpalatable for the uninitiated, it is traditionally the site of religious rituals, as well as being auspicious for yoga sadhana.

Symbolically, it can refer to any fear-provoking location; in psychological terms, “any situation we don’t want to face, or place we are unwilling to go. At the edge of the charnel ground, we renounce worldly concerns.” [1]

[1] Khandro, C. Welcome to the Charnel Ground, 20/11/2020

When we continue in earnest in a practice of yoga we can find ourselves on the threshold or suddenly in the very midst of this arena, encountering powerful and threatening forces: strong aversion, confusion, jealousy and ego’s grip in the face of instinctive fear. The teaching may, and arguably should, provoke a student into contact with these klesa (afflictions).[2]

In this confrontation, a student might unknowingly project their reactive discomfort onto the teacher, resisting, becoming defensive, angry, disconnecting, or even giving up. It’s also the case that in response to this a teacher may themselves be triggered, and find that they also become reactive.

This is valuable experiencing within the framework of self-study (svadhyaya) that the student-and teacher as student- undertakes. But it requires a willingness on the part of the student to enter into these uncertain spaces and a high level of skill in self-reflection on the part of the teacher for these moments to be harnessed towards insight.

A teacher who understands that the work of genuine practice is to expose us to the hard mess of being human will hold a compassionate presence in this difficult arena. They are familiar with the terrain and the resistance that can rise in the face of these encounters and will work towards evolving their capacity to attend sensitively to students in these spaces.

This is a different model of yoga practice from one that remains focussed on the effort to feel good. As practice is potentially a pathway through suffering, both grounding and the ground are necessary. Building up a relationship with practice as well as a teacher opens us as students to the psychophysical support available along the path. We are then much more likely to be able to accept the challenge to go further into the mire of our inner world.

There is dark to contend with there, but there is also an inextinguishable, illuminating light.

[2] In Patanjali’s yoga sutras, the klesas include avidya (ignorance), asmita (ego) raga (desire) dvesa (aversion) and abhinivesa (fear of death/clinging to life). Bryant suggests that Klesas are the equivalence of the Buddhist term dukkha, often translated as suffering, or unsatisfactoriness, see Bryant, E. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. North Point Press: New York, 2009