In the end, yoga is not about the postures that we practice on our mats. The postures, and the grander practice they are a part of, are a series of opportunities to connect to the light that lives deep within our hearts. They are opportunities to perhaps move through darkness towards that deep inner light. (Always continue moving; the light may be buried quite deep, but it is certainly there.) They are also opportunities to allow this light to radiant out from within. After practicing on our mats we practice carrying this light into our communities and into our world. We practice connecting to the world from inner light to inner light.
I always feel as though I am a student of life, full of more questions than answers and more curiosity than skepticism. This week I am grateful to once again be a student in a more traditional sense, learning directly from a teacher about a subject I care deeply about. The process of learning opens the skies above and creates space in our minds. I feel as though I could fly! There is always something new to learn, on our mats and off them too!
Over the years I have heard many people use the word ‘decompressing’ to describe time they have spent relaxing, letting go, or unwinding, generally after an effortful period of work.
I unintentionally spent a few minutes yesterday evening simply sitting in my quiet home in silence; after a little time I realized that I quite literally felt decompression happening within me. I could feel the crowding of people and voices around me perceptibly vanishing after days of constant interaction and activity. I could feel my skin, ears, and eyes relax and soften. I could feel my senses becoming curious again after days of filtering and even blocking out some sensory information due to overload. I could feel my breath moving in a simple and regular pattern. I could focus on one thought at a time, calmly and quietly, as well as notice the space between them. I felt peaceful and light and content within. This is the harmony and wholeness of body, breath, mind, and heart that I aim to teach through yoga.
Practicing physical yoga on a mat is one excellent and deliberate way to help decompress the tangible and intangible layers of ourselves. Sitting in stillness on the couch in the evening is one excellent way to do so inadvertently! Include both intentional and inadvertent kinds of practice in your life; intentional practice teaches you to perceive and to savour the surprise moments of harmony within.
When a basil plant reaches its flowering stage it displays the beauty of the flowers as the pinnacle of its growth. It also begins to slowly die. On the other hand, when the plant’s stems are cut with at least a couple lower leaves intact, the plant continues to grow and thrive and produce it’s delicious edible leaves.
We experience life in both of these ways. We either explore an activity or a relationship in a linear way towards a pinnacle flowering point, or we explore in a cyclical manner with ongoing growth to experience and savour and digest.
Both approaches to experiencing life are valid and important. Both approaches are and have been applied to physical yoga practice on the mat. Which approach do you follow on the mat? And why?
This is the first year I have grown garlic, and I have to say it is very satisfying to finally dig it out of the dirt. As you can see in the photo, when things look withered, old, tired, uninspired, or otherwise beyond their prime…sometimes all you need to do is dig a little deeper to find their true treasures!
Practicing physical yoga is an opportunity to notice, to observe, and to recognize our patterns. These patterns may exist as habits in our body, breath, mind, or emotions. They are often subconscious or hidden as they are caused by repetition in our day to day living, and our practice allows them to come up to the surface so that we can see them in the light.
Why is this important?
We can only shift patterns that we know exist. We can only choose a different path if we know which one we are currently on. We can only create new habits by determinedly yet compassionately loosening the hold of the old ones that don’t serve us; then the new ones have space to develop.
In Sanskrit the word ‘samskara’ refers to these patterns or habits, and even more specifically it refers to the fact that these patterns and habits are often knotted and painful, causing us suffering in body, breath, mind, or emotions. When we begin to release these knots and unravel the habits that are (un)consciously hurting us, only then do we have the opportunity to practice more seamless, fluid, and life-affirming patterns both on and off the mat.
I have been reading a book written by my good friend Irene, which you can see in this photograph and which you can learn more about here. She explores how we have become disconnected from our essential nature as humans, how our current cultural context blinds us and causes us to forget our essential nature, and how we can reconnect to this essential nature. This is a valuable exploration because the path we are on is unsatisfying and more importantly unsustainable for humans and for the entire planet that we are a part of.
In Part 2, Chapter 7 Irene writes that “…examining ways to bring about a balance between the female and male characteristics for every human regardless of gender would benefit our quest to reconnect with our essential nature.”
I believe that hatha yoga (physical yoga) is an ideal practice for reconnecting to our female and male characteristics and for finding a balance between these aspects of ourselves. The word ‘hatha’ itself derives from two parts, ‘ha’ and ‘tha’, pointing towards the sun (male) and moon (female). Hatha yoga invites us to be strong and supple. It invites us to integrate and expand. It invites us to be active and passive. It invites us to consider the visible and the hidden. It can be approached in a yin or a yang manner. It includes time to both inhale and exhale. These are just a few ideas, but I think you understand where I am going with this.
Hatha yoga allows us to practice connecting to both female and male aspects of ourselves. It allows us to bring these aspects into balance. Often it asks us to hold space inside of ourselves simultaneously for these two aspects, which teaches us that both are necessary and that they are in fact mutually supportive instead of in conflict. Most importantly it allows us to do all this in a very tangible and simple manner, with our own bodies and with our own efforts. If you have never looked at your physical yoga practice in this way before, see what happens when you do!
Building yoga postures can be very similar to growing fruits and vegetables. The preparatory stages of an asana are like a tomato seed living in an indoor seedling tray. You tend it very carefully to provide the optimal conditions for it to sprout and begin to grow. This is your consistent practice to strengthen and open the appropriate parts of you in preparation for one day embodying your intended asana or posture. Now it is time to build your intended asana.
First you need a steady and rooted foundation, like the tomato plant whose roots are deep enough and whose leaves are hardy enough to help it withstand the elements outdoors. In yoga postures this would be your stable anchors in the ground, generally your feet and sometimes your hands or knees or other parts of the body. Then you need integration and strength, like the upright main trunk of the plant and the slowly-toughening outer layers of the trunk and branches (in this case combined with a supporting cage structure). This would be the muscular strength, integration, and core support in your posture. Then it is finally time to grow and expand, all the while maintaining your roots and your integration. They will support you as you reach for the sun and the stars and extend your branches to all sides to bear delicious fruits!!
I have a tendency to worry about what I should be doing, what I need to do next, and what I should have already done. What if it is sometimes best to just do nothing? To let breath pass through my body? To allow the minutes to tick by unfilled? To see what I see without actively looking for it? In short, what if it is sometimes best to let life happen to me?
If you tend towards doing and need time to practice non-doing, then I encourage you to try out a restorative yoga practice sometime. It is a conscious choice to do nothing, if only for a short while.
Recently I have been asking students to place their feet with their eyes closed, using their inner eye and internal perception to place their feet parallel and hip width apart. Then I ask them to open their eyes and look to see where their feet actually are in space.
This is a simple way to play with balancing our internal and external perception, or with calibrating what we feel or think is going on with what is actually going on. Are there other ways that we can play with balancing internal and external perception? Is it always the external view with our actual eyes that is the standard or is the internal view with our inner eye sometimes the standard? Is internal or external perception more important? Or does it depend on the situation?
Whatever your answers are to the above questions, I think it is valuable to do simple exercises on the mat that help your inner and outer eyes converse with each other. This way when a situation comes up in real life where your inner and outer eyes appear to be in disagreement, you have already been practicing this skill of balancing or calibrating your internal and external perception. Time on the mat is an opportunity to practice life. The stakes are low, the tasks rather simple compared to the complexity of real life. Take advantage of this opportunity so that real life feels ever more stable and easeful.