An student of mine recently completed one of my courses on Yoga International and wrote me a few reflections, one of which was “You taught to lift the legs first in the back bend which was a lot harder for me to then to lift my chest first.”
Her comment made me think about my learning process with asana studies. For many years, I studied the shapes, the forms, the “how to” of getting into and out of the postures, the application of the actions that help activate the shape or mitigate the inherent dangers of the shape, the ways to make the pose more accessible and, in a sense ,“easier” and so on. I learned (and learned to teach) all about the poses as though doing the pose is the point of the pose. Fair enough. After all, the execution of asana is part of our subject matter as is understanding the means by which we might practice the poses with greater proficiency and/or help others do the same. We might call this stage “learning the language of asana.”
So far so good, right?
Once I learned the language of the asanas and had some familiarity with the “how to” as well as the “how to do what I need to do for ourselves within the pose” then I got to use the poses as tools for explorations, not as the subject of the study itself. Once we learn dhanurasana, for instance, we can practice it by lifting our chest first, by lifting our legs first, by lifting both as evenly as possible, by belting our legs, by squeezing a block between our legs, by adding height under the top of our hips, by adding height under the lower part of our pelvis, by changing the placement of our grip and so on, ad infinitum. And, like my online student noticed, not every variation makes the pose easier, better, more enjoyable, or is even going to be consistent with other variations or common interpretations of the posture.
Using the asana as a means of exploration rather than simply the subject of study opens up a world of possibility, although the leap is not for everyone. For those people looking for any form of certainty, the exploratory work is often frustrating. For those who enjoy competency and being good at things, the fact that the exploratory work often makes poses more difficult and not always more doable, is sometimes too much to bear. For those seeking the safety of “right” and “wrong” the exploration through asana contains too many variables to manage with way too much gray area to navigate. And, of course, for those folks who don’t want to reflect, analyze, observe, make distinctions and/or find nuances within the asana experience, this work will be way too mental to be enjoyable. Or sustainable. (Like black licorice- people like it or they don’t. Although, some occasionally acquire the taste for it.)
For me, the exploration is where the fun of alignment is. I know some people look to alignment for the how-to of the pose and we have great information for that domain of interest. Others see alignment principles primarily as safety protocols and I believe we have some of that to offer. Others practice alignment as a means by which to be certain, to be right and for others to be wrong and that is a possible application. I see alignment in asana as a means through which we explore ourselves through the postures. While it can seem like “working on the pose” and can easily tip into obsessively tracking details or imposing something on ourselves from outside-in, alignment-oriented approaches offer a means by which I can develop a relationship with the pose and my body as well as with my attention, awareness and consciousness.
I get to see, “Wow, that approach is more difficult. Why? What does it require differently of me, of my body?” Or maybe, “Wow, that is so much easier the way! What do I get from the variation that I don’t normally have? What can I build to move in the direction of this new-found ease? What might I let go of?” And, perhaps topping the list of important in my book is “Wow, that approach is harder and I am not good at it. How am I with myself when my competency isn’t high? Am I nice to myself? Might I learn to be?”
And so on.
At some point my interest changed from the “How To Do The Shape” domain of study to the “Interest in the Exploration” domain of study. In the “Interest in Exploration” domain, that I notice the difference is what is compelling and vital, not that the difference makes me better or worse at the pose or makes the pose easier or harder to perform. Noticing, rather than performing, is the skill-set being developed.
And of course, there are other games to play beyond the work of observation, noticing, and tending to the cascading effects of the instructions within a pose while we study the the cause and effects of the alignment within ourselves. The work in asana is never-ending and the depths never reached in their entirety. And, so we are clear, I am naming these domains as categories as through they are distinct, when in truth, I think they are intersecting sets, like a Venn diagram. All those different explorations often yield proficiency in execution. And greater awareness will often take us to deeper non-analytical absorption and experience. And a more compassionate relationship with difficulty and a more curious relationship with ease are actually life-skills where as balancing in handstand does not pay the bills, make relationships function smoothly, or provide much in the way of soothing one’s existential angst, fun as handstands may be for some folks.
Well, I am up agains my 1000-word limit so I will close it out now.
I am in Tucson this weekend for 3-day intensive with Darren Rhodes at Yoga Oasis. This is a yearly team-teaching program we offer and I always look forward to being in his good company and in the supportive community of Yoga Oasis. This is my last out-and-about teaching gig for 2019 and I am taking a few days to go on retreat at my guru’s ashram after I finish. Then I’ll head home from some R&R (Snowboarding, here I come!) and some online program development I will launch early in 2020. (So stay tuned for details on that!)
Love to you all.
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