I started this article a couple of months ago, couldn’t manage to have a clear outline, and let it go in the WordPress drawers for a while. I started thinking about it again after last weekend’s workshop. It’s still pretty messy, but I’ll go through a couple of points which show how my definition of progress in my asana practice has evolved, so bear with me:
- getting into/holding poses
- understanding the mechanics of the pose : awareness and making the pose yours
- getting to a point of concentration in the pose where it feels “light”
- practicing today
Getting into/holding poses
When I started practicing, I measured my progress in whether I was able or not to get into certain poses (handstand, headstand, crow, side plank…) or how long I could stay in others (Warriors, downward dog, tree pose, half moon pose). And it is indeed a good feedback; my first yoga teacher used to say “If after six months of practicing with me you’re not able to get into crow pose I have failed as your teacher” – she was an Anusara teacher, and Bakasana is taught in almost every class.
I believe I have said previously that I will only ever feel like a beginner in my yoga practice; the more I learn, the more I see how much more there it to learn. Recently though, I realized that my view of what is a normal range of movement is quite skewed. If you spend a lot of time hanging out at a yoga studio, going to workshops with senior teachers, and looking for inspiration on the net, it seems only reasonable that your hands touch the floor when you bend forward and that you can balance on your hands. Teaching is a very good reminder that it is not the case for everyone.
I taught a complete beginner yesterday, a pretty stiff one at that. I caught myself pitying him. I still remember what it is to live in a body that you can’t control and feeling that everything that the teacher asks is impossible. Even though I am the flexible type, when I started I was very limited by my lack of strength (especially abs, still my weak point…). So arm balances for example looked impossible. The day I got into Astavakrasana I realized nothing is impossible and this powerful lesson has been with me ever since. “Practice, and all is coming” as Ashtanga guru Pattabhi Jois said.
It does feel great when you finally manage to get into a pose you previously couldn’t do. But there are poses you may never be able to perform because of your own physiology, and poses you shouldn’t do even though you can; I’ll get to that later. And in any case, as you reach a plateau after the initial ascending curve in your physical practice, you’re not going to get into a new pose every week, month or even possibly year. Even though there are many, many asanas, at some point “getting into” or “holding” a pose is not a sufficient progress indicator anymore.
Understanding the mechanics of the pose : awareness and making the pose yours
There comes a point when you not only can or cannot get into the pose, but you start understanding the subtleties that underlie the pose.This when you start having these “aha!” moments of sudden clarity about a part of a pose. You pay attention to the details. You notice the tendencies of your body and start exploring how to change, modify, adapt the pose so that it fits you. Yes, you can touch the floor with your hand in Trikonasana, but then you’re hanging in your lower back, so you decide that you’re going to use a block instead. Or suddenly, you hear a sentence your teacher said a thousand times and see it under another light. For me, staying with Trikonasana, it was “jamming your calf back may feel like you’re straightening your leg but it’s not”.
I heard one of my friends and fellow practitioner, while we were discussing a coming workshop with a senior teacher, say “well maybe for you it would be useful, but I don’t think I would get anything out of it”. He meant, you, “advanced practitioner”. I get that some adjustments and cues are only useful after you’ve reached a certain level of control on your body, but I thought it was a pity that he wouldn’t even give it a chance. We’re put in boxes all the time by others, why put ourselves in extra boxes on our own? Especially when you’ve been practicing for some years, it doesn’t matter if you “still” have short hamstrings or stiff shoulders, you know how to deal with them, and you hopefully be able to work on the pose at the place you’re at right now.
Getting to a point of concentration in the pose where it feels “light”
Yes, I mean getting to Dharana in Asana. More and more, I am looking for the lightness in the pose, what I believe Iyengar called “effortless effort” and/or “a spark of divinity”. Connecting with my body at a deeper level. But this is still very vague, especially for a non practitioner (not that I think many of them read my blog, but being able to explain this in real life would likely help many real life conversations!).
I truly believe that, even if you start doing yoga for the physical benefits of it -which most people, including me, do-, after years of practice you will also start feeling the spiritual value of the practice as well. This is why I am always slightly troubled when I hear people advertising the yoga style I practice as a workout. I understand where they are coming from, and that they are trying to get more people to try it without scaring them, but my practice IS spiritual. Yes, from the outside you only see me molding my body in different forms, but on the inside I am connecting to my muscles, my breath, and hopefully if it’s a good day I stop thinking and I am simply there. Somehow I have noticed that speaking a bout the spiritual side of my practice makes people very uncomfortable. A lot of people confuse spirituality with religion, and/or have no idea what it means, and humans are generally scared of what they don’t know. Note to self: write an article about my meaning of spirituality, sounds like a good exercice.
I was trying to describe my experience from last weekend in a sentence and came up with “I felt a shift in my practice”. It’s something that yogis like to say and it sounds very spiritual and all (or very Star Wars, “I feel a disturbance in the Force”), but what does it really mean?
What I wanted to express by using that expression was that I managed to concentrate for longer amounts of time than I usually do, in poses I usually get bored in. So I felt I got closer to the core of myself, and my practice deepened as a result of reaching this new level of serenity in my body.
By practicing today, I don’t mean practicing everyday, though switching to a daily practice certainly is a sign that you’re going forward on the yogic journey. I mean letting go of the ego that tells you what you should do. Accepting that today you should do a less advances version of the pose you did yesterday.
This is a hard lesson for me to learn. I always want to give 200%. But that’s a recipe for disaster. Your body today is different from yesterday. Hell, it’s different now than how it was an hour ago! So yeah, yesterday that pose felt like a great stretch, but today it feels like hell on earth, well, get out! Listen to your body! There is no way you’re gonna reach Dharana in a pose where you’re uncomfortable, or worse, in pain.
So I’m doing baby steps towards accepting that even if everyone else in the workshop is doing Padmasana, my hips are far from being open enough today to attempt it. And I’m doing Marichyasana I instead of III because I’m on my period. And I shouldn’t do drop backs without warming up even if I can, because ten years down the road my lower back is going to kill me. And and and… I should just listen to my body. It sounds wise, and it seems it has lots to say.