The next installment of short yoga practices invites you to open your heart!
The next installment of short yoga practices invites you to open your heart!
Another in my series of short yoga sequences – this one will help you release stiffness in your hip joints.
Today I encourage you to get out of your chair for some simple shoulder stretches as part of my mission to support journalists, camos and anyone else feeling the cramp of clampdown!
It’s been a tough few weeks adapting to life based largely at home. Take ten minutes to give your body a break with a brief yoga session designed to counter the impact of desk-based work.
You know you are in an Iyengar Yoga studio by the blankets. There is a pile of them. They are stacked in the studio on a shelf that is the precise size the shelf needs to be to hold the stack of blankets. Each blanket is folded the same way, neat side out. Usually, there is a small sign or notice near the stack explaining the right way to fold the blankets and politely asking you to comply.
You know you are an Iyengar Yoga student if you find yourself refolding blankets that have been folded incorrectly, or if you notice and rectify messy ends. You find yourself doing this quietly, while you are waiting for other instructions or while you are preparing to enter a pose.
You know you are practicing Iyengar Yoga because you care about the blankets. You care about the blocks, the bolsters and the belts. The chairs. The ropes. The setu-bunda bench and the backbenger. You care about these things because they change the way you understand the asana and your experience of the asana. They allow you in to yoga, no matter what your starting point was when you began all those years ago, or when you began your practice today.
It is these props that most often define Iyengar yoga in the eyes of the novice, or the broader yoga world. People see Iyengar and think props, or see props and think Iyengar. And while it is true that BKS Iyengar’s use and development of props was innovative, for him, they served a greater purpose. They helped make the true features of yoga accessible for all.
But there is more to the Iyengar system than props. As Mr Iyengar said, yoga is a about creating ultimate freedom. He was referring to freedom of the body, the mind and of the self. These freedoms are like layers of understanding, each leading to a deeper knowledge. In the same way the body itself has layers of skin, muscle, tendon, bone, and organs, so these layers (or sheaths, in the yoga language), allow us to delve deeper into our mind, and our consciousness, with the starting point, or the outer layer, being the body.
So, what have blankets to do with freedom of consciousness?
I can only talk from my own experience. Before I began practicing yoga, I was highly strung, stressed, and running mostly on adrenalin. Past trauma meant that I was mostly dissociated, which means I didn’t inhabit my body. I was so absent from my physical experience that I used to get mystery bruises from bumping into furniture without knowing I had done so.
My first yoga class happened to be at an Iyengar school, but this was merely a coincidence (or not!), as I didn’t expressly choose Iyengar. I think now that if I hadn’t gone to an Iyengar class I may not have become a student of yoga. My first teacher, Justin Herold, was quiet and deliberate in his movements and his teaching. Every class began the same way, with supta virasana, and I experienced and observed his same questions of every new student. Sit between your feet. Do you have pain in your ankles or knees? Get two blankets and a bolster. Lie back. Sit up. Get two blocks and another blanket. And on it would go, until he was satisfied the student had the right props to begin their experience of their first asana.
This experience of the asana, no matter what the physical abilities, is the doorway to freedom in the body. For me, it was the doorway to my body. The attention to precision and to technique invited me to consider my inner heel, or the bridge of my nose – to notice that I even had an inner heel was a transformation. Not just consider, but to ponder, to contemplate, and to explore.
Gradually, then, I began to inhabit my body. My initial introduction to the inner heel gave way to deeper understandings of muscles, ligaments, bones. Of action and counteraction, of balance and stability. The Iyengar system’s emphasis on alignment and technique keeps each asana fresh, as the asana are never fully mastered. The props support alignment, which create knowledge about how the asana are to be experienced. Props, too, allow different experiences of the asana. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana is understood differently against the wall, or on a chair, or with bricks. These experiences invite the engagement of intelligence: “what happens when I lift my collarbone?”
Other aspects of the Iyengar system extend the freedom of the body to the freedom of the mind. Timing is another important feature. Lengthy holds promote experience on the physical level, but also promotes mental freedom. Sometimes this is first experienced as a lack of freedom. I remember my first experience of resistance. Of anger at my teacher for making me hold a pose for a ridiculously long period of time (probably 30 seconds); for not seeing that I was suffering and for banging on about the inner heel or something stupid! Then, one day, my teacher starting telling the class what we were thinking, that we were mad at her for not releasing us, or we felt abandoned by her because she hadn’t told us to put our arms down, or that our sudden “need to pee” right when she was about to take us in to Virabradasana I was an old tape, played by every student since the dawn of time. With this gentle humour, she invited us to consider how we reacted to our practice, and how we react to other things in our life that make us uncomfortable.
After a while, I began to notice that discomfort was merely discomfort. It didn’t need fixing. It could be just experienced. That some days I hated yoga and some days I loved it, and so it was with my life. I began to learn about patience, and acceptance. I began to breath in traffic rather than bellow. As Mr Iyengar once said, I began to “bring my mind and my intelligence to stretch as my muscles stretch, and to contract as my muscles contract.”
Even though, so far, my experience of Iyengar yoga has largely been of the asanas, I am beginning to understand how this practice can ultimately lead to freedom of the self. How the ability to be fully present to our own experience, and connected to a tradition of wisdom that dates back thousands of years, can allow me to free myself from today’s knee pain or petty frustrations.
And the blankets? In a totally different context, I once met a teacher who said, “how you do one thing is how you do everything”. Iyengar teachers and students fold their blankets neatly because they understand how alignment matters, how the way you fold your body matters, and how one small thing, fully experienced and fully understood, can lead to intelligence and consciousness.
Folding back with teacher Frank Jesse and a fellow curious student
I think “work-life balance” is a strange term. For starters, it implies we are not living at work. Secondly, it suggests that balance is an ultimate goal (of what – life or work?). Thirdly, it implies that one requires an equal amount of work and life in order to get that balance. Presumably under this formula one must “work” half the time? Does that include sleep? Or is sleep outside of life, too? How much time must one spend calculating if the balance is right?
I’m being silly, I know. It’s just a term. It means different things to different people. But I do know that for me, balance is far from restful. In fact, as most of my yoga practice has taught me, balance is bloody hard work. In all its yoga forms – be it on arms, legs, or pelvis – balance is ever-elusive and often momentary.
What happens when I balance in headstand, or half-moon pose? For me, the first thing I notice is where my mind is. If it is anywhere other than in the asana, balance is immediately lost. But mental laziness is not the only thing that will throw the balance: the asanas are unforgiving of even the
slightest physical laziness, too. Balance requires the activation of the entire muscular system. In other words, it takes an extraordinary harmony of mind and body.
Like all work involving strength, at least for me, the ability to sustain it is limited. I understand, theoretically at least, that it might not always have to be this way. We are in fact balancing, in a relatively relaxed way, when we stand. And walking is shifting balance from one foot to another. We are used to these actions, however, and they feel relatively effortless.
But doing it upside down? That’s a different matter. If there is ever a time when I can float without effort in bow pose, I am certain it is a long way off. At the moment it requires intense mental and physical effort. The balance shifts, moment to moment, sometimes by millimetres or fractions of a muscle movement. When my practice is sound, I can make the adjustment easily.
So, is balance just a means to a better ends, rather than an aspiration in itself? What could that better ends be? Effortlessness? That seems to be what the great yogis have always counselled: to be steady, alert and relaxed in everything we do.
What if I could get there in my yoga practice? I could spend a lot more time upside down, or on one leg, for one thing! But how would that translate into the rest of my life?
Could I practice being steady, alert and relaxed in my work? In my relationship? In my quiet time with myself? As I shop, and walk, and visit friends, and read books? Can I find not balance, but let’s say harmony, within everything I do?
It sounds like something worth working toward.
Ten years on, Golden Buddha Beach has changed a lot and not changed at all. Most of the original homeowners returned for the anniversary; the resort is once again lush and green and beautiful, and now has 24-hour electricity (!). Other, less luxurious, resorts have opened on the beach nearby, creating more options for food and friendship.
I was asked to do a bit of media in relation to the anniversary. Here are some of the results!
Last time I wrote this blog, I added an afterword, and then deleted it. The blog was about finding stillness in asanas, and I extrapolated from that to wondering if I could find stillness in my busyness. Looking back, the blog, as my life, was more about the busyness than the stillness, but we can only yearn for our own success. The unpublished postscript went something like this:
Afterword, six hours later: When I got up from writing this blog, I found myself in acute back pain that has since increased. I’ve had to abandon all plans for the rest of the day, and possibly the next few. A message from the universe?
That was ten weeks ago. As it turned out, an inflamed L5 disc has significantly changed my plans for most days since. Don’t get me wrong, this was no permanent injury (I hope). A couple of housebound weeks, take it easy, get some treatment and I’d be back.
That’s pretty much gone to plan. Only my new “back” is not a lot like the old one. Some of my old favourite activities, including walking, are all but out of the question. My yoga practice has become limited to a handful of poses – mostly lying poses. Forward bends, once my delight, are now little more than an intention.
I do still roll out my yoga mat, if only for a few minutes, on more than a couple of days in the week, and I have relegated myself down to a less advanced class once a week. But I look with envy on others doing inversions, or even standing poses, and wonder if I will ever feel that strength and flexibility again.
The pain comes in bursts now, not constant as before, so I am improving. I can drive, carry small bags of shopping and do most of the day-to-day things that life demands. I can walk, at a calm pace, for about 15 minutes. If I push beyond that I am literally hobbling back to my car. It can be scary. Once the pain grabbed me when I was half-way through crossing a quiet street, slowing me down so much that a distant car had caught up and had to stop to let me pass.
Then someone said something that made me think. It was an osteopath, who happens also to be a yoga student. He was sitting beside the table I was lying on with his hand holding my sacrum, allowing it, I think to rest and let go of the tension, and I was complaining about my continued restrictions. “Disk injuries teach you where your boundaries are,” he said. “You know the instant you hit them. You have to learn to live within your boundaries”.
Boundaries? I looked around my life and saw few. My work has too often bled into my home-life. I haven’t been good at saying no to bad relationship behaviour, nor opening my self up to positive friendship. My conscious awareness of my own body is so limited that I often bump into corners as I pass through doorways. These are things I have been aware of for some time, and have been slowly doing something about improving upon. But the problem with vague boundaries, is they are, well vague.
The injury is my new gift. It tells me where my edge is. Within that limit, however, I can explore as much as I like. My regular yoga teacher is only too happy to assist. Last week he made me stand on my knees, and told me to work activate my psoas muscle all the way from my lesser trochanter, over my front hip and back to my spine beside my L5. I can’t even pretend that I succeeded. But I concentrated on the action for about half the yoga class. When I couldn’t stay on my knees, I lay flat on the floor and worked on the same action. It was physically and mentally exhausting.
Well within my boundaries, but a massive stretch as well.
I once heard a saying by a Buddhist teacher. It may have been the Dalai Lama, or another wise person. Asked how long one should meditate for each day, he replied: “Thirty minutes. Unless you are very busy. In which case, one hour.”
I wish I could say I followed that advice, in meditation or yoga or any other form of self-care. But I don’t. For me, busy begets busy. Right now I have rather a lot on, what with commitments to work, study, friendship, volunteering … and the list goes on. I’ve shaken up my life over the past couple of years, and the pieces as still falling back into place. I tend to bounce from deadline to deadline, scrambling to find time to squeeze everything I want to do in.
This is all my choice, of course. A couple of years ago a health problem prevented me from achieving much more than simply getting up and going to work each day. Now that I have energy, I want to expend it. I fill up my days, mostly, with things that bring me joy, or at the very least, satisfaction.
There’s a price, of course, and it can be measured in the things I let slip. Daily yoga practice. No-reason phone calls to friends. That extra hour of sleep. I can get away without these, for a time. And then I find myself getting faster and faster. I rush from one meeting to the next. I leave my desk at work with half-written emails on my screen, simply because I am suddenly late. At home, bills pile up, unopened. I multi-task – listen to a lecture while walking, make phone calls in the car, eat on the run. These habits creep into my life like a slow-moving flood; unnoticed until overwhelm hits.
But it wasn’t until recently when a friend observed that I simply walk too fast to keep up with, that I got the wake up call. I started to ponder the difference between action and activation. And my thoughts turned to yoga.
My mat is the best mirror on how I am travelling internally. How easily do I balance? How tight is my pelvis? How heavy is my lift to handstand?
The asanas I practice take the Iyengar approach. This suits me as I like the focused awareness. It sends my mind into my body and helps alleviate my tendency to dissociate. But there is another aspect I have only recently come to appreciate: the length of time holding a pose. This is one of the better measures of my inner peace. How long does my patience last? Of course, at the time, I don’t understand it is patience I am lacking. My mind complains: about the teacher having forgotten he’s left us in the pose; or about the pain in my muscles; the fatigue in my legs. Or simply about the pose itself (I have a few “most disliked”).
“Find the stillness inside the pose,” a former teacher once said, after she had left us so long the class was audibly groaning. “Stop resisting”. It is powerful advice, and, applying it, I have learned to search beyond the pain point to that place of peace and effortlessness. Interestingly, it doesn’t always eliminate the intensity of the stretch, but it does soothe it, or perhaps provide a counterpoint balance.
So my motto this month is to apply the yoga to this challenge and find the stillness in the busyness. Can I write two essays, get away a major project at work, begin plans for renovations, spend a weekend supporting a not-for-profit organisation I am a director of, and eat well, practice yoga, sleep well, walk slowly, breathe? Can I shift my focus from the stress to the ease?
Already, there is some success. This very commitment – writing this blog – has been my first conscious attempt at this. As the deadline has loomed, rather than getting stressed and anxious, I have focused on reminding myself that it will come together, in stillness, at the right time. And so it has. Now back to that essay.
Have you ever noticed when you hold your breath it is always with the air in? Have you ever “held your breath” after your out breath? It is possible to do for a few seconds, but not without conscious awareness and focus. Inevitably, the body fights for life. Yet holding your breath in is as easy as … well, breathing. For me, the practice is almost automatic. I especially do it when I am stressed, anxious, or stepping out of my comfort zone—in almost every difficult asana (and life situation), in other words.
In many ways, my Iyengar practice accentuates this problem. Don’t get me wrong – I love Iyengar, and I have had a number of extraordinary Iyengar yoga teachers who have guided me deep into the poses and deep into my body. Who’d have thought that I could improve my headstand by drawing the flesh on the soles of my feet toward my heels, for example? An Iyengar teacher taught me that (though I am still not quite sure how to do it!). Where else might I have learned that it is my legs that do the work in forward bends, not the spine? What other practice might have so successfully invited me to focus so deeply on distinguishing each muscle from the others that I find myself fully inside my body (rather than my head).
But recently, at a party, I got talking to a former Iyengar, now Ashtanga, yoga teacher. Her explanation as to why she shifted was breath. “Sometimes I look at Iyengar students and I get scared—they just don’t breathe!” she said. It got me thinking. A few weeks ago I found myself in an Ashtanga class, and while I did notice the lack of attention to posture detail, I also noted how vigilant the teacher was in guiding our each and every breath.
Horses for courses, perhaps. Ashtanga is dynamic and flowing. Iyengar is thoughtful and considered. But, I wondered, what if I brought breath into my Iyengar practice?
One of the things I played with was holding my breath, just to be conscious of the impact of doing this. I had always used breath to guide my sun salutes, but what about breathing in standing poses that I hold for minutes at a time?
First, it is hard! My mind actually fights the practice. My first urge is to hold the breath along with the pose, and to pull out of the pose at the moment I finally let go of my breath. This was so habitual it was a shock. What if the tiredness I feel when holding asana for a length of time has nothing to do with strength or flexibility, but is driven by my forgetting to breathe?
One way I have been playing with this idea is to hold the breath out. This is, as I have mentioned, extremely hard to do without awareness. If this were a proxy for all else in life, what does it mean? That it is easier to hold tight to something than it is to let go? That we need consciousness and discipline to live with emptiness? Or simply; that our lungs abhor a vacuum?
Regardless, it is insightful practice. When I hold my breath out, my body cries out for air. This small shift then helped me become more conscious of delivering oxygen to the part of the body that most needs it—the part doing the most work in the pose—rather than simply collapsing out of the asana.
What next? If I can let in, as well as let go, what else can I let into my practice, and to my life? Self-care, love, gentleness? From this small step I can see that my yoga practice doesn’t have to be a fight between my mind and body, in fact I can use my mind to draw what I need into my asana, and into my life.
After all, as I read on a sign in a studio recently: Yoga without mindfulness is just an exercise class.