At first I was excited to get down to some crazy yoga shit, to get into handstand, forearm stand and full wheel for more than a few seconds. I grew slightly impatient as the weeks passed and my teachers kept having us do things like downward dog with bent knees, or chaturanga prep. Seriously, at first that just seems like you’re laying there doing nothing. I questioned my commitment. As much as I had balked at yoga classes that caused aches in my low back and arms from too many pushups, I still thought that’s what yoga was. I thought maybe I was too advanced for the program.
I realized soon enough just how inculcated I was into a Western mindset and approach.
Goal orientation and an acquisitive attitude toward life, however much like living in Pacman it may be, is not easy to give up. It’s not even easy to notice, in all the varieties of ways it filters down into every crevice of the way one does things.
I wasn’t alone. In the second or third week, a student asked when we’d get into to more advanced stuff. Our teacher M. said, with slight exasperation (the most unease I’d ever see in her): “We’re not trying to get anything, we’re here to get rid of things!” That quip aside, she explained more gently.
One of the first things I learned was that there is even an attitude there. And that it (wanting to get through it so I can get to the rest of my day) makes it hard, nay almost impossible, to notice the subtle sensations in the body.
Yoga is about letting go of the biases accumulated in the body. In yoga philosophy this is tantamount to saying that yoga is learning about letting go of the accumulated experience that makes you act the same way over and over, based on old information. Experience leaves its marks on the body, most solidly, and on the mind and in life in general. “How you do one thing is how you do everything,” they say. Yoga is a kind of play area to see what you’re like.
This is true of any discipline that targets the body. It’s hard to change, your limits are not something that you can bullshit, and it pushes your buttons, showing your reactions and attitudes pretty quickly. Henry Rollins agrees. (via Medusa)
The body is in some ways the hardest thing to change because it is the most solid thing we have. Years of habitual behavior shows on the body, has been hardened into solidity, and has become the norm. If focus plus time creates things in this world, the body becomes the most clear map on which the past is drawn.
Though the body is most solid, it is still where we can most easily begin to manifest change. That’s because it is also the most accessible way for us to see change. Change in the body (or anything) happens only over time, with sustained effort. When speaking about any of yoga’s benefits, we are taught to preface it with, “Over time with practice…” This inculcates a different attitude. It teaches how change happens, to teach you how to work on other more subtle aspects of life that need work.
Change starts with awareness. Not will, not even understanding, but awareness. The big idea is that in life you just have to notice things. This orients you to the reality of things rather than wishful thinking. And you need to let go of judgment about what you find. Guilt merely feeds denial. This is how the paradox can be: Acceptance leads to change. Although I’d use the word awareness over acceptance, which has a whiff of resignation and irresponsibility.
Our teachers didn’t seem to mind if we were impatient; they were reassuring, but they also just let us be. They said we’d find most of what could sustain us as teachers in our own practice.
I started to slow down when I practiced, building the pose from the ground up, do simpler poses, and became aware of my body in an entirely new way. Using the breath, I could begin to feel and let tightness go.
It worked. Slowly things did change. We all progressed in a somewhat miraculously systematic way. We lost a few along the way, but most of us became devoted. In the process we have become more supportive of ourselves and each other. As a yoga teacher said on NPR recently, who knows why evening out your weight on your feet, hips, shoulders, or setting an intention, or connecting movement to breath, leads to peace of mind and just generally being a happier person, but somehow it does.