I used to relish my daily practice. I spent hours at it every day and was quite accomplished. My body was amazingly healthy; my ego felt great.
As a competitive indoor-rower, my practice consisted of sitting on the rowing machine and pulling on an artificial oar as though my life depended on it. My performance responded to the practice and my scores went through the roof – as high as nearly any in the world for my age group.
Then an over-training injury torpedoed my indoor-rowing career. The wooden handle and chain sank out of my life, and asanas floated into their place.
My scores weren’t as stellar on the yoga mat. I seemed to wear the dunce’s cap in nearly every class. The shoulders that made rowing machines scream could barely hold a dog downward. My inverted wheel was a broken spoke. My tiny female classmates floated silently into handstands; meanwhile I wrecked at the wall like a train.
Intrigued and stubborn in the face of my shortcomings, I nevertheless noticed subtle interior changes as I practiced yoga. With my abundant physical limitations as a backdrop, these internal dimensions drew me irresistibly deeper into the practice. Slowly I began to climb the first few limbs of yoga.
Seven years into the climb, I can sometimes bubble up more or less quietly into handstand. My inverted bow is less beetle-like. I am calmer, more self-assured, and I have an active spiritual life. And, in the biggest change of all for a competitive rower, I have learned not to use my body to compete.
Hold the phone…can I say something about that “not competing” part?
As the stiff middle-aged guy among all the bendy young women in yoga classes, it would be maddening for me to try to have the best pose in the room. But in almost every class I go to, stretchiness is what gets the teacher’s eye. The teacher’s attention and complements, and yes, even the applause of the class always go to the best or most improved bender. There’s definitely room to compete here.
“Nice drop-back, Annoya!!! Much better tadasana-legs, Rocky!!!” We’ve all heard the limber laurels whizzing through the air in yoga class, and It feels great when one lands around your neck. But, please correct me if I’m wrong, the word “elasticity” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Yoga Sutras.
This is the Jeckyll-Hyde of asanas, the white elephant posing in the middle of the room. We yoga converts go on and on about asanas being for “every body”. But it really isn’t. The fact is, the more liquid your hamstrings are, the more goodies you get in a yoga class.
I don’t mean to throw harpoons at yoga teachers; they have my sympathy. A deep challenge underlies this seeming hypocrisy of the modern yoga they teach. The real benefit of an asana-based yoga practice occurs far beneath our muscles and bones. Precious few teachers have what it takes – an extraordinary gift of communication – to get this across to students.
Here’s what I mean. One of the most satisfying aspects of my own practice is the way it has increased my ability to sense what’s going on in my body. The most delicious fruit of this particular sprig of yoga has been my discovery of great swaths of stillness among my organs and limbs. The rivers of calm were flowing in my body all along, but doing asanas sharpened my perception so that I could see them.
My increased sensitivity has little to do with having flexible joints. Rather, it’s about developing my powers of perception. For me this has occurred by coaxing my mind to practice, quietly and after good instruction, for several hours a week over a period of several years. Doing time in yoga has effected for my sensory nerves what safe-crackers did in gangster movies: it has sandpapered their fingertips.
Physical changes are only a secondary by-product of this gradual sensitizing process. The main changes, the incremental inner ones – barely manifest on the outside. Maybe the student responds today to a verbal queue she didn’t understand before; his alignment or timing changes slightly. How can a teacher possibly observe these subtle internal changes amid the hubbub of a class? And even if it were possible to see them, how could the internal changes be shown to the class so that others could learn?
The answer, I believe, is that teaching carefully for many years sandpapers the fingertips just like practicing asanas. Working steadfastly at their teaching, some people’s communications gifts and powers of observation go off the charts just like my rowing scores did. It’s alchemical; it’s magic.
Our teachers’ examples are cause for hope when we feel like our own asana practice has devolved to lugging away at an oar. The mind’s sensitivity does increase with practice, possibly even faster than the body’s flexibility. But effecting the change takes patience, and its progress is barely visible on the outside.
Let’s honor ourselves and this myriad river of yoga we’re all in, by remembering Patanjali’s second sutra. Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah. Yoga stills the mind. Our bodies are exercise equipment, our miraculous rowing machines. The mind is what we’re training, whose strong and sensitive fingers we place on the oar whenever we practice.
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PS. By the way for an off-the-charts commentary on modern body-worship in the form of yoga poses, check out this video interview with the sculptor of an all-gold statue of Kate Moss in pretzel-asana. The statue sold at Sothebys last month for nearly a million dollars.