Can Hatha Yoga be devotional?
Today in class, I asked people to do a pose of their choice as an offering to Divine Mother and to observe, “What makes it an offering?” With the introduction of the word “offering,” a different tone came into the room, a shift in the atmosphere. I could almost hear the competitive, judgmental and insecure parts shuffling aside as the heart was given the chance to come forward.
People chose many different poses—Warrior, Tree, Bridge, Headstand, Sitting Forward Bend. It wasn’t that any particular pose embodied devotion, but that devotion could imbue any pose—from the most dynamic to the most gentle. All twenty practitioners agreed that it was their intent that created the alchemy.
It is now almost dinner, and finding myself with a half-hour to spare, I decide to try “practicing with devotion” in this gift of time. The Cow Face pose (Gomukhasana) seems a good place to start—a nice stretch to open my shoulders and my heart, a nice balance to the day. I can sit right where I am and work with just the arms. I know I will enjoy physical benefits, but can I experience devotion? What is devotion, anyway?
As I turn my thoughts away from the day and focus on my body, already something good is happening. My breath deepens and I start to relax. In the relaxation, I notice tension. My shoulders need to be released, so I take a moment to gently roll them back and forth. Offering to the Divine seems to include listening to my body.
I take off my glasses and rub my face, an unconscious but refreshing gesture. As I become conscious of this action, I turn it into an offering. Preparing for the “Cow Face pose” and here is my face wisely inviting attention! Maybe devotion has something to do with letting the unconscious speak.
Moving into the Cow Face pose, I support my elbow with my hand, helping the arm move up my back. In this position, I’m literally giving myself a hand; I’m actually touching what is behind my heart. It feels like warmth.
What is this warm place symbolically? Reaching the other arm over the shoulder, the two hands meet, connecting and creating a different tension—a stretchy, freeing tension. This pose is teaching me to support myself. I am offering, and the pose is offering back. The two come together, like will and surrender.
Moving to the other side—whoa! A different story. Expecting the movement to be as smooth and easy and flexible as the first, lulled by my own words of how lovely it all is, I push. Hey—this is not an offering! This is an expectation and demand. How do I come back to devotion? I listen. My arm tells me it wants to warm up more. My hand seriously talks to me about being overworked and asks to be shaken and loosened up before moving further.
Letting go of ambition and following the body’s instructions—here is my offering.
I’ve got sticking-out shoulder blades and the back of my hand is between them. I’m imperfect. My elbow wants to stay out to the side and not come to center like the other one did. I’m hearing old voices. I’m feeling an empty space back there behind my heart—the times of rejecting the imperfect body. I’m listening. I’m offering. I’m only human. Something wants to push, to force change, but I am being gentle. Gentleness is my offering in this moment. I’m feeling stretched, observing what I hold onto and what I can let go. I’m being here, where I am, accepting myself.
This is the offering to you, Divine Mother. It is me, in the Cow Face pose.
Swami Lalitananda is a teacher and author of two books, including The Inner Life of Asanas. For five years, she was the director of Radha Yoga & Eatery in Vancouver, a space that embraces art, culture, yoga and community. She lived and studied with Swami Radha for over 20 years. Swami Lalitananda took sanyas in 1996 and is dedicated to making yoga accessible and significant in everyday life.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta