Years ago, back when I was still doing yoga in the stinky spin room of my gym, I was fortunate enough to have a substitute teacher.
I didn’t feel fortunate. I loved my regular teacher, and was very attached to her. When I saw this new face at the head of the class I had to stifle a groan.
I would learn over time that substitute teachers are often the ones that help us break bad habits in our practice. They offer a fresh perspective and force us, necessarily, out of our comfort zone.
This teacher did not look like any of the other teachers I had ever had. First of all, she was black and second of all, she had a beautiful, voluptuous woman’s body. I don’t think I’d ever even seen a black yoga student before, much less a teacher, and I was accustomed to my teachers having bodies so tiny they could wrap themselves up and slip into a carry on.
More striking than the color of her skin or the shape of her body though, was this woman’s magnetism. As soon as she began speaking she held the class captive. She roamed the room, touching every one of us, laughing freely as she chatted about this and that. I couldn’t remember ever seeing someone so comfortable in their own skin.
By the time she told us we were going to practice that day with our eyes closed, I was ready to do anything she suggested.
She shut off the lights, had us stand at the top of our mats, close our eyes, and begin moving through sun salutations. Paradoxically, by eliminating one of the key components to yoga, the drishti or gazing point, and placing us in total darkness, this teacher showed us other ways to see.
Everyone knows, or has experienced, the automatic shift in perspective when the eyes close. Try it now. The world springs to life around you in a complex pattern of sound and sensation. It brings automatic awareness to things which, moments before, were completely hidden.
Suddenly, in bold relief, you can hear and feel your own breath, the sound of traffic outside your window, a clock ticking, your dog twitching in his sleep.
The effect is even more profound during practice.
The same old poses I’ve done a million times feel new and fascinating. As I ease my way into blindness, I begin to feel my body from the inside out rather than the other way around. I become aware of my muscles contracting or releasing, how the bones of my feet feel pressing into the ground, the interesting way that my head balances on the top of my spine, and of course, my breath. The breath becomes easier to track and to maintain without distractions. It begins to fill my consciousness and expand the pose. I can feel myself joyfully unfold.
Another benefit to closing your eyes is the loss of visual awareness of fellow students. For women with body issues especially, this can be a merciful moment. You are still in the good company of your fellow yogis, but in the dark, all things are equal. Obviously, we must work to accept ourselves and others as they are and not let those insecurities eclipse our practice, but this is a great opportunity to take the body piece out of the picture so you can see what else might be there.
Of course, if you plan to try a complete practice, or portion of your practice, with your eyes closed—and that is what I’m suggesting, rather than opening and closing your eyes throughout—there are a few things to keep in mind.
One, stick to the stuff you know. This is not the time to try new inversions or work on jump throughs.
Two, move slowly and mindfully. We should be doing that anyway, but move at half your normal pace. Luxuriate in your poses once you arrive in them. Take the time to delve into the novelty of it.
Three, don’t let fear overtake you. It can be a frightening thing to move with your eyes shut. You will be tempted to open them—don’t allow yourself to. Work through the feelings of fear, pause, gather your strength and move on.
Although I was lucky enough to have a teacher lead me blind, you can try this with or without your own teacher. If you feel comfortable with an instructor you know, you can ask and see if she would be willing to give this a try, if only for the sun salutation portion of the class. If you don’t, you can easily do it at home.
Working through my practice blind was one of the most transformative things I have done in yoga. I now often lead my own classes blind for five or 10 minutes of the sequence. It always brings a smile to everyone’s face (I know because I peek), and I can feel my student’s defenses come tumbling down as they are forced to be vulnerable and explore uncharted territory.
Experiment with this technique and you will see, there are few things more illuminating than bringing temporary darkness to your mat.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise