As a yoga teacher I spend a lot of time trying to explain how to build poses.
I often think of them as a house of cards; if you carefully place one thing here and another thing there at precisely the right angle, you will soon create an improbable but steady structure. Something I often forget to communicate, however, is that the true foundation for our poses isn’t physical at all, it is the spirit with which we construct them— it is our heart.
We all come to our yoga practice with different physical and mental abilities and limitations. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a young student come to their first class, usually a girl, who has a well established back round in dance or gymnastics, who breezes through asanas they have never even tried before.
It’s hard not to feel envious of such a person, particularly for me, a woman in my 40’s born with the opposite of a dancer’s physique; large by any standard, with a crooked spine, a couple of herniated discs, a bum knee and a litany of other maladies which make so many yoga poses so darn challenging.
The thing is though, yoga is not about the shapes we make with our bodies. It is what lies beneath, the state of mind that the asanas are built in, which is important.
I have often written about my favorite yoga student, a cognitively and physically challenged yogi who, despite considerable obstacles, works her practice with more sincerity of spirit than anyone else I’ve ever known. Her warrior II may not look like much, but the journey she made to get into it is comparable to climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in a pair of tennis shoes.
When I hear her breathe her five breaths as she leans a little deeper into her front knee, extends out through her back arm, and fixes her gaze steadfastly over her forward hand, I am nearly moved to tears. Her pose is beautiful because it grew from her heart.
We all want to be elegant in our asana.
We want to jackknife our ribs to our thighs in forward folds effortlessly, we want to pause in pike on our way to a casual handstand, hang out upside down as long as we wish, and then pause in pike once again on our way back to earth.
We want to get that bind, stand up from a backbend, extend our leg in bird of paradise, and keep our heels down in malasana (garland pose). As much as it is natural to want to do these things well, though, learning not to work from that place of wanting is an important part of our task.
Instead, we must try and come to yoga with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgement, a place of self love.
I often cue my students to work on their poses from the “outside in,” by which I mean first considering skeletal alignment, then muscular alignment, and then the outward details like drishti, facial expression and so on. It’s a good way to neutralize the worry about how we look in a pose and bring the attention to how we feel.
But I think I haven’t been encouraging people to go deep enough.
Before we consider skeletal alignment, we should check in with our emotions. We can ask, what do I want/need from this pose? What is my motive in attempting or not attempting it? Am I more concerned with how I appear to be doing rather than how I am actually doing?
By answering such inquiries with naked honesty, and making whatever attitude adjustments we might need to make, we can greatly improve our practice. No one else may notice that your pose has a stronger foundation (although, as with my favorite student, it’s likely the teacher will), but you will be practicing with vulnerability and earnestness—which is a beautiful way to walk the path.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Wikimedia Commons