I’m a little late with this post but … W Jul 21 was international day of yoga and I would be remiss (and a bad yogi) if I didn’t take a moment to share why that is significant for me.
I’ve shared my story here before (probably more times than anyone cares to hear) so I won’t rehash the details YET AGAIN but here’s the crash course. Like many … I found my way to yoga via the physical path. I was injured and totally frustrated with my body for not complying with what I wanted it to do. In desperation, I stumbled into City Yoga over a dozen years ago. It was a sweet little ashtanga studio in the heart of vancouver’s evolving yoga community. I expected to find smiling chanting people in clouds of patchouli sitting on pillows and reaching for their toes. Instead I found a group of strong athletic people learning to move with grace and fluidity and confidence. That was enough of a hook for me to sign up for my first one-month pass.
It’s not that my first impression of these beautiful athletes was incorrect, but I quickly learned that it was just the first layer of what was present in that room. What I soon discovered was the power of community. In the ashtanga tradition, posture adjustments are very common. Many teachers and studios have moved away from laying hands on students and I do understand why but … I miss those adjustments so very much. Those incredibly skilled teachers helped me connect to my own body simply by placing a supportive hand on me as I made my way through the primary series time and time again. I honestly had no proprioception when I started … no real sense of where my body was in space. Square your hips? Relax your shoulders? Connect to all 4 corners of your feet? I had no idea how to even begin to do those kinds of things until those teachers literally placed their hands on me and moved my body into those spaces of alignment … where effort and ease were balanced (sthira sukham asanam). I had no idea about how to move and open myself up so breath could flow and be harnessed. Working with those teachers and those students who were following the same asana path helped me anchor my body in the physical world. I know. I know. That might be one of the most yoga things I’ve ever said. It’s about to get even worse. As a vata dominant person who floats on currents of air and electricity, that grounding was a gift I received without even knowing that it’s what I most needed.
And a quick side note about a set sequence … there’s a reason people have been coming to the primary series for decades. We crave that familiar space. That familiar pattern. It allows our minds to drop into our bodies and focus on the more subtle aspects of the asana rather than having to always stay somewhat on the surface preparing for which unknown posture is coming next. I teach now in Vancouver and one of the styles I teach involves a set sequence in a hot room. I worry sometimes that students will get bored and then I remind myself of how desperately my body still hungers for the primary ashtanga series and the set hot sequence I now teach. What keeps it interesting is not the glitter on the surface (the super cool playlists, the creative posture variations, the surprise deviations in the predictable sequence) but the internal paths you follow as you dive more deeply into the subtle experience.
Which brings me to the 8 limbs of yoga. When we think of yoga, we mainly think of the limb of asana … the postures (thank you instagram). When we begin to practice, we start to experience the power of pranayama … the breath. We learn to connect movement to breath and start to experience that flow. A fluidity starts to emerge. With regular practice, we may even experience pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation). All of these things can happen on those brilliantly coloured mats that we line up time and time again in yoga studios all over the world. They make us feel amazing and keep us coming back for more.
Ultimately, however, they also set the stage for us to take what we are practicing into the world that exists beyond the studio. They build a foundation and give us a set of tools to tackle the challenges we face and open us up to the possibility that exists in each and every moment. They allow us to move into our day to day lives with strength, confidence, and purpose. They support us to find alignment between the physical practice and the way we want to be in the world. For me … it is the first five limbs that have helped me find my way to the final three limbs of yoga – yama (ethical standards / integrity), niyama (self-discipline), and samadhi (ecstasy / bliss). It is in exploring my own relationship with these three amorphous states that I am beginning to experience yoga’s deepest form of magic. I have begun to notice that when I am most uncomfortable, most unhappy, and most confused there is something out of whack in one of these three areas. And, of course, the reverse is true. I am most settled, most happy, and most clear when these things are all in alignment. In that space, I feel strong and efficient because I am not wasting energy on things that don’t matter. I am physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually at peace. I have resilience and lots to offer. For all of this I am grateful. And … it’s why international day of yoga (contrived as it might truly be) … is something that I celebrate.
PS … they did chant at the beginning of my first ashtanga class and it was awkward and odd but something I came to deeply love. Even now I sometimes chant the opening mantra when I’m feeling distracted, unfocused, or stressed. It’s especially useful when I’m about to roadrage on someone.
PS … I’m saving WTF has become of bhandas, mudras, and dristhi?!?! for a future rant.