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.
Why do I crave storminess? I sit in calm beautiful ease and watch the horizon. Waiting. Impatient for a vibration that will unsettle it all. An electric current, a barometer drop, a pulse of air that hints of something wild. I feel it and my eyes narrow and light up, my pulse quickens, and I smile. This is my game. Fight or flight response blissfully engaged. Like a race horse left too long in the sweet green meadow … I feel as though I am awakening from a dream in which sappy goodness has slowed my body and brain to an almost insufferable pace. I move naturally and easily toward the storm feeling the fog lift from my mind … feeling my joints crack, my muscles stretch, and my heart burst. Jonesing for the adrenaline / endorphin cocktail that has made its way back into my hungry veins … every piece of “12 steps to enjoying a peaceful life” wisdom fading by the second.
When the storms don’t come, I drive my well-used lightening rod deep into the earth and stand. Waiting. Defiantly. Feet hip distance apart, hands in fists by my side, chest lifted, eyes flaring. Bouncing from one foot to the next. Light. Agile. Preparing to strike or parry. I am not hard-wired to be at peace and I fuck it up all the time. Tranquility is unfamiliar territory. Contentment makes me uneasy. I don’t even know how to interpret it and I land on labels like boredom, stagnation, frustration, and irritation when I try to describe it. Part of me knows these are not quite right but I still can’t make sense of it. I can’t seem to comfortably inhabit that space.
Is it that I crave easiness but don’t trust that it is real or don’t believe that it will last? Is it that I want to be the one who shatters it first so that I’m not caught unaware and unprepared? So I am not the one who loses? Feeling validated when the fight (that I have caused) inevitably comes.
Is it that I don’t truly crave it at all? And if that’s true … what does that mean? Who doesn’t crave peace, easiness, a comfortable life? What’s wrong with me? Why do I get antsy when everything is going “well” by typical standards?
Do I really want to gypsy my way through this life? Absorbing the colours and taste and energy of the people and places I encounter and then moving on when there’s nothing left to take in? Leaving everything I have behind so I can start fresh? Over and over and over again. Throwing myself back into the unknown to be reshaped and reconstructed in some new form? It sounds so destructive. And … really how new is that form that I bring into the next space? The patterns all repeat because the core remains immutable. Am I looking for someone or something that can make some kind of dent on that core … some kind of lasting impact on this storm chasing nature of mine? And back to the question above … do I really want to be changed?
I feel as though I’ve been writing this article since time began. Asking the same questions. Thinking the same thoughts. But here I am again … inhabiting a space that should be easy but is not … trying desperately to not fuck it up. This is part of the journey. Making sense of it all. Trying to sift through the distractions in my own head to figure out what is real and true and important. Trying to wrestle control from my deepest darkest instincts so that my behaviour becomes conscious. So that I actually make a choice. Ideally one that is in my best interest. Ideally one that allows me to navigate peaceful waters with skill and grace and gratitude.