As my practice of Ashtanga Yoga continues, the community and wonderfully welcoming social side to Bristo Yoga School is expanding, and yesterday I had my first chanting session and Q&A with our visiting teacher, Jill Manning.
Although only asking a few questions myself, mainly about whether my runner’s hamstrings will ever loosen up, I came to see yoga in a subtly, but fundamentally, different way. Much like your own practice itself changes subtly, and so slightly, every day; almost unnoticed but fundamental. The way Jill worded her answers and explanations illuminated so much for me, and made me even more eager to step onto my mat at 7am this morning.
My awful memory has left me only remembering snippets and snapshots of what were beautiful explanations and conversations, but hopefully the most affecting of which stayed with me.
She started by asking all of us a question: What is yoga?
Union. Pain. A connection. An attitude.
My answer: awareness.
Through the daily practice of stretching my body in every which way, whilst focussing on my breath and drishti (gaze), I have become aware of the angle that my pinkie toe makes when I stretch my calf. And the feeling of the muscles under my shoulder blades stretching (ones that cannot be reached by pressured massage). And my hips, oh yes my hips, and how open or closed they might be.
But I am also aware of myself more, I feel as though for that one and a half hour each morning I am stepping onto the mat and into my own space, to work with myself (and my teacher), for me. Not in a selfish manner, but in an independent manner. I am fully aware of how I feel in that moment, every sinew in my body (even my pinkie toe. In fact, especially my pinkie toe) and how I am feeling mentally and emotionally that day, both before and after class. And as it’s daily, it’s a repetitive but ever-new process, as no two days are ever the same.
How do you focus the mind and stop it from drifting?
In the actual movements of yoga there are three elements: the asana itself, which Jill explained is like flossing. It’s the movement, the physical practice, the hygiene. Then there is the breathing, the ujjayi breath (an audible breath. Think Darth Vadar). The two together work as one (hence, yoga defined as union). And then there is dristde. This is when your eyes focus on a single point for each asana. Such as focussing on the tips of your fingers in Trikonasana (triangle pose) or the big toe in Parsvottanasana.
As Jill explained it, advertisers have known for years that the eyes lead the mind. We live in a visual world, and often one over-saturated. Call to mind the image of Times Sqaure in New York. So to focus the eyes on one point is to allow the mind to focus. This is such a simple statement and concept, but one that is lost and forgotten in the fast-paced, too-full daily lives we rush through.
Relaxing is not collapsing.
At the end of every practice, we take some time (anywhere from two to ten minutes) to relax. Called Savasana, this means ‘corpse pose’ and is not in fact accurate to describe what we yogis here are practicing. Corpse pose, when acheived, is when the heart stops, the breath stops but life continues. Instead, we western yogis are simply going into relaxation. An attempt at slowing down the mind, and attempting to achieve a bodily state of sleep whilst the mind remains awake but still.
Jill made a very accurate observation; that in America especially (being American herself) but also quite likely in our Western society generally, people use the phrase ‘relaxation’ when really they are simply collapsing. We overwork, cram our day and week full and then take a day, or evening, to relax. And by this we mean collapse on the sofa, or lie in for half a day, and simply switch off.
Collapsing is not an accurate definition of relaxing. Relaxing is to centre yourself, to hold that awareness, and to be in control. As I see it, being in control takes effort. Taking control of a situation, of your own situation, of your own mind, of your own path. All takes a subtle effort. So if we collapse, and use no energy, we are not in control and simply disengaging.
This is not to say that mindful meditation is the only form of relaxing. It’s different for every person. For some it might be cooking their favourite meal; for others, gardening; or a long walk in the park; or listening to a good friend tell you how their day was. But I think most of us could do with making the effort to relax more, and collapse less.
I am guilty myself of blocking my calendar out weeks in advance with meetings, work, gym class, yoga (how ironic), dinners, movies, day trips. Some of which are my down time, or relaxation. I have 3 hours scheduled for lunch with a friend on Sunday, that’s my relax time. But in a way that is simply scheduled relaxation.
When practicing yoga, you can be no one but yourself.
This was, for me, the most insightful part of the discussion. Jill explained that when you step onto your mat and begin practice, you cannot hide who you are. Or as I thought of it, mat on so mask off.
The face you put on for work, or your children, or your friends, or the bus driver on the way to the studio, is removed. You are not consciously trying to ‘be’ anyone, you are just being. (And sweating, and twisting, and breathing, and reaching and gripping your big toe…) And your teacher can see you, for who you are. You cannot hide behind anything. It’s almost an unnoticed abandonment of any ‘face’ or ‘mask’ you put on during the day. Not to say that we are fake. But if you have had a fight with a spouse or friend, and go into work, you will for the sake of profesionalism and the comfort of others, try your best to hide it.
I have never noticed myself consciously taking off the mask, but when she mentioned it, I realise that I do just that. On the mat, I am simply me.
This is perhaps what has been the most powerful force in drawing me back to the mat, morning after cold, dark, windy winter’s morning. I’m still dwelling on exactly what that means, and when I ask Jill again what the exact quotation and phrase was for this I shall post it up. As it was completely illuminating (or a ‘lightbulb moment’ to use some management speak).
Shit Yogis Say
I’m totally aware that this might come across as self-satisfying, enlightened blether. I’m still the same scatter-brained, margarita drinking, steak-eating Jen. Just bendier. And day by day a little less wobbly and more grounded. Which can only be a good thing.
And here’s a video of Shit Yogis Say. It’s funny because it’s true.