Yoga is largely practiced through our relationships with others. It is about coming out of the cocoon of the ego to share the love that we have with our friends and family and all with whom we come into contact.
– from Myths of the Asanas by Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij
During my 10 years in Sacramento, The Book Collector revealed many gems. One is Move and Be Moved published in 1980. I’m glad I brought the book along to D.C.
In poem-like descriptions Anne Lief Barlin and Tamara Robbin Greenberg suggest ways to move, alone and with others. Black and white photographs celebrate making shapes.
Stanley Keleman‘s introduction explains the difference between sensing and feeling. Rereading it yesterday reminded me of why I find teaching yoga one-on-one or in small groups effective and exciting. The personal attention allows for awareness of feeling, what Keleman calls “the whole action.”
Though Keleman does not use the word, I think of “empathy.”
In my experience, the three braids of imaginative engagement that yoga requires–mental, physical and emotional–provide an experience of empathy with the self that transfers to fellow humans, pets and the natural world.
So often people confuse feeling and sensing. Sensing includes specific stimuli that provide information about a situation. The brain senses pressure, light, temperature and movement to position the body in space. Feeling, on the other hand, is a response from the cells. This visceral state involves the muscles, tissues, blood and nervous system in rhythmic and pulsating patterns and speaks the language of emotional expression….
The distinction between sensing and feeling opens the door to the two facets of contact: contact from the senses (objective reality) and contact from internal metabolism (subjective reality). These are ways of connecting with self and others. We make contact with ourselves through sensing where we are in space, by sensing the relationship of one part of ourselves to another part. The senses provide the images for patterns of movement. The other form of contact is the direct upwelling of warmth, liquidity and visceral motility which is expressed as tenderness, rage, anger, etc. This is emotional connection.
Actions and movements can be impersonal, a mechanical marvel wherein the body is an instrument for performance. But actions are incomplete unless they convey the meaningfulness of experience. Emotional knowledge liked to action is known as expression. The intent of internal movement and its expression is to arouse and generate response. Inner motility shapes the body, psyche and brain–one’s very life. Organismic movement reorganizes self-concept and self-image.
Life is a mobile, a pendulum, in which one is always trying to arrive at integration. We seek to maintain our uprightness, keeping the weight moving between two feet. Movement is not only muscular and cardiovascular but also gracefulness that comes from using oneself completely.
Try an experiment: Stand. Or sit on a chair. Sense your feet on the ground, bones and muscles holding the body. Place one palm on what we call the heart center, the area to the right of the beating heart. This motion may be familiar from reciting pledges. Let the hand linger. Notice the sensation of skin on cloth, the feet, the space above the crown of the head. Breathe, inhaling and exhaling for six full cycles. Return the hand to your side. Notice what you feel, inside. Choose one of the feelings and name it. Now replace the hand on the heart center, carrying with it that feeling, letting the movement be an expressive gesture of yourself. Pause. Return the hand to your side. Mentally let go of the named feelings and words. Stay present for a few more breaths.
Yesterday afternoon brought a steady, gentle bright shower that glistened the leaves.
Last night the sky cracked with lightning and thunder. Wind rolled the treetops in waves.
These contrasting rains reminded me of the effort and ease of yoga. And made me think of crocodiles.
In the darkness, a storm’s sounds surround the body.
Yoga (and poetry) require fearlessly looking in, listening deeply to the literal and metaphorical heart. We talk about surrendering to what is with the understanding that any physical or emotional unsettling will still. Change is the constant.
When a storm stirs the atmosphere as it did last night–and we’re safe and sound–there’s another opportunity to surrender, surrender to the movement of the external.
Curious to experience the duality of effort and ease?
One way is prone, in Crocodile, Makarasana. This pose can offer relief to the muscles of the back and the nervous system. Coming into the pose provides a reference to the effort that preceded it, whether physical or mental.
Or, for some, the pose itself presents an emotional or physical challenge. (Anytime any discomfort blurs into pain….stop!) This “I see” experience, tempered with steady breathing, can help draw that ever shifting line between effort and ease.
Sensations, like birds, need to be listened to and observed to be identified. Once named, they’re easier to recognize the next time.
Be a crocodile and notice how it feels. Here’s a version of the pose.
Come down to the front of the body, legs extended behind you. Let the front body sink into the support of the ground. Fold the hands to create a rest for forehead or chin. Breathe.
Do you believe, as the traveler and historian Herodotus did, that Egyptian plovers climb into the reptile’s mouth to clean its teeth?
Do you have room for a yoga home practice? Yes, you do. If I can do it, so can you.
Square footage in my apartment is limited to 573. Within that space are a kitchen with full-size range and dishwasher, a bathroom with a bathtub large enough for soaking, a stacked washer/dryer unit, a bed, two dog beds (Tucker likes variety), a bookcase, storage for husband Matt’s knife-making projects, clothes (including winter jackets and boots) and shoes for two tall people, files, books…you get the idea. You know what, though, it works.
Below are concerns I hear about space limitations and some ideas to consider.
I don’t have a spare room. My house is too small.
People I know who have a full home studio, or an extra room dedicated to yoga and meditation, love it. They may be the lucky ones. But a section of a room that’s used for multiple purposes works fine.
I can’t concentrate in my home.
Designate a particular space. That doesn’t mean the space is only used for yoga, but it is the space you go to for yoga. With private students, we might practice in the den, the living room, even the kitchen of their home, but when we’re there for yoga we set up the same way each time. In my little apartment, I have a space in the middle of the room. It works for me because it’s the most open space. With imagination, I picturing myself sitting down in the middle of a field.
My yoga gear is scattered all over the house.
Consolidate it in a basket or chest or on a shelf or a chest. I have a round basket that holds mat, blocks, strap, eye pillow and two blankets. Some students have a pile of towels or blankets in a closet that we pull out for props. Not all my private students use a mat. If you use a chair, have one in that space that is sturdy and proportioned for your needs. If you practice at a studio as well as at home, you might want to have a mat for home and a traveling mat.
My walls have art work hanging on them.
You don’t have to have an open wall. But walls are helpful for many poses, not the least of which is legs-at-the-wall, a pose that most people can practice every day with great results. Try removing the artwork and setting it aside for a few days. Then see how you feel about hanging it elsewhere.
I have too much furniture.
Re-home it. If you’re not sitting on it, you probably don’t need it. Space can be inspiring, and not just for astronauts.
My floor is covered with dog hair/cat hair.
Mine, too! Vacuum. I now think of vacuuming as the start of my practice in a Thich Nhat Hanh-sort-of-a-way. (Don’t groan!) Pushing the machine around gives me time to ask myself what my intention is for practice that day–to breathe and relax? to unkink the neck? to strengthen shoulders? Whether or not I stay with the intention, it’s a first step. And the silence following the vacuum’s roar creates a different sort of space to move into. Plus a chore is done. And I appreciate my little apartment even more: the entire unit can be swept from one plug.
The baby next door is crying. The neighbor’s dog is barking.
What a great opportunity to practice non-attachment. Really. Bring your attention back to the space you’ve created and let all the rest go. Or, consider dedicating your practice to the baby (or its parents!) or the dog. They could likely use some kind thoughts. I don’t practice to music, but if you do, music might be helpful, too.
I don’t have room for an altar.
I don’t have an altar at all. I have had, in past homes, with photos and mementos that served as touchstones. These days, I want every moment to be this moment; objects that carry stories pull me away. However, if you find objects helpful add them to your consolidated supplies. Maybe a special candle holder and a small box of wooden matches. Or a vial of skin-safe essential oil that you dab on your palms. I do create a focal point when I lead workshops in public spaces: a scarf holding a bud vase of fresh flowers and stones given to me.
I don’t have a spare room. My house is too small.
Ah, here we are again.
Maybe you can find another space that still allows you the benefits of a focused personal practice. Sometimes I go down to the apartment house gym. This is a mirrored windowless rectangle adjacent to a roomful of weights and weight machines, a corridor to the pool.
When I’m alone there, the first thing I do is turn off one set of lights as a signal to myself that I’m arriving for a particular purpose. If I’m sharing the room, I leave the lights be and settle first thing into a quiet pose like a forward bend. The stillness serves as a signal to me to shift gears.
Other tricks to make a shared space feel private is to face in the same direction when you practice or to bring a small object such as a stone to set near the mat. You might state a silent intention before beginning movement. This is similar to people you see in restaurants pausing to say a prayer over their food before lifting a fork.
Also, a special blanket just for your practice goes a long way toward creating a temporary home anywhere, anytime.
And isn’t that what yoga’s about: wholly inhabiting the world, alone and with others, with body, mind and heart, as given?
The Once and Future King is one of my desert island books. So when Alanna Kaivalya and Arjuna van der Kooij mention it in their Myths of the Asanas, they have my attention. Below is a beautiful passage from their book that encapsulates why I care so much about yoga and have made teaching one-on-one and in small groups my work.
Simply put, yogis embody the world. Using their bodies as tools, yogis put themselves into certain positions in order to understand the workings of the world around them. By doing so, they gain empathy, compassion, and sensitivity–qualities that contribute to a more elevated state of mind, known as chitta prasadanam in yogic scripture.
The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word yoga is “yoking” or “connecting.” One way of describing the state of yoga is a feeling of interconnectedness, in which we experience that a part of us exists in everything and vice versa. To understand this more fully, we try to resemble everything we know in the universe through our asana practice. This exploration can be likened to a story about King Arthur. As a young prince, Arthur thought that the most enjoyable part of becoming a king would be to rule over his kingdom. The wizard Merlin decided that Arthur would benefit from a powerful lesson. He changed the boy into different people, animals, and objects found within his kingdom, such as a peasant, a fish, a tree, the water, and a rock, so that Prince Arthur could understand what it was actually like to be those different beings and things. Arthur’s experience gave him the much-needed ability to put himself in others’ shoes. He began to understand that the most important job of being king is not to rule, but to serve.
Asana practice has a similar goal. We take the shape of the tree, the fish, the warrior, the turtle and the sage so that we can begin to understand their essential natures. We can literally feel the wisdom of the sage and the stability of the tree. We can feel the power of the warrior and the steadfastness of the turtle. As a result, we experience ourselves as more deeply connected with all of life around us. Through asana practice we can feel that our body is a microcosm of the universe.
The yogi is ready and willing to embody all states of existence, including ones that usually repulse mere mortals such as snakes, scorpions, and even death. Through yoga, we come to know the other as ourselves and ourselves as the other. This practice allows us the opportunity to dissolve the separation born from ego, along with the fear, cynicism, and isolation that sometimes go along with daily life. Feeling joy in coming to know the world, the journey of the yogi begins.
Several years ago, T.H. White was my companion on a memorable journey of friendship.
Sitting beside a yoga student at the end of her private session, this line from Theodore Roethke’s “The Abyss” came to mind:
“Being, not doing, is my first joy.”
I’ve been rereading Roethke’s The Far Field and stuck a Post-it note by the fifth and final section of “The Long Waters.” Maybe, having recently moved from California, I’m mourning a bit the distance of the Pacific Ocean from my heart. I’ve yet to reacquaint myself with the Atlantic, an ocean loved as a child. In due time.
Here are the last- and third-to-last stanzas of “The Long Waters.”
As light reflects from a lake, in late evening,
When bats fly, close to slightly tilting brownish water,
And the low ripples run over a pebbly shoreline,
As a fire, seemingly long dead, flares up from a downdraft of air in a chimney,
Or a breeze moves over the knees from a low hill,
So the sea wind wakes desire.
My body shimmers with a light flame.
I, who came back from the depths laughing too loudly,
Become another thing;
My eyes extend beyond the farthest bloom of the waves;
I lose and find myself in the long water;
I am gathered together once more;
I embrace the world.
I grew up in a very urban, noisy Brookyln, and have always been intrigued by silence. At first I wanted external silence, but that goal soon became internal silence. It’s a vast realm. People have said space, or the ocean, is the “last frontier,” but I think there’s another frontier–each of us is an entire universe to be explored. Enjoying the quality of stillness and joy that comes up in practice, being with whatever is there, is just wonderful.
– Larry Rosenberg in Stephen Cope’s Will Yoga and Meditation Really Change My Life?
Wherever I stay–a tent, a trailer, a bungalow, a borrowed room, a hotel, a townhouse, a loft, a studio apartment–an observation post is essential. Previous posts include a front yard Adirondack chair, a stool on a shallow balcony overlooking a parking lot, a porch swing, a stoop step.
Yesterday marked three weeks in Washington, D.C.; this morning, I found a lookout at my new home. A vital piece to the jigsaw puzzle of new routine.
The apartment building fronts Connecticut Avenue and faces west. Two driveways flanked by slate-paved sidewalks funnel cars and people to the lobby’s glass doors. Centered in the courtyard is a fountain with three spouts. Within the walls of the entry space, cascading water shushes traffic noise. To the right and to the left as you walk toward the 11-story building, four cedar benches are tucked in two alcoves beneath shade-giving dogwood trees. The gardeners are attempting to espalier magnolias along the stone walls without much luck.
Choosing a right-hand bench, on the south side of the driveway, I observe the world.
Straight-ahead: Residents in skirts and suits clutch briefcases and totes, some on the phone already. Nannies and parents come and go, pause if a tot tosses a stuffed duck from the stroller. Dog walkers hurry poodles and beagles to the park. Housekeepers sort keys. Carpenters carry their lunches in coolers.
Out on the street, more people, in cars and buses, driving garbage trucks and delivery vans. Intrepid bicyclists claiming a lane. All machines with wheels I ignore.
I’m concealed to observe sidewalk pedestrians.
Writing instructors advise novices to sit in a cafe and people watch, to notice tics and expressions that make their ways into stories’ characters. By imagining a stranger’s life, they also practice empathy.
Certainly taking in the world during hours seated in airports and on buses, subways and trains fleshed out my stories and triggered poems. Make up two characters and put them together in a situation and you’ve stitched a relationship: there’s a story.
Catch a phrase, place it under a bell jar and it might metamorphose into a stanza of verse.
As a writer and an editor, I look for relationships of the parts of the body of a piece of writing to the entire piece. I show a student how tension between a sentence and a line harmonize in a poem. We’ll rearrange an essay’s paragraphs to bring ideas into logical order.
As a yoga teacher, I look for relationships of parts of a body to the whole. Together with a student, we uncover the body’s sense of internal organization. We harmonize movement and breath. We ask, in what ways, physically and emotionally, are we motile?
Yoga models as seen on YouTube and in magazines resemble cyborgs more than they do real-life teachers and students. Most of us inhabit forms that aren’t particularly symmetrical, pure, grand or refined. They are, in all cases, beautiful-bods that are lopsided, steady, injured, whole, small, tall, resonant, reedy….what have you.
Instead of personalities or plots, from my blind I am seeing the wonder and range of physical life.
How do two shoulders relate to each other? Where do fingertips fall? Which leg leads a step? Where is the neck in relationship to the entire spine? In which direction lends the gaze? How do the feet support the body, the sitting bones the torso?
I’ve had amazing hairstylists in my life. (When my hair’s a mess, it’s not their fault! I am a wash and brush person.) Looking at me they take in strands’ texture, condition, color, shine and how the mop falls. Their minds spin ways to enhance whatever’s happening on the head that day. Sure they notice a necklace or new sweater, expression, posture and demeanor but they are attuned to hair. Hair is what they can do and what they love to do.
Bodies are the same way for me. Your hairiness or hairlessness, t-shirt or blouse, that zit or wrinkle are irrelevant.
When I see you, I am listening to the body, observing it.
My mind flips through its Rolodex for possibilities of breathing exercises and postures, and meditations to complement them.
To me, dear student, your body is bonny. We find places where it can move. We find space for breath. We invite the mind to rest. By assuming yoga postures, we align the kit and caboodle of your being with this gravitationally ruled planet.
And, strangers, when I seem to be sitting idly on a bench, know that I am working. As a musician attends concerts, a painter museums, a poet readings, I am attending to my craft, familiarizing myself with movement patterns, immersing myself in possibilities, honing intuition.
It’s by paying attention that anything is learned.
Ink and Pen
Scratch sugar pine, smell vanilla.
Pull the honeysuckle blossom for
a bead of nectar. Smell. Taste your space.
Roots of redwoods, mangrove and tamarisk
extend under acres in an extensive handshake.
Tar is the swamp of city streets. The world
desires to absorb us. Crawl
from your doorway into wherever you are.
Don’t fear pebbles denting kneecaps, dry leaves
crushed beneath palms. Find mud. Be received.
-Alexa Mergen published in The Poetry of Yoga