So why is it that I keep doing this yoga stuff anyway? I mean, after that bit about where it makes me one of the coolest people on the planet…maybe the entire solar system.
Seriously, what is it about this several hundred-year-old tradition that hails from a land so far removed from mine, it might as well be another planet, that draws me back again and again, day after day? I ask myself this question frequently. It’s no surprise to me, or anyone who knows me, that I would be attracted to the philosophy of yoga. I’ve always been a bit on the bookish side. I love to read, and explore new ideas. I enjoy the history of ideas and how they influence and shape culture. It’s no surprise that my bookcases are increasingly crowded with YET another yoga text. It’s something I really never get bored with because there’s such a depth within this thing called YOGA.
It’s also no surprise to people who have known me for a long time that I enjoy the spiritual dimension of yoga. In my youth, I studied a lot of comparative theology and religion courses. I’m very private about my religious convictions and even my closest friends would be pressed to plaster the correct label on me. Nevertheless, people who know me wouldn’t be surprised that I enjoy the study of yoga because it acknowledges the spiritual dimension of our makeup.
What is surprising to everyone, most of all to myself, is the joy I find in the physical practice. I am singularly the most un-athletic person I know. It is generally recognized as a joke from God that I became a yoga teacher. I’m overweight, short limbed, inflexible and bad tempered. So yoga teacher?? How very droll of the Universe to provide.
Why is it that in spite of my life-long aversion to all forms of exercise, do I still keep lining up at the mat? For me, coming as I do from the Viniyoga tradition, is just the sheer acceptance that comes with it. Unlike cycling or any other physical activity I’m involved in, there is nothing competitive about yoga. It’s not even about competing with myself, trying to outdo some fantasy-based notion of “personal best”.
Yeah, sure, I know that there’s always someone who tries to turn this into some kind of contest. Never mind the whole “Yoga Olympics” quest, a colleague once joyfully announced after a morning yoga practice that she had finally out-meditated the rest of the class. True story. Her words. Out-meditated. I’m still working on exactly what that means and no, we’re not good enough friends for me to just ask her how one knows one has out-meditated the competition.
If I’m honest though, I’ll confess I do recognize the mind-set. I’ve had many moments on the mat that have left me feeling hopeless and useless and utterly humiliated. Shoulder stands pretty much shred any semblance of human dignity I may have ever possessed. Dhanurasana, the bow pose, even taken in the half or ardha modification, consistently reduces me to tears. Yet, these postures remain in my repertoire of practice. Why?
In a word, Tapas. And like most Sanskrit yoga words, it takes four paragraphs of English prose to explain that one word-concept. Tapas means to cook and refers to the physical purification of the body. Just as a metallurgist heats metal to the point where impurities are burned away, my asana practice purifies my body. The movements help circulate blood and lymph while releasing tensions I’ve stored in my muscles. Mentally, the stretching and twisting allows my mind to explore the boundaries of my physical self, in a non-threatening manner. For a woman who has lived most of my life inside my skull, these overtures of peace between my body and my brain are therapeutic in nature. As my mind and my body start to become friends again, or at least not-enemies, asana practice gives both of them a non-judgmental way to explore each other and their boundaries.
And part of Tapas is the development of discipline. The discipline it takes to bring myself onto the mat on a daily basis stays with me throughout the day. I’m less self-indulgent on practice days. I find myself automatically making more positive food choices and I’m less likely to try to comfort my emotional stresses with fats, salt and simple carbohydrates.
And those postures I have difficulties with? They too have their gifts. Shoulder stand, although I’ve never successfully completed the posture, has been one of the most instructive of the asanas. I basically need to re-build my shoulders before I’m going to be able to stand on them. I’ve learned more practical anatomy through this posture than I have from any other to date. And Dhanurasana, the bow posture? I have no idea why I cry every time I go into this posture. I don’t understand the overwhelming sense of grief and despair that comes with it. But I do know it’s a letting go of something.
How do I know that? One of the fruits of practice is a sense of self-awareness that helps me discern between an emotion and the memory of an emotion. Whatever is being released during Dhanurasana is not today’s issues. I don’t know the back story on it and frankly, I’m not interested in the “why”. My body is trying to let it go and any attempts to construct a narrative thread around the emotional release defeats that. The solution is to simply breathe and let it go.
So why do I practice on a daily basis? It’s to get me here, to the place where I can let go of that which needs to be released and I can accept that which I need to embrace. It’s not about my abs or my hamstrings; it’s not about bragging rights on how many days in a row of practice I’ve accomplished. I do it solely for the fruits of practice. It’s a blissfully selfish act that becomes its own reward.
Thanks for reading and Namaste,