When I began taking yoga classes, I was craning my neck to see what the teacher was doing and tried to put myself in that shape. It felt like it took all my attention just to follow directions for breathing and half the time I was exhaling when she was saying to inhale. I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing, and I was using muscles to push and pull myself into and out of each posture. Every time the teacher would say to relax a body part, it seemed that part of me was tense as could be. How did she know? I felt as though the teacher must have had some incredibly deep knowledge about everything going on, that she had some mystical understanding to guide us into a land of the unknown and that somehow she could even see right through my body to sense all the places between my ribs and each part of my leg muscles! The vast majority of my schooling had been what I now see as top down teaching, in other words the teachers knows and the students just absorb what the teacher says and then they will know too. There was nothing in there about what I might have already discovered, or that there was an innate and essential interest in inquiry embedded in me.
Inner wisdom, what inner wisdom? In the beginning, nearly every aspect of the practice feels externalized. The directions translate into the physical efforts of moving arms and legs, turning one's head this way or that, trying to locate oneself while listening for the next direction to step here or release that part. Yet very quickly the body begins adapting to parts of this. Perhaps it is lifting the heart, or releasing the shoulders that still require a reminder, but the ball of the foot starts to seek the fullness of the floor, and the hip begins to relish that opening and closing and opening feeling as one moves through Virabhadrasana I (warrior I) into Virabhadrasana II (warrior II). Oh sure, the hamstrings stay tight for a while, and the legs shake, and the body gulps for air or holds its breath in Utkatasana (chair pose), but even that relationship gradually shifts to an internal communication that can be self absorbed and eventually self directed, or should I say self-encouraged?
It is through this process that we learn to listen to that inner understanding. Yes, there it is, that inner wisdom. We can come to discern the difference between fear of the unknown or of injury, and tightness in the muscles. When I am exploring asana that challenge the structure in its present condition, I fully understand that I am about to ask my body to do things it probably hasn't done before. I rely on what I do know and the breath is the first support. Breathing I do all the time, though often unconsciously, my yoga practice has me more accustomed to bringing using breath to help me focus. A small change in breath can facilitate so much.
Today I experimented with my Sirsasana (headstand). You can take any pose and find out more about it through simple shifts of awareness, changes in breathing, or taking alternate variations. Maybe you have loose hamstrings and forward bends are easy for you, so you can use a twist to help you extend your spine and your awareness. There are many possibilities that will build on what is natural in you. Then there are the places that fear and unfamiliarity will block off from you, unless you take the time to listen deeply to what is in you. Working towards openness in the tight places, allowing time to breathe into the extension or the twist or the silence, and following what the body begins to ask. What happens if I ...? Could I actually try to ...? Once the body is open, or stretched, or strengthened, it may say "Follow me, follow this energy, follow this breath..." and take you somewhere else.
So, as a teacher, I explore these possibilities to better understand what my students are up against. Oh, yes, I feel fear too about falling on my head or overdoing what my shoulder can take painfree. I doubt and question, I fear and hesitate. If I didn't, I wouldn't be myself. What may be quite different is that I watch that response, that feeling, and breathe into it. What do I mean? That fear and clenching that can grab at me in Urdva Dhanurasana (Wheel - Upward Facing Bow) is best dealt with by breathing up my back body, releasing my heart and shoulders with the breath, and relaxing my spine on the exhales. Sometimes I can even relax my feet and get a playful feeling as I breathe this way. Or even walk my hands around as my shoulders let go of the clench.
When I learned to invert into Sirsasana (headstand), I started against the wall. I do not teach this to beginners. I think the wall is better later on in the experience, otherwise all there is to it is to throw one's body up against the wall and wobble on the shoulders-neck-wrists-head. There was no way I was learning to rise in the middle of the room when I was next to the wall. I was too scared, and thought I was too weak. "Thought" was the real block. I remember a teacher telling me that I had more than enough core strength for something, and I was terrified to try it. Fear was stopping me from discovering something that was already mine. So now I try rising into Sirsana with my knees quite bent, letting my heels dangle behind me, and I try rising into Sirsana with my legs straight. What I am discovering is that core and breath are, not surprisingly, the source of the lift -- not the legs, nor the arms. I gaze at a photograph of Dharma Mitra standing on his head without his arms at all, and I begin to understand, from inside me, how that could happen.
It seems that all I do is continue to take away the blockages to that which is already there, I've just been learning to listen with a little more attention! Wonderful how my body took me into such a place of inversion and balance on this day of the summer solstice, when light outweighs the dark.