Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Beginning Yoga: Isn't So Simple

Yoga is supposed to simplify everything -- isn't it? We practice and feel profound peace, self acceptance and joy. Suddenly our confusions and pain are absorbed into the greater wholeness of the universe and we are just fine being who we are -- isn't that it? Or perhaps it is more like working out at a gym and we just come to do the same things enough times that it gets easier? And once it's easier, we find profound peace, self acceptance and joy and our confusions and pain are absorbed into the greater wholeness of the

For so many that first yoga class is a huge up hill struggle with the boulder. Right from the start it's sitting on the mat: what the heck is a "comfortable cross-legged position" with tight hamstrings, low back pain, screaming knees, tight groin muscles and crushed ankle bones ...? Then there's standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) otherwise known as standing up straight, right?, only every muscle is quaking or aching and nothing feels normal at all, while the mind is zooming all over the place checking on this and that only to discover that there is no communication at all with the toes or the inner thighs (inner thighs?). Have we really been functional human beings all this time, yet we can hardly sit or stand once we're in a yoga class??

My heart is so full when I teach beginners. It must seem that I take the simplest most natural thing and it turns into a puzzle that cannot be solved. There is never enough brain power to focus on the breathing while melting the center of the heel (center of the heel?) down and lifting the inner arches, while relaxing the shoulders and finding space in the .... well, it could go on and on.

In fact it does go on and on. That is the practice itself: Learning how to train the mind to be attentive, yet let the brain go; learning how to open those pathways of energy in the feet and through the legs so that one really can relax the spine around the muscular effort being made; learning to accept that which is so in this very moment and leave the judgments and know-it-all/know-nothing dualism of the self behind. All this is in fact happening right from the start in a beginning yoga class, just by focusing attention on what is actually being experienced.

The overlay on all of this is that there is no right way or wrong way in it. That's often a revelation. And discovering what makes things happen, what becomes possible, what the mind asks for, what the body says about that, all of this happens constantly on the mat, just as it does off the mat. So it doesn't matter how much yoga a person has already done in their lives (I was recently in a class where the teacher said, "so forget about all the 1,239 times you've 'done' down dog...") it is this particular moment you are using for your investigation of what being you, being human, and just being really is. Notice I did not say, "could be."

So far, it seems to me that nothing in yoga is hypothetical. The ability to be aware simply expands as we let go of the boundaries we have set, consciously or unconsciously. If we clutch at getting there, instead of marvel at being here, we will miss some of the salient features of being here that make all the difference in understanding being. The unfolding nature of asana leads the body into openness by following the breath and accepting and exploring what the bones and muscles can do, that's where the details stop being separate. In the beginning, though, it sure does feel as though the devil is in the details!

I offer my beginning class (or any class) as a safe place for bringing all of this into the moment. We can watch our own mind telling the story of the moment, feel our own feelings opening and closing in response to what we are actually doing or what we think we are doing. There is a sacredness in honoring our own breath and it naturally includes and absorbs everyone else's breath too. The air itself holds out a strangely pervasive and deeply compassionate acceptance of who we are and who everybody else is. The first person to fall out of Vrksasana (tree pose) has the hearts of everyone in the room. Then the laughter comes as we sink to the mat, or the sighs reduce every body to its fullest exhale. Perhaps it is that moment we feel the universal aspect of the "union" that is yoga, and let go of our own details.

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