The Empress card in The Wild Unknown Tarot depicts a tree under a crescent moon. The tree stands, not unlike the proverbial Giving Tree, extending thick, sturdy branches skyward. As though made of light, the luminous trunk tickles the sky with soft, deep pink leaves, embracing the moonlight, and thereby her own emotional nature.
When I began teaching yoga in an alternative high school, I imagined myself somewhat like this tree, moving with the same grounded aura through the halls toward my sanctuary-esque classroom. In this dream, I provided shelter despite artificial lighting, warmth in spite of cold, gray tile floors, and I cultivated in my students the ability to examine their deepest, most personal places by sharing simple breathing techniques and yoga asana. And all this I wanted within the first week of work.
In my musings, several assumptions had already been established: 1. My students would trust me. 2. My students would understand me. 3. My students wanted to examine their deepest, most personal places. 4. I was going to be responsible for all of it. In other words, it was all about me.
At first, the struggle to keep them engaged was farcical. Taking long, audible breaths while waving my arms slowly up and down, reassuring them it would “feel natural and even enjoyable soon,” I was more like a court jester than a resplendent maple tree. I all but pried their crossed arms away from their just recently post-pubescent chests and had them stand in a circle to expose every area of physical self-consciousness to their peers, most of whom were strangers. I cried every day as soon as I exited the parking lot and kneaded knots out of my shoulders at home. The battle against nature had commenced.
Anticipating a crop of spontaneously blossoming yoga fanatics is as fruitless as planting a piece of gum into the ground. What has become a wild love affair with the natural beauty of being a tender human for me has taken years of rollercoastering to develop. I forgot that adolescence is beautiful like a cut of meat is beautiful; even foodies acknowledge the savagery in it. Most of us prefer not to see the meat until it’s been prepared and dressed properly. The inner landscape of teens is so raw and full of chaotic urges that I found myself gutted by it, and I was domesticating my students’ humanity rather than cultivating deep respect for it.
The change occurred one day, not surprisingly, when the Houston summer heat broke. I took my students outside on the grass with one assignment: 1. Write down the five postures you like best, 2. Practice them. They marched outside so precisely and lined up their mats like sentinels on the grass. Amidst soft chatter and bouts of bathroom visits, there was a new atmosphere creating itself in which these young people felt free to be themselves and explore yoga, not as an assignment or another “you-must-do-this-or-else,” but a skill they were adapting and learning to wield skillfully. Gone were the blank stares, the incessant comments and complaints. Instead there were eager people, replete with smiles and insights, teaming up to guide each other through this new territory.
From each interaction with nature, some new awareness blooms into being: the tenderness of a painfully shy boy forced to listen to his parents and teachers expressing delight and relief about his having a “new friend” yields empathy; the ferocity within a girl being asked to fall in line and behave like she’s “supposed” to awakens my inner mama bear. Where does this part of us come from? In alchemy they say, 'Tertium non data,’ the third is not given.
The need for love in all of them tills my insides and reminds me how unruly life can be, and how close to the surface that feeling of inner chaos lies. But what is teaching if not standing in front of a mirror discovering the wild unknown within? What are teenagers if not the wildest, densest, most treacherous territory? I see in this soft light of awareness the side of me that wants to love more, really wants to be loved more - the adolescent on her way to being an Empress.
My teacher used to always say, “Look at the person on the dance floor acting a fool- they may not be the best dancer, but they’re having the best time.” She often included a little bit of spontaneous and free-form movement in her classes-- which sent many students into butt-clench mode-- but her words stuck with me far beyond my mat. To this day, whenever I find myself stiffening in the face of change (an unexpected sub, for example…) I try to wiggle my booty a bit and see what shakes down.
In spite of our best efforts, it seems we all invariably attach to our practice, especially us asana junkies. It is deeply satisfying to spend time upside down, and the moment our feet float away from the wall is undeniably sweet. But in that moment of feeling we have “nailed” our practice, we quietly tell our inner Self that practice is “X.” Practice becomes the thing that occurs when my feet float, or when I make it to the studio six days a week, or whichever "X" factor it may be. Practice stops when I encounter unforeseen financial trouble or emotional upset or fatigue. Over and over again we must remind ourselves that these instances are when the practice actually begins: in the face of change. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose what changes or when, we merely choose whether or not to accept the change and whether or not to go with the flow.
I have been injured several times in my "asana career" and have had to adapt my practice to the undeniable circumstance of not being able to put weight on my right arm, for example. At the time this particular injury happened, I had just settled into a consistent and budding Mysore practice. Now, anyone familiar with Ashtanga knows it’s all about that Surya Namaskar. I, however, had no access to urdhva hastasana, let alone any of the weight-bearing postures. I was deflated and deeply sad. In the moment, it was true that my asana practice could not develop because of the way that I had previously defined it. But because my teacher is a brilliant P.T. as well as a devoted Ashtangi, she encouraged me to show up and do whatever I could, including a makeshift assortment of standing postures from the Primary Series and savasana. To arrive at the shala each morning in spite of what I “could” do was tremendously humbling and opened a huge vault in my experience of “practice.” I noticed my breath with more sensitivity and put all my training to use smoothing out the jagged lines of, “But I can’t,” and “When will I be able to…?” In my mind, I remembered, ”Yogas citta vritti nirodah....”
Injury is an obvious place to start, but what about those less-obvious changes? Seasonal shifts, for example, and a necessarily altered energy level? Or an emotional upheaval, such as a breakup, a move, or watching the news? As committed practitioners, it can be confusing at best (if not infuriating) to implement a strong routine for self-care and then be asked to loosen our grip on the reins. There's the mental agitation, the not having what we want when we want it, and worse, the not having a way to correct the problem; isn’t that the citta we’re trying to nirodah? When we find ourselves rigidly holding on to our routines and refusing to adapt, we can always count on Patanjali to drop his wisdom bombs and remind us, “Abhyasa-vairagyabhyam ta nirodah.” The fluctuations (citta vrittis) are stilled by practice and dispassion (Sutra 1.12). We must practice, i.e. show up, and bring with us a little of this “dispassion,” or the absence of craving for the sense objects, a category to which our body and our asanas surely belong.
This is no small task, but it is the task, and while there are those who have mastered this, I find it soothing to look to nature for guidance; I don’t feel competitive with the elements. As seaweed is moved by the tide, we are moved by the actions of and our responses to the world around us. Owing to its malleability and ROOTEDNESS, seaweed dances gracefully. Likewise, a practice rooted in a focused, holistic approach or broader-reaching tradition can provide said root, but it is up to us to soften and let the tides of life move. They are part of a grander plan than our own. When pincha mayurasana is off the table, or maybe putting any weight on your left side is impossible, don’t sit to the right and wait for things to go back to the way they were. Dance like a fool, and see what could be.
In an increasingly media-based industry, yoga teachers have come to represent the physical elite. Instagram, Facebook, websites, newsletters thrive on images of impressive physical feats and physiques. Yoga pants sell, more often than not, because of who’s in them. With all of this focus moving out toward the still image of the yogi, I’m wondering if anybody notices that the still point is actually a state of being and not a static posture or singular moment in time? Certainly the body is a visible, tangible expression of self, but everything we see is literally a trick of the eye. In order to know the embodied self we cannot merely look at it from the outside, slicing and dissecting, comparing and contrasting. Furthermore, none of the asanas on their own has any sustaining power. It is the way in which we inhabit each posture that gives them power. From this conscious embodiment we as practitioners draw resilience, patience and autonomy into our mundane lives.
So why do have asana/poses then? What’s the point or benefit in working the body beyond the place of cardiovascular maintenance? Most of our teachers (as in Patanjali, Shiva, Krishna, et. al.) said one or two things about stillness. I think maybe something about yogas citta vritti nirodah, or, “yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind.” And if you’ve ever tried to sit still without your mind wandering you know Yoga is more than just working your hips open to hit Koundinyasana.
Stagnant physical energy is what makes sitting and stilling the mind so difficult. Energy, once set in motion, must go somewhere, and since most of us cycle our energy through the thought wheels rather than consciously through the nadis, the result is an anxiety-ridden being that just needs to sweat and chatturanga. Teachers practicing in front of their class with a “come-along-with-me-to-this-very-cool-pose” attitude, forget that the body might be going through the motions, but the psyche could be fragmented and therefore the “motions” are likely causing more harm than good. This premise is based on the work of Peter Levine, creator of Somatic Experiencing (which we will explore in future articles,) and the movement system of somatics. “Somatics” refers to a lineage of movement studies that emphasizes internal physical perception (or the body as perceived from within), and employs techniques that highlight the mover's internal proprioceptive sensations, in contrast with performance-based techniques like dance. Through the lens of somatics, movement is an indispensable precursor to that still point of transcendence, which brings me to my point: how do we know if ourasana is helping or hurting?
Let’s examine the word somatics for a moment. Recognize that word, Soma? That wondrous elixir residing in the liquid contents of body and mind, Soma is the counterpart to Agni, the moon to the sun, the feminine to the masculine. “Soma,” according to Dr. David Frawley, is “the delight inherent in existence itself (Brahman), not simply the pleasure produced by contact with external objects. Soma is the ‘pure delight’ that we are truly seeking in all that we pursue, not mere temporary pleasure that wears away the senses and is only its reflection.”
Soma might be exactly the remedy to our yoga conundrum: a felt experience of pleasure that is activated and contained by posture, then lingers and floods into every open space in the body like a nourishing stream. In the Sri Vidya tradition, this is exactly the point of asana: to activate and engage Agni and Soma in equal parts. How do we know we’re doing that? First and foremost, with an inwardly focused gaze- beyond staring at fingertips or nose during Surya Namaskar, this gaze is self aware with an observational quality. This gaze recognizes strain, rushing, unrelated self-talk and the difference between right and left, front and back, straight and bent. Secondly, the practice must generate energy as well as contain it. Throughout a vigorous sequence, if the breath comes through in starts and stops and the form becomes soggy, your Agni is probably burning more Soma than ignorance, and your Soma is nothing but a puddle on the mat. Finally, it should feel pleasant to return to your life following practice, as though you have been fortified with supernatural powers to bear the weight of winter or rush hour or sick children (or adults for that matter.) Sleep comes easily and harmful substances hold no temptation. Practice is the balm that soothes all ills and prepares us to sit quietly in the presence of Om, the Absolute, Isvara, et. al.
I don’t know if that can be captured on camera.