“Yoga begins with listening.”
This might be my favorite quote about yoga. It’s the first line of The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind, by Richard Freeman.
One of the greatest gifts of yoga is that we improve our powers of observation. Breath by breath, movement by movement we pay close attention to increasingly subtle shifts of our internal experience.
This process of tuning in to ourselves is deeply satisfying. It is what allows us to be fully present, if only for brief moments. It is also a training ground for being more attentive to the world around us when not on our mats. Observing is observing, whether it’s observing the vertical plane between our heels and our sit bones, or the subtle shifts in a friend’s expression.
As one of my BCC students wrote, “Yoga is simply an awareness process.”
It is about noticing.
The tricky part is staying open and using what was first introduced to me the 1970’s as Beginner’s Mind:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
Do your best to avoid expecting anything to be the same as it was last time you tried it. Explore each posture as if it’s your first time doing it and you are learning it. So that we aren’t simply doing/acting/living to confirm what we think we already know, but we’re allowing ourselves to experience the moment without the mind predicting and therefore reinforcing familiar patterns.
As Sandy Anderson recently said in a course I took with her: “..[people] are sabotaged by emotional reactions to things that are not even related to the task or the problem at hand … controlled by emotional reactions that are colored by your history, or your culture. You tend to try to make sense out of what you are feeling by applying what you already know. This is an adaptation that makes sense, but it isn’t necessarily a good fit. The emotional coloring that causes you to jump to a conclusion about a situation is where we begin to hijack our intelligence, and the unconscious mind is now ruling.”
In yoga, working with Beginner’s Mind, or let’s call it, Discoverer’s Mind, we are constantly exploring every little piece of the experience, the breath patterns, the intellectual and emotional responses, the sensations of the joints, muscles, tissues; constantly exploring the space we inhabit.
We begin to notice habits of thought and physical placement. Noticing without judgement, catching the mind as it parses and files away our experiences as good or bad, right or wrong, and just start to find our way through each moment to a clearer awareness of that pattern. And in this way, as always, what we learn on the mat influences our lives off the mat and hopefully we learn to approach our experiences with a little bit less of our intelligence being “hijacked” (I love that!) by our past. Again, Sandy, “we become more skillful at managing conflicts and difficulties in the outer world when we become more skillful at recognizing and managing disconnects and conflicts in the inner world.”
In yoga we begin small and then move out – for example we can begin with one bone, and then follow it to it’s joint, and then to the muscle supporting it. What is the whole shape of it? Now the mind is completely absorbed in this process that is called a posture. In this way, the pose is unique in each body, the range of motion is irrelevant.
In yoga practice safety is key to being able to move on to finer points of awareness. Creating a baseline of safety is particularly challenging when the world around us does not feel safe. It starts with creating a safe environment in which to practice, and then safety in the body by giving ourselves permission to modify every instruction according to feedback from our bodies. In every posture we create the conditions to become completely immersed.
According to Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, one’s safety is an essential need that must be met before ascending towards self-actualization. (note: Abraham Maslow knew about living in an unsafe world. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia who fled persecution, and he first introduced this concept in 1943 when the world was again unsafe for Jews.)
We all have many layers of past experience to grapple with as we begin creating the conditions of safety to truly listen to our immediate experience. Some come to yoga specifically to heal or reconnect with our whole self because we’ve experienced trauma or injury. As we know, the human mind seems relentlessly determined to confirm its past understanding regardless of how inaccurate or self-defeating those beliefs may be. In yoga we have an opportunity to face our fears within the context of our body and our energy. We can begin to observe the toll taken on our bodies navigating a world that is rife with pain and fear. We start where we are.
All of this happens beyond words, and in the present. According to P.R. Tigunait’s translation of The Yoga Sutras (a seminal text for the study of yoga, compiled by Patanjali) the very first word of the text, atha is a word of layered and yet simple meaning. It means an auspicious beginning. It means “the beginning of our quest as well as its culmination”. It is “expressive of the self-luminous guiding intelligence residing in all of us”. It means, NOW.
We have to start somewhere, let’s start at the beginning, with now. Now is a merging of time and place, a moment of immersion free of striving, agitation, or distraction. Now is Yoga.