If we were to reduce yoga down to the bones, it’s breath, movement and attention that would be left at the bottom of my saucepan. When I say ‘yoga’, these three in union are what I mean. And whenever we breathe, move and attend to experience, we generate an encounter with a fourth thing, usually called in yoga ‘the edge’. In a beginning practice (especially a dynamic one), it’s not uncommon to equate ‘being on the edge’ with ‘going to the limit’. They are not the same. The edge is how I want to place myself in relation to a particular sensation, emotion or memory arising from embodied experience. It requires sensitive cultivation and implies what feels like an infinite number of possible responses – there are certainly a lot. I think we all know what ‘going to the limit’ means.
My practice, astanga vinyasa, is a gymnastic form, and is often considered to be the most physically challenging style of postural yoga. It consists of four (or six, depending on how you divide them) progressive series, demanding escalating degrees of strength, stamina and flexibility. It’s in the nature of this kind of practice to attract people, like me, who love to dance on the brink of the precipice. It may be only when injury or exhaustion forces us to re-evaluate how we are engaging with our practice that we begin to question the wisdom of habitually hanging on by our finger-nails. As we start to explore our physical, psychological and emotional experience more subtly, we may discover that the brink is not the only edge.
When we speak of edge, we are talking actually not of a singular position but of something more like a spectrum. Eric Schiffmann describes it like this:
Each pose has a ‘minimum edge’ and a ‘maximum edge’, as well as a series of intermediary edges between these … [The maximum edge] is the point where the stretch begins to hurt. It is the furthest point of tightness beyond which you should not go. If you were to force yourself beyond this point, you would definitely be in pain and might hurt yourself or pull a muscle. The minimum edge is where you sense the very first sensation of stretch, the very first hint of resistance coming from your muscles. (The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness, Pocket Books, 1996).
Eric’s words imply that the edge is actually the middle: the centre point – or multiplicity of centre points – between too little and too much. What constitutes too little and what constitutes too much will vary from person to person, posture to posture, day to day, moment to moment. There will be times in your practice when you feel the need to press into your edge, and times when you feel the need to draw back. In other words, edge is not one location or a final arrival; it’s never discovered, mapped, done and dusted. Edge is an ongoing process, an endless dance of shifting experience. Nor is the edge really separate from us. There’s no thin black line out there against which we in here pit ourselves. Edge is intrinsic, a unique product of the interplay between our individual body and psyche with a particular posture in a particular moment in time.
Eric’s explanation might seem to imply that edge is all about extension – how much we stretch. Of course, it isn’t only. While, in the popular mind, yoga may be a form of esoteric contortionism, those of us who have practised it know that yoga postures engage us in contraction as much as extension – we breathe in and expand; we breathe out and find the tensility that enables us to maintain and stabilise. So edge arises also in our relationship with holding and contracting, as well as in the balance between holding / contracting and expanding. Since yoga is fundamentally about gradually enlarging our capacity to stay present to any and all of our experience, then feeling into how much of my own anger / frustration / grief / joy / excitement / inertia I can tolerate without dissociating – that’s also edge.
If the edge is the new middle, perhaps we can lift it out of its geometry altogether. When I’m teaching about edge, I often reframe it as ‘the expansion zone’. This feels to me richer, more plastic and more pregnant with potential. The expansion zone connotes that state of receptive witnessing where unanticipated changes can self-arise, organically, without me forcing the agenda. If I fall just short of the expansion zone, I’m too slack, too comfortable; if I push past it, I’m too strong, too urgent. What we’re aiming for here is that just-right feeling – not too sweet, not too sour; not too hot, not too cold; not too hard, not too soft. The one that when it emerges seems quite naturally to meet the moment.
When I offer mindful attention to my edge, I’m less likely to injure myself as I practise, and that’s important. Beyond that, though, my relationship with edge on my mat has everything to tell me about how I meet with edge in the rest of my life. If I practise yoga constantly at the outer limit of my endurance and on the verge of pain, this is a reflection of how I pitch myself in life. If I reflexively back away from challenges on my mat, choosing postures I find easy and non-threatening, the odds are that I am remaining in the shallows, emotionally and physically, in the rest of my life. Many of us go on habitually redrawing the same patterns in the sand and wondering why they never look any different. As we familiarise ourselves with these patterns in the laboratory of our practice, we become gradually more able to recognise them in life and can slowly begin to choose new trajectories.
Astanga vinyasa involves a process of dynamic surrender. ‘Dynamic’ means going for it, offering the best of our energy and our sense of direction, hanging on in there and staying wide awake. ‘Surrender’ means letting go into what’s really happening in the present moment – which may be that we don’t have much energy, we’ve lost our way and we’re falling asleep. Learning to walk this edge skillfully requires a lot of practice – which is why astangi’s practise every day. The more we practise, the more we find there’s space around the edge to play. We develop finesse and audacity. We may choose to lean back and take it easy; we may choose to take a risk – not out of habit or compulsion but because we’re feeling into what the moment uniquely requires.
Philippe Petit wire-walks between the Twin Towers