Getting it together: yoga for newcomers

It may be that you have joined a yoga class to get fit. This is the first step onto the mat for lots of people these days, and like all beginnings it is a worthy one. If you continue to practise regularly, however, you will begin to notice that while you may be experiencing benefits to your general fitness, there is also something bigger, deeper and more mysterious going on.

The Sanskrit word yoga is usually translated as ‘union’. BKS Iyengar (one of the great modern teachers and practitioners of yoga, and the founder of the Iyengar yoga system) describes this as ‘integration’; in other words, accepting and owning all the parts of ourselves. In the context of yoga, this integration is not only personal but also transpersonal: it entails experiencing and embracing our part in the universe, and experiencing the numinousness of that whole, which includes us and is so much bigger than us.

It’s important to understand that the physical postures of yoga are just a scaffolding. They are not themselves yoga. Yoga is the process of whole-person awakening that happens through engaging mindfully with the scaffolding of the postures. ‘Mindfully’ means that you notice what you are experiencing as you move through the postures, being aware of sensations, emotions, thoughts, energy moving, memories arising … and, just noticing, let them be.

Every yoga class should really come with a big bold WARNING sign and a lot of exclamation marks. Yoga is a dangerous practice. If you practise regularly and sincerely, it will transform your life from the roots up. You may be impelled to change anything and everything from your diet through your closest relationships, your job, where you live, and what time you go to bed and get up in the morning. The physical alignment you have been working with in trikonasana, parsvakonasana and all those other postures with difficult Sanskrit names are practice for this. You are being drawn into alignment with your truest purpose in life. There is often discomfort, confusion and a sense of disorientation in realignment. You will probably be familiar with this from your yoga class too. Transitions like this are not always easy or welcome. Many people stop practising yoga when they begin to feel the pull to shift position in this way. Ultimately, however, you are being moved towards your greatest integration, health and well-being.

Our ability as yoga practitioners is marked not by whether we can sit in lotus position or stand on our head for ten minutes, although working towards these things may be part of the scaffolding, but by our capacity for engaging with these transitions kindly and steadfastly, offering compassion to all our human silliness, and patience to our reluctance. Mr Iyengar says:

Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like [sic] you are constantly trying to fit the broken pieces together. Yoga allows you to find an inner peace that is not ruffled and riled by the endless stresses and struggles of life. Yoga allows you to find a new kind of freedom that you may not have known even existed … Ultimately … there is a serene core of one’s being that is never out of touch with the unchanging, eternal infinite. (Light on Life, xiv)

Good luck with your practice.

Light on Life, BKS Iyengar, Rodale, 2005

‘Progress’

Practise, practise, all is coming.

When we start to practise astanga vinyasa, most often we are concerned with the scaffolding. That is, with physical technique – with alignment, bandhas, jump-through, jump-back, strength, stamina, flexibility and so on. This is appropriate, because until we have built the structure, we cannot inhabit the house. Often, though, we translate this priority for engaging with some basic principles into the belief that there’s somewhere ‘we’ (usually meaning ‘our body’) have to get to – and as soon as possible. We construct ‘somewhere’ according to whatever we feel our own physical deficits to be. So the nirvana of arrival may be stretching our hamstrings, losing weight, jumping back without touching down, getting into a more challenging variation or a more advanced posture, being able to do padmasana, sirsasana, urdhva dhanurasana … and so it goes on.

Generally, though, over the months and years, our attitude gradually starts to shift. We become more engaged with what’s happening now than with what might (maybe) be happening sometime soon. We begin to dwell more often in the reality of the moment. This shift begins to happen when the yoga mat becomes home, a place we need to go to every day in order to re-find ourselves. It is therefore an outgrowth of a regular self-practice (and something that cannot result from attending no-matter-how-many classes). It’s not dependent on a teacher. No teacher can give us this; we already possess it and only need to uncover it in ourselves.

When we are engaged with practice in this simple, regular way, ‘progress’ is no longer something that we reach for, but something that occurs, quite ordinarily and routinely, when a space opens up and we move, quite ordinarily and routinely, into that space. Space opens out of the act of stepping onto our mat, with a willingness to be present (and a willingness to be present to our inability to be present), day after day. It may manifest as a tiny increase in strength or flexibility. It may manifest as a little more capacity for abiding through difficult emotions. It may manifest as the opportunity to catch sight of the place that bores us, frightens us, brings us so much joy we just can’t bear it, and, for a second, look it in the eye. It may manifest as the growing tendency to get onto our mat even when the loudest voice in our head is telling us that there isn’t time and our life is too busy. It may manifest as injury and the need to find new ways, both physical and psychological, of being in our practice – and the willingness to look for those ways rather than roll up our mat and have a break.

Progress can look like going backwards. It takes a certain bigness of mind to embrace this kind of progress – and it’s the bigness of mind that makes the difference, the bigness that recognises the prince in the frog. The miraculous thing is that, even in what appears to be a setback, spaces are always opening out. We just have to be able to see them and expand into them – and with time and practice, this way of responding becomes our natural impulse.