Sunday, November 14, 2004

Take a yoga class (again)

Friends pointed out that my yoga guide to DC put less emphasis on the reasons for doing yoga in the first place. When you know a lot about something it’s easy to forget that other people don’t have your experience - which is why I thought it would be helpful to write something about what yoga means to me and why I’m so excited to teach it. I often tell my male friends, "Come for the hot girls, stay for the enlightenment!" But I don’t want to trick anyone. There are a million reasons to take yoga that relate only to your health, vitality, and improving the physical beauty of your body. It’s the best workout you could ever have. Yet it’s hard to do yoga for very long without the emotional and spiritual benefits creeping in - even if you’re incredibly skeptical of them.

Why is yoga such a good workout? One of the silliest myths about yoga is that it "relaxes you." Yes, it certainly does. It also incorporates poses that are so energetic and physically challenging that you may be pouring a river of sweat by the end of your yoga session. Of course, there are lots of ways to exert yourself hard. When I used to go to the gym, I’d climb on the stair stepping machine for forty five minutes while watching television, and then do a few stretches, mostly variations on stretching forward to touch my toes. I’d certainly be tired at the end of it! I’d also have moved my body in just a few directions, so that some muscles would be incredibly tired, while others wouldn’t have worked at all. And although our bodies can move in a thousand different ways, I would have only stretched a few of them. Of course, other activities - running, rock-climbing, or playing tennis, for example - exercise your body through a much greater range of motion. Yet because of repetitive motions that pound on your joints, they often carry a risk of injury. And none of these activities include the comprehensive focus on every single different way your body can stretch, move, and articulate that yoga does. As a result, every different capacity of your body is worked and strengthened. For that reason, there are yoga poses that can help with every other activity that you do (rock climbing and dancing are particularly good fits.)

Not only does every part of your body become strong, it learns to work together gracefully. At a party I went to recently at the indomitable Matt Bye’s house, I was giving piggy-back rides to 220 pound men, literally picking them up, running around and spinning them in circles. It’s all part of the yoga evangelism!

But yoga also does relax you, and this is where other health benefits come in. One of the things that annoys me most about the Western attitude towards medicine is a failure to continually acknowledge the fact that your own body is the only thing that can heal you. All medicine can do is remove symptoms or strengthen you in other ways, so that your own immune system can do its job of fixing itself. And our bodies are in constant need of healing: it hurts to live. From the little cut where you nicked yourself with a pin, to the bruise on your shin where you cracked it on the desk, to the slight rash on your neck where your shirt was rubbing you funny, to your liver metabolizing the toxins you introduce to it purposefully (alcohol, drugs, medicines) or unawares (pollution, pesticides on your food, natural toxins in the vegetables we eat), to the circulation being cut off in your butt because you were sitting still for so long - if we didn’t have an inner force allowing us to heal ourselves, we’d quickly fall to pieces. When we have tension in our muscles, it drains off some of that inner healing force to the job of maintaining the tension there. That’s why, when we’re totally stressed out and all our muscles are clenched tightly, we’re more prone to sickness - our inner fire has been distracted from its important job of constant healing, into the effort of keeping all those muscles tight all the time. When you learn to truly relax all your muscles and do it on a regular basis, you will notice remarkable improvements in skin tone, ease of breathing, and the ability to shake off the little colds and sniffles and funks that descend from time to time (especially in a city).

(It can often be hard to accept that it’s not the medicine fixing you, nor the faith healer curing you, nor your teacher teaching you, but only yourself. And it’s sometimes hard for the teacher as well. When I teach yoga, I cannot forcibly make you understand the things I’ve learned. I can only clear a path for you to walk down. When I have beginner students in my class and they perform a pose in a way that I know could be improved on, I sometimes feel very frustrated, and try to move them into the correct place with my hands. Forgetting, of course, that it’s a pose that took me years to really learn and that they’re progressing much faster than I did!)

Beyond simply strength and health, over the course of your yoga practice, you experience a series of little epiphanies about the relationship between your body and your mind. Each of these epiphanies allows you to deepen your yoga practice and improves the happiness of your life (in the Socratic sense of "happiness"). I’ll try to explain the ones I’ve had, although we’re getting to the part where you don’t really understand unless you’ve practiced. (Nor have I succeeded in completely transferring these lessons from the mat to my life - as any of my friends who have seen me in a cranky mood can testify. I’m not trying to be arrogant here. In fact, yoga has simply allowed me to see some far-off destinations, and I’m humbled by the realization of how distant those places really are!)

My first epiphany was the way active motions should be linked to inhalations and relaxed, exact motions linked to exhalations. Not only did this allow me to stretch farther - comfortably touching my toes for the first time in my life - it allows for more graceful performances of such life activities as striking the first ball in a pool game, opening a jar, dancing at a club, or carrying my bike up stairs to my apartment every day. Further, it leads to a heightened awareness of the rhythm inherent to life on both a micro- and a macro-scale - there are times when it’s appropriate to work, and times when it’s appropriate to rest, and you have to be able to seize those appropriate times and allow them to reinforce each other.

My second epiphany was the way that when the core of your body is active and engaged (the floor of your pelvis and your lower stomach, in yoga called "mudha bandha" and "uttayana bandha") all other poses become simpler and more graceful, and you seem to draw in universal energy - making such actions as biking uphill or running up six flights of stairs to get to my office positively enjoyable. It is the physical expression of whole-hearted enthusiasm. On the yoga mat it allows you to jump as high as a grasshopper and land as lightly as a feather, and in the course of your life it allows you to relish all of your experiences with the zest of a small child. (This lesson is not confined to yoga, of course! From a book on aikido, called "Ki in Daily Life": "People of the Orient, from ancient times, have placed emphasis on the importance of the pit of the stomach as the birth place of true human strength...It is a joint point for both mind and body. Once you have mastered it correctly, you will for the first time be able to unify your mind and your body..." Although I don’t know much about these other disciplines, I have a feeling that lessons from tai chi, aikido, qi gong, falun gong, or capoeira would all seem very familiar.)

My third epiphany was the way that performing each yoga asana (pose) requires a certain mental and emotional state. You cannot hold "Warrior I" for a long time enjoyably without feeling fierce and brave, and you cannot linger in "Child’s Pose" without beginning to feel very soft and tender. Hence, each time you do yoga, it can become a way to practice these emotional/spiritual states as reflected by the body, and an opportunity for your mind to simultaneously reflect, assess, and dream about these different ways of being. It’s a way to practice and prepare yourself for being courageous, openhearted, humble, keen-witted, soft and tender, and resolved and stern. You can then use these qualities more effectively throughout the course of your life. My friend Ben seemed most skeptical of this third assertion, so I will try to elaborate. When a person walks into a room, often you can tell if they’re happy, angry, sad, afraid - their body language, the whole of the way they move, betrays it. A yoga asana is, in a way, the crystallization of body language that reflects a certain state. If this still seems nonsensical, I can only implore you to practice with an open mind.

I know that there are fourth and fifth and many more epiphanies awaiting me as I continue my yoga practice. That is why I love yoga and I am so grateful for it. (I have read about some of these further epiphanies in books, but I have not had them yet, so I don’t feel qualified to tell you about them.) Yoga is in the process of saving my life. I could never be as happy as I am now if I had not had the joys of what yoga has taught me. And that’s why I want as many people to learn it as possible. I would teach anyone yoga. If any stranger asked me to take two hours out of my day to teach them, I would do it happily in the certainty of improving their lives, and feeling lucky to have been able to help. No matter what you’re doing, if you’re doing yoga, you’re doing it better. This is why B.K.S. Iyengar insisted that the physical, mental, and spiritual versions of yoga are all completely identical. They all get you to the same place: beauty on the inside and out.


Blogger MJ said...

Great post! You elucidate a lot of feelings I have about yoga that I hadn't been able to put into words. Thank you for that. There are people in my life whom I believe could benefit from yoga, as they have issues with depression, asthma, mild epilepsy, and addictions -- all afflictions that yoga is famous for easing. Unfortunately some regard such words as just more new-age mumbo jumbo. Oh well. Yoga on!

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