In December, I found myself in life’s equivalent of half-pigeon, a pose that is not only physically intense but requires mental stamina to stay present. Life had put me in an uncomfortable, and unfamiliar, place and all I could do was breathe and stay with the moment. I told this to a girlfriend and she said that pose for her is virasana, or hero’s pose. It occurred to me that life is made up of different yoga poses, or rather, the lessons learned from particular poses. Just like dogs have been bred to highlight particular traits or abilities for specific jobs, asanas bend our bodies and affect our minds in different ways to pin point the varieties of life’s particularities: backbends are energizing, heart and hip openers are emotional. In class, we also are reminded that yoga is a practice. But what are we practicing?
A teacher used to say that what we do on the mat is indicative of what we do off the mat. Or as a girlfriend of mine says “where you are, there you is” – meaning we do not change who we are and what our tendencies are just because we have changed our clothes, moved to a new location, found a new partner, or stepped on our mat. How we react on the mat is how we react off the mat. If your tendency is to avoid conflict, on the mat you may daydream or leave poses as soon as the emotions, tensions, and body trembles begin. How many times in utkatasana, chair pose, or in a twisted crescent lunge do you tap fingers, twitch your face or scrunch your shoulders wishing the teacher would move on to the next pose?
When you are on the mat and you find yourself thinking about how you hate the pose you are in, can’t stand the teacher talking, or wondering when it will all end, you are reinforcing negative thoughts in your day to day life – not just the 60-90 minutes you are on your mat. Working to stay present, working to be mindful and move with integrity, are skills you are strengthening for times off the mat. As we all know, life is hard. We have relationships start and end, bosses and demanding deadlines, familial responsibilities, and the unexpected events that knock us off our paths. In yoga poses, especially the ones that require us to become focused and aware of the triad of mind, breath and body, we are learning to live in every moment. We are learning to revel in the joys and breathe through the sorrows.
When you are moving into a difficult pose and the person next to you makes it look simple and elegant, instead of comparing yourself or competing against them, find santosha, contentment, with what the pose looks like in your body. Finding contentment on the mat, you are practicing contentment off the mat; experiencing, accepting and honoring your limits and your edge. When you are in a pose for awhile –sometimes 10 breaths, sometimes 3 minutes—“stuff” arises: thoughts, feelings, repressed memories, nausea, etc. When we let the emotions arise, when we put ego to the side, attempt to conquer our distractions – even practice a little svadhyaya (self-study), we notice the tools we use to distract ourselves: day dream, fidget, negative thoughts. When we settle into the pose and breathe, when we remove distractions and sit with who we are, the fundamental core of our being, we learn to be present, be still, and then we learn our own strength, our own power in the uncertainty that is certain in Life.