Yoga is More than Skin Deep

When I began to practice yoga twenty-five years ago, the emphasis was on the physical.  In fact, it would be closer to the truth to say I wasn’t practicing yoga at all – I was practicing asana.  And while my early training included work on the philosophy and history of yoga, I listened about as carefully as I did during fifth-grade arithmetic (and my friends are all too aware that my ability to add and subtract leaves much to be desired). 

What was I afraid of?

I convinced myself that asana was enough.  But I was only swimming on the surface.  To me, deeper work meant something physical, nothing more than graduating from half to full lotus without damaging my fragile left knee. The thought of moving deeper spiritually was too uncomfortable.  My asana practice strengthened  but I failed to see beyond its gifts. Deeper examination meant diving into the unknown.  And I was uncertain of what I might find.

But twenty-five years after my first utthita trikonasana I now see awesome beauty in the unknown.  I’ve yet to reach center – do we ever?  But to paraphrase one of my teachers, I know that when I do find my center, freedom will be waiting for me.

Although I have no proof, I think it is reasonably safe to assume that most yoga practice in the West is asana-centric. There’s nothing wrong with that.  I mean, what’s not to love about asana practice? It brings us to a place where we feel balanced and alive.  It calms or energizes depending upon our needs and our sequencing.  And if we pay attention to the sensations we feel after our practice we’ll realize they are more than physical. More than skin deep.  Our asana practice influences our emotional state.  It influences how we perceive the world around us.

But this is just a tease.

When we broaden our yoga practice with elements of pranayama and  meditation we build a practice that is deeply integrated and holistic.  The physiological and spiritual sensations that asana practice hints at become intensified. We begin to dive beneath the surface.

The same teacher who taught me where to find freedom also offered a metaphor.  He suggested that our day-to-day lives, our random thoughts, our unconsidered reactions to the world around us are like the surface of the ocean: rough and unsettled with white caps and tides that rush in and just as quickly rush out.  But beneath the surface of the ocean there is calm.  If we can turn away from chaos and turn toward the calm found in a measured breath and silence then our spirits – and our asana practice – will be nourished.

Day One

A tape measure.

Image via Wikipedia

1 January 2011

I slept in until 7:30 this morning, climbed out of bed and while the kettle boiled for tea practiced 5 Golden Seed.  As the tea brewed I stepped on the scale, took note and stepped off.  I found the tape measure hiding under some old bottles of nail varnish and wrapped it around my chest, then my waist and finally, my hips.  I took a deep breath and recognized the truth:  I need more exercise.  But to be honest, the only thing convincing me to get off my bottom and into the gym is the very fact that the last thing I want to do is get off my bottom and into a gym.

It all began with the first manuscript about the Women Airforce Service Pilot (still languishing in a drawer awaiting re-writes, by the way).  I sacrificed trips to the gym for writing time.  Why trudge all the way over to the local Y when I can just throw on my trainers and jog around the block? Turns out that didn’t work out so well for me.

(By the way, I’m deliberately not divulging my weight and measurements.  This isn’t a debate about body image, it’s about health.  Let’s just say it’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be, but it’s bad enough.)

I was full of excuses and I lost the goal of entering mid-life in peak condition around the same time I found Facebook.  Besides, I teach nine yoga classes a week.  Isn’t that enough exercise?

Sorry.  No.  It’s not enough exercise.  Yoga will keep me flexible.  It will keep my joints mobile.  But cardiovascular?  No.  My style of yoga won’t touch it.

And so, just last week, knowing my day of reckoning would arrive with the New Year, I dragged my sorry, flabby body to my local Jewish Community Center and signed up.  Tomorrow I meet with a personal trainer to find out how dire my situation is and next week I have an hour introduction to the Pilate’s Reformer.  In between, I’ll reacquaint myself to the elliptical and maybe check out the class schedule.  Didn’t I used to love Spinning?

Listen – I know this isn’t going to be easy. I know it’s going to hurt.  And I have concerns – how will I do it all?  How will I juggle classes, private clients, writing AND find time for thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise five days a week?

I’ll keep you posted…

Of course, the diet needs a major overhaul as well…