It’s a cold damp morning, I’ve just spent five minutes negotiating getting out of bed and walking ten paces to the bathroom. I’m now in child position wondering how I’ll ever get back let alone complete a salutation. Less than 24 hours ago I tore something in my back and spent six hours in A & E. The painkillers dull more than the pain and I’ve decided to reduce the dose accepting that some pain is better than feeling nothing.
I’m foetus like mentally and physically, and feel unlikely to move just from fear of pain. I’m so tense. I continue to breathe, this can’t go on. I decide to tough it out, this isn’t going to get the better of me, and I resolve to stand up. The intense pain brings me down again. Frustration mounts. A moment of recognition snaps in my mind from years of mindfulness practice. If I can’t tough it out what if I do the opposite? I gingerly get up on all fours noticing how my mind tenses in anticipation and how my body follows, creating an unpleasant sensation which my mind hugely dislikes and tenses more. I’m back in child again, not frustrated this time but curious.
I attempt to rise again, this time consciously letting the tension release, Bandhas and Ujjayi gradually inflating my body like a limp balloon. Yes, the sensations are intense, but I’m capable of more than I thought and although I know it is painful, for the most part it doesn’t hurt. I manage one salutation, so heavily modified its unrecognisable and I return to bed. Each of the next few days I manage to double the number of salutations, Come day six I'm due to start a five day intensive practice and adjustment workshop with John Scott. My initial hopes of expanding and extending my own practice, particularly my limited backbend, seem in shreds.
As I walk with exaggerated care down the street to the venue I rue the fact that I can barely do 30% of my usual practice. I declare my injury and am invited to just do what I can; advice I have often given students of mine now seems such a bitter pill. I become my own harsh judge and critic and my practice becomes more limited and restricted. After two days I remember the first steps to recovery on the floor of my bathroom. I spend the next three practising what I can and continually releasing tension.
My recovery continues over the next two months. After seven weeks I can teach without feeling a sense of restriction. By the end of week eleven all sense of limitation from the injury has ceased. In this period I have completely re-thought how I teach and the real cause of limitation in my body.
What followed over the next couple of years disassembled and rebuilt all that I thought I understood. What remains now, looks outwardly similar to what stood before, but is radically different. Even my desire to reduce everything to its essence has been rocked by the simplicity that now drives my practice.
In essence, key to this practice are the Bandhas, Ujjayi breath and the commitment to balance, both physically and mentally. Moola Bandha and Uddhiyana Bandha are located at what I consider to be the centre of gravity of the body. If the rest of my body responds in balance, the movement of these physical Bandhas relative to contact with the ground (earth element) changes my body shape.
The commitment to balance ensures that to remain in equilibrium some parts of the body will fall and others rise. There is never a need to lift, gravity will do all of the work. In the same way as an old fashioned kitchen scales never has to lift the lighter pan. Whilst this analogy is too simplistic for some postures it contains the essence of what I’m trying to describe. Part of the ‘effort’ of yoga becomes keeping balance, the equivalent of a well oiled pivot on the scales, so that my body can respond to the smallest of changes created by the movement of Bandha.
The story becomes more interesting once I realise that the same response is present with the energetic Bandha, and that the use of mind's intention and attention can have an equal and at times greater effect on my body and mind. Physical tension can obstruct this as well as obscure the subtle effects of the Bandhas. So another part of the ‘effort’ of the practice also becomes releasing unessential physical and mental tension, tension I create through my tendency to push and then resist as I move and maintain one posture after another.
Where does this push and resist come from? In a rare moment of insight I see my impatience with what is, as my mind declares a preference, and it’s not for where I am. When I allow myself to be guided by the Bandhas, Ujjayi breath and the commitment to balance, rather than strive to achieve a preferred posture my mind is momentarily emptied of the sense of involvement and achievement. The feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ does not cast a shadow over the experience, alignment appears, the mind and body settles. The concurrent feeling of lightness, ease and a soft strength brings a real sense of completeness, nothing more need be done, it is full, perfect, nourishing. In this moment, there is no doubt this is the best I can be right now, a flawed perfection.
Am I deluding myself? How can I trust this experience? Each time I work this way it is accompanied by surprise and an uncomplicated joy. The posture has seemingly come about without my direct involvement, a sense of witnessing rather than ownership of the experience. I glimpse the very best of myself by stepping out of the way, all limitations evaporate. My mind is satisfied and feels no need to hold onto the experience. There is no pride, because I didn’t do it. Only afterwards do I realise what I no longer have.
As with all simple things explanation feels clumsy and awkward. The beauty of what I try to describe lies in the fact that it can be tasted by anyone and I can only encourage you to ‘taste’ it for yourself.
Keep smiling through 2017.