Sitting on my mat at the front of my yoga class, I watch as a group of ten people hinge from their hips to practise a forward bend.
What I see are ten different angles. Ten different ranges of flexibility.Ten different external positions.
And one very similar internal human experience.
This internal experience is what we feel and how we react when we meet our limit, or in yoga the 'edge'. The place you get to in a stretch when you can't go any further.
From Mary's place on her mat, she looks up to see the person next to her bent nearly double. Mary looks down on the vast gap between her head and knee and feels disappointment, self-criticism, doubt and frustration.
The tight feeling in Mary's legs that is stopping her from going any further is where Mary now directs all these negative feelings.
"God damn you tight hamstrings, if it weren't for you I, too, would be in that final pose. I, too, would be resting forward in a perfect and obviously delightful place of human betterness and blissfulness".
You could be bending forward in yoga, catching a glimpse of your saggy bum in a mirror, not being able to dance because your back hurts or being reminded of some other part of yourself that you're unhappy about.
When we meet parts of ourselves that we want to change, we all experience similar and unpleasant feelings.
Recognise any of these thoughts?
Oh I can't stand this about me, if it would just go away I would feel so much happier. Right, that's it, I'm going to sort it out once and for all.
Oh I don't know how to, it's impossible.
No it's not. You're just lazy! Work harder, goddamn you! But it hurts.Well, that's all your fault.
You're terrible at this. Look at everyone else, they aren't having this problem! Everyone else is fine.
But everyone else isn't fine, everyone else is going through the same thing.
The practice of yoga is not about 'achieving the final pose'. The practice of yoga is about learning to accept yourself on the journey to the final pose.
Being bendy is not enlightened, being able to feel your edge and relax is.
We all have an 'edge'. Where the edge is differs for everyone. How we react to our edge can tell us a lot about how we react to tension in general.
Do we avoid tension?
Do we fight and control tension?
Do we ignore tension?
Can we feel tension and just observe it?
Can we accept the tension and agree to not add more tension to it?
Can we feel the opposite to tension, soft and relaxed and just breathe?
"Nice idea," I hear you say, but try coming home to a house in mortgage arrears, fighting kids, a bad back and it's raining again! Breathing and accepting that tension? Forget it!
Well yes, at first like any practice, it's very challenging. But with lots of practice, you might just find a bit of acceptance, softness and relaxation beside all that tension. (And you will learn a whole lot about yourself on the way, believe me!)
A note on these articles: I would recommend that you join a yoga class and use these articles to help you understand more about the practice you are learning.
If you are practising at home, these articles will give you thoughts and ideas to work on during your practice.
To be safe and healthy yoga needs to be balanced. A good, general practice would include back bends, forward bends, twists and balances. I will be giving you more examples of these in subsequent articles.
So the following practice would work well at the end of your practice as a way of relaxing and inquiring inside. Or you could just read through it and reflect on the inquiry in a class, or at a later date.
Picture: Straight legged forward bend 1.
Sitting on the ground with your legs out in front of you. (If you have very tight ham strings put a cushion under your knees and maybe one under your hips).
Hold your hips, thumbs in front. Press your thumbs into the softest deepest crease just at the top of your thighs. This is your hip crease. Now start to bend forward at this point keeping your lower back flat. Bring you belly down and keep your chest up. This bend will bring your attention to the tightness in you hamstrings and hips.
Now bring your hands to either side of you legs and start to hinge forward.
The temptation here will be to round your upper back which makes you feel like you're bending further, but this actually stops your hips flexing and takes you out of the stretch, not into it. (Rounding the upper back can also create tension in the neck and shoulders, so keep your shoulders relaxed and your back long).
Now look for your edge:
Look for the tightest place, look inside for the place that you feel is stopping you from going further.
Take a few deep breaths here and see if you can notice how you feel towards this sensation.
Frustration? Irritation? Contempt? Maybe something subtler is there. Close your eyes and spend a few breaths teasing out the thoughts and feelings you have while in this place of tension. Are these feelings familiar? Do you recognise your reaction?
The next step is to work on not pushing yourself to go deeper in the stretch but to soften your body and relax your reaction while in the stretch.
Can you become the observer, instead of the worker?
Can you feel the tightness and settle yourself next to the tension, breath and not react. Not push, not pull, not leave, not rush, but just be still?
The exercise here is in getting to know yourself better when faced with tension.
This takes time and is not easy, but with patience and respect for your limits you will soften and relax in more ways than just this.
Picture: Straight legged forward bend 2.
* Part 1: Confessions of a yoga teacher...
Part 2: Am I breathing?
Jessica Hatchett teaches yoga in West Cork. For more information on her classes and events go to www.yogawestcork.com
Her next retreat is at Dzogchen Beara on 13th to 15th Sept 2013.
Photography by www.luluash.co.uk
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