When teaching Yoga lately, I have noticed that I often invite students to compare their experience in a given pose, or the class as a whole, with their past experiences. This pose, that you may have done 1000 times before, might feel totally different when compared to last week, 5 minutes ago, or when done on the other side. The idea being that by coming more into contact with the actual felt experience of the practice, as opposed to any expectations we might have, we are able to be more mindful, practice more self-care and generally have a nicer time.
While I still think this is a useful way of approaching the practice, I had a funny experience recently where I attended a class where the teacher invited a similar reflection on how a posture felt now compared to previously. I realized that I actually couldn’t answer the question for myself! I had already forgotten entirely how that posture felt even 5 minutes ago, let alone several days ago.
Perhaps I should have concluded that I’m not being very mindful in my practice, but instead I ended up reflecting on how what I really am looking for in my practice, and in my classes, is not an intellectual sort of mindfulness where we can compare our mental notes from last week with our felt experience today. Indeed, this can often feel to me like just another way of avoiding coming into the present moment fully. Rather, it’s a non-thinking kind of mindfulness, where we simply observe what is happening, without stories or ideas or narratives. It can be surprisingly easy to fill my practice with a narrative: “this is my body in triangle pose, I tend to like doing this, that usually feels uncomfortable maybe I’ll avoid it again today. Ah, but I’d better try to look like I’m in good alignment so the person next to me gets a good impression. Hm, I wonder how I look in these leggings?” While a narrative can include genuinely useful dialogue to help us practice in safe and stable alignment, it can also be, in my experience, extremely distracting. The moments of greatest joy in class for me have always been moments characterized in some sense by non-thinking. Just feeling, empty of inner dialogue.
By chance, I came across this sentiment recently in an unexpected place, the early pages of the novel “The Three-Cornered World” (by Natsume Soseki), about an artist. After musing on art a while the protagonist expresses the following:
“In order to appreciate the poetry, you must put yourself in the position of an onlooker, who being able to stand well back, can really see what is happening. It is only from this position that a play or novel can be enjoyed, for here you are free from personal interests.”
I believe it’s the same in Yoga (and the rest of life too for that matter). It’s not that we should be disembodied and detached to the extent that what happens to our bodies has no bearing on us. Instead, we can try to cultivate a perspective of our own journeys that is a bit less personal, less about `me’. Next time you are doing Yoga, you might play around with the idea that it’s not your body throwing shapes, just a body. Perhaps you’ll be able to see the poetry there a bit more easily.
By Kristian Strommen
Kristian teaches Vinyasa Yoga on Thursdays at 17.45 and Sundays at 17.15.