My whole life, it seems, I've been practicing yoga. Of course it hasn't been my whole life, but it's been part of it for so long I cannot imagine what it would be like without it. Thus, in response to the Natural Medicine Community Challenge, I thought I'd write about my yoga journey, although herbalism and healthy eating has always been part of that life, and surfing too. But at the centre of all of it is yoga.
How did your journey in this path/with this practice began?
Atha Yoganusasanam - And Now the Journey of Yoga Begins (Patanjali's Yoga Sutras)
When I was 14, Mum took my sister and I to a Iyengar yoga class at the health centre in Torquay, which was run by a woman called Ros Buttonshaw. Back then, studio yoga wasn't really a thing outside India, certainly not in a sleepy town of some 3000 people on the coast about an hour and a half outside Melbourne. I think we giggled right through it, with Ros glaring at us. We went for a couple of weeks, and tried to talk Dad into coming. 'Nah,' he said. 'That's just for woman'. I shit you not. Dad, who ended up doing more yoga than any of us for years, thought it was just for girls. But after his first class, he was hooked.
As a teenager, the only way I could describe how I felt after yoga was graceful. My body, riddled with confusing hormones and teen insecurity, felt lighter and more beautiful. I'm not sure I could put into words what I felt back then, but I knew, lying in savasana in the dark with winter rain falling on the tin roof of the health centre, utterly at peace, I understand the witness - the seer, the observing self, beyond the physical and mental self. I understood, in these small, small moments of joy, that there was something else other than earthly attachment, something quite like a soul - and that it was possible to find moments of ananda - bliss - when one wasn't involved so much in the thinking mind or physical desire. Anyone who's practiced meditation might have felt these moments. Sometimes we're far too busy with the working mind to get back to this true self - it's a lifelong practice. But once you've felt that, you can never quite see life the same way again.
“It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.” B.K.S. Iyengar
Although I've tried many yoga styles since, and the yoga I practice now is a little more intuitive than the rigid, alignment based yoga that the Iyengar school taught, I'm infinitely grateful for the lessons I learnt in those years.
Though my introduction to yoga started many years ago, I still feel that the journey is beginning. One of my yoga teachers always used to say 'when one door opens, you find another twelve doors' - such is the wealth of knowledge of yoga out there.
It's a beautiful study - yogic knowledge can be pure poetry. It populates the body with dragons and frogs, horses and cows, mountains and trees. Think vrkasana - tree pose - or Hanuman's splits as he leaps with faith towards Ram heart split open. I loved the poetry of it - the sanskrit, the stories, the Hindu gods and goddesses, the mantra and sound of nada yoga, the bhakti devotional yoga, the ancient yogic texts. And the story of yoga in the life of humanity is always evolving. Chinese medicine, qi gong and tai chi and other martial arts also lend much to yoga as a somatic art, and modern science and anatomical knowledge also brings much to the practice. I've had wonderful teachers who had started off doing physio or osteopathy, having an intricate knowledge of the body, and then discovered yoga and married the two. One of the huge lessons I learnt is how our anatomy is all so different - one person might be able to do a headstand and the other can't because of the length between shoulder and elbow is shorter and the head kinda crunches up - hello neck pain. Our bones are all unique and different - asana is not the pursuit of a perfect pose as you might see in a magazine.
Eventually, I did a teacher training myself and have about 400 hours under my belt. I decided not to teach as it's a bit of a competitive world out there and it's not well paid - and ultimately, it wasn't the real reason I studied yoga. I studied it because I was absolutely in love with it, and felt that it was going to carry me right through to my last breath.
How have you adapted this practice to your life?
Whilst there has been many times over the years where my yoga practice wasn't as consistant as it could have been, the meditation aspect of the yoga path has always been there, even if it was simply focussing on the breath as I took one foot in front of the other in the most difficult parts of my life.
Now, it is part of my routine - I am lucky enough to have a spare room I use as my yoga space, where I meditate daily and practice asana (the physical shapes) depending on what I need.
Yoga for me is about moving away from the head and into the heart, dropping into the feeling, intuitive wisdom of the heart centre over all that head stuff that has a tendency to create anxiety and worry. Whether it's the more floor based yin practice, a more energetic flow or just meditation, I use yoga to create space in my life for the things that fill it back up.
Yoga often challenges me to work through things on the mat so I don't have to deal with them off the mat, or at least I can try to deal with them more consciously. It gives me a chance to process what needs to be processed, leaving me refreshed and nourished to start again with what needs to be done.
It's really about finding a comfortable centre within oneself. Donna Farhi expresses this well:
“The word asana is usually translated as “pose” or “posture,” but its more literal meaning is “comfortable seat.” Through their observations of nature, the yogis discovered a vast repertoire of energetic expressions, each of which had not only a strong physical effect on the body but also a concomitant psychological effect. Each movement demands that we hone some aspect of our consciousness and use ourselves in a new way. The vast diversity of asanas is no accident, for through exploring both familiar and unfamiliar postures we are also expanding our consciousness, so that regardless of the situation or form we find ourselves in, we can remain “comfortably seated” in our center.”
― Donna Farhi, Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness
So it really doesn't matter what type of yoga you do - it's more about moving in a way that connects ourselves to our bodies and expanding our consciousness in that way. And sometimes it's really hard - real life can complete overcome you and it is really difficult to sit and breathe. Movement helps you slow down so you can get into the meditative space where it can all wash through you and you can return to the centre again.
“Impurities in the heart cause mental agitation – anxiety, lack of direction, anger. This agitation, in turn, affects the body, sometimes making it impossible to sit still even for a few minutes.” - Krishnamarchya
What do you think has been your most important learning during your process?
Yoga has taught me, and continues to teach me, many lessons. Two, I guess, are that everything passes, and love is who we are in truth. One you've experienced that on a cellular level there is no unknowing this, only a clouding over of this truth when we allow ourselves to get distracted by the illusions of real life - youth, beauty, competitiveness, financial security, reputation and so on. It helped me let go a little of the external - those things that we judge ourselves on and are hard on ourselves about. It helped me cultivate a bit more self love - and because of this, I'm able to be better in my relationships too. It's a practice that enables us to see that we already have everything we need inside our own unique beings.
It's always an ongoing process - we are but beings having a human experience, and sometimes we get things wrong (often) - the practice is coming back again and again and again.
“One must be compassionate to one’s self before external compassion.” Dalai Lama
Impermanence is a huge lesson in asana practice as much as is it in the meditative aspect of yoga. The pain of a pose passes, the energy shifts, the ability of the body to do a pose from day to day or year to year changes. By observing changes in the body we become more adept in understanding how other things might shift and change too - particular states of energy, political climates, friendships, illnesses. The great Persian fable that moralises 'this too will pass' echoes as a mantra through a yogic life.
Share some thoughts on how this path/practice could be beneficial for the community
Without a doubt, compassion. Yogic texts teach us that when we're connected to our source, our true nature is generosity, honesty, peacefulness, empathy. If we can find this within ourselves, we can extend it toward others.
Yoga teaches us to be more mindful and conscious in all aspects of our lives, and less reactionary. It's an excellent tool to manage conflict resolution and to encourage kindness and right action based on a system of morality that is driven from the heart, rather than an external punishing God or state. .
Have only love in your heart for others. The more you see the good in them, the more you will establish good in yourself. – Paramahansa Yogananda
It's very much the cultivation of love - and without love, what are we, as communities?
What would be your main recommendations for someone starting on this path/practice?
Find a teacher that you gel with. It's no good going to a sexy hot yoga studio, hating it and making up your mind yoga is not for you, or conversely, going to a yin class and finding it totally boring. Find a teacher that's passionate and experienced, and be consistent about your practice.
True yoga is not about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life. Yoga is not to be performed; yoga is to be lived. Yoga doesn’t care about what you have been; yoga cares about the person you are becoming. Yoga is designed for a vast and profound purpose, and for it to be truly called yoga, its essence must be embodied.
– Aadil Palkhivala
Never believe you are too inflexible to start yoga - that's like saying you are too dirty to have a shower. Besides, yoga is more about flexibility of the mind - flexibility of the body is just a happy bonus. If you're breathing, you are doing yoga - that's it. You don't need to do a headstand and you don't even need to touch your toes. You don't have to look like a supermodel and anyone of any age or any size is a yogi - no one has a 'body for yoga' - if you have a body, you can do yoga.
And sometimes, yoga is really confronting and uncomfortable and painful - and that's okay too. That's part of the journey. If we suffer in the yoga room, we suffer better in real life, because we've practice how to meet things when they arise.
Natural Medicine is encouraging people to write about their wellness journeys, whatever they might look like. You can find the challenge here.
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