This post was written by Leslie Stockman. Leslie is a graduate of QSY’s 2015 Yoga Teacher Training, and she’s also a supply teacher with the WRDSB. She loves walking in her minimal shoes, is an avid rock climber, and has recently fallen madly in slacklining. In addition to admiring her beautiful chalkboard art around QSY, you can find Leslie on the QSY course schedule this fall teaching Intro to Yoga Courses.
“We all inquire into Yoga,” states the first line of Matthew Remski’s threads of yoga, his self-described remix of the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, an ancient and foundational Yoga philosophy text. A more classical translation by Chip Harntranft reads, “Now, the teachings of Yoga.”
Seems important right? If we’re about to go into a huge spiel about Yoga, you better open with a zinger. Either one works, I’m ready to listen up in both cases. When I talk to myself about my practice, I flip Remski’s remix to read, “Yoga calls to us all.” But that immediately leads me to the follow up: why does it do so? Sometimes I ask my students, “What brings you to yoga today?” Even the intake waivers at Queen Street Yoga ask new students which of following is their main reason for practicing: increase flexibility/strength, stress/anxiety/depression relief community/family, pre-natal or post-natal support, spirituality, compliment another physical regimen, or other.
During our sessions with Remski, he challenged us yoga teacher-trainees to consider two major drives that underlie each of our personal practices and modern postural yoga (MPY) as a whole: the transcendental drive (to go beyond the body to the greater realm of the spirit) and therapeutic drive (to nurture the body). Check out Remski’s WAWADIA project update post for a background summary. And if Yoga calls to me, is it so I can transcend my body, or so I can nurture it?
When I first came to Yoga, my subjective experience of practice was deep physical relief and a sense of peace after practice, which was due to the gentle and careful instruction I initially received. Shortly after my moderate introduction, as I got more involved, and more ambitious, I began to wishfully think, If only I practiced frequently enough, and was able to do the full expression of the poses, just imagine how good I could feel! One of my early teachers promised us that anyone and everyone can do the splits given twelve hours and enough heat. As a drop-out childhood gymnast, hanumanasana was more or less my holy grail, abandoned as a lost cause years earlier, and a promise like that was irresistible. I thought that maybe I could just push-encourage myself into the poses, and spiritual transcendence would surely follow. I know I wasn’t alone in thinking that increasing the openness of one’s body must have something to do with increased spiritual growth, or else why did all of the calm and centered yoga teachers seem to easily melt into such expressive postures? If you get up there at the front of class, talk to me about inner peace, and then lead me through a bunch of moves that seem to reward the more flexible or those with greater range of motion, I’m going to put two and two together!
Nine years later, the pipe dream is dead: I am very likely never going to do the splits. (Gasp- but what will happen to my soul?!) Thanks in large part to the permissive and inclusive teachings at QSY, I’ve made peace with the facts that a) I don’t to care enough to spend twelve hours generating enough heat, b) my body just doesn’t appear to be made for the splits, and c) asana feels only tangentially related to spiritual growth for me, with meditation as the more likely method with recognition to the fact that meditation plays a very significant role in Yoga, but is not included in most Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) classes.
So MPY still calls to me, but it’s not for increased flexibility or for spirituality (though I have gained strength, proficiency of alignment, and yes, a very small increase in my range of motion). I knew this before I began my training to be an instructor, so why would I go ahead with it? What am I going to say to students when they ask me about the benefits of asana? How can I maintain my integrity as a student and a teacher if I don’t really relate to the motivation that brings so many to their mats?
I’m left with the option of returning to my very first experience of asana: a therapeutic, moderate practice that made space for physical comfort and relief. Because we live and work in a society that likes to sit a lot (chairs at desks, couches with TV or books, cars, etc.), most of us can benefit from a gentle movement system that counters the “casting” of our bodies by anything from our shoes to our furniture (see this article by Katy Bowman for more on “casts”).
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when we do get up from sitting, we tend to engage in exercise that prioritizes achievement over function and feeling – competitive sport and dance come to mind. Yoga asana, when practiced therapeutically, offers a way of relating to our bodies that respects physical limits and nurtures fuller function. This is an extremely valuable role for MPY to play.
Jamilah Malika, another of our guest teachers, taught us using the refrain, “Good to know,” as a way to acknowledge without judgment our many differing abilities from day to day, or even between our left and right sides. When I talk to myself about my practice, I say things like, “Oh hmm, it seems my left knee can extend fully while my right knee hangs on to a little more flexion when I forward fold. Good to know.” What she brought to us, what I seek in the teachings of others, and what I focus on when I practice now, is the opportunity to move and to attend to my movements with such compassionate curiosity that whatever my body is able to do at a given moment I can find interesting, valuable and worthy of note.
The outer form of my movements is subject to the purpose of those movements. I am always wondering if it helps me live well in the face of chairs and shoes, teaches me to know my body more intimately, or is just plain fun. Sometimes the movements are energetic and powerful, other times they are subtle and small.
If I try to perform hanumanasana these days, there are two options: go for the deepest possible semblance of the splits, which leads to both immediate and delayed pain, and the disintegration of stability in my pelvis, core and ribs (no thank you); or, I can go for a limits-respecting fully-integrated splits-like movement that doesn’t even remotely resemble what ends up on magazine covers. I tried the Jenni Rawlings version, stretching only as far as I have the strength to lower into and lift out of using just my legs, which turns out to be about 95 degrees with knees softly bending. There’s interesting information at 95 degrees! For example, when I draw my front hip back, I find an increased sensation of spaciousness in my sacroiliac joint on that side. Very good to know, indeed. Plus my back foot is getting a lovely plantar fascia stretch. Take that, dress shoes!
For all of you to whom Yoga calls, I am always wondering, what are your reasons and expectations, your hopes and desires? Where did these come from? And is it working?