If you practise yoga, you have no doubt at some point been completely absorbed and driven by the aesthetics of a pose, I know I have! No doubt that has meant grasping and reaching for what we see as an end point, like touching the toes, doing full splits, getting up into a handstand or any other number of things we think will put a big tick in the box for that pose and make us “good” at yoga, whatever that means!
The question is, why?
What are we looking to achieve?
What is our intention behind the practise?
Hopefully in questioning and answering these we may start to move our bodies with a clearer intention. Beginning to move from a place of being in it for the experience, the exploration, for our wellbeing and simply to be able to feel good. After all aren’t we more than just this physical shape we identify with? Doesn't our wellbeing go beyond mere achievement in physical asana?
Yoga philosophy defines the body as having five states of being or sheaths, like layers, they are called the kosha (Taittiriya Upanishad). The most helpful definition I have read is to think of these layers like a Russian doll, except we can’t separate them out, they are all interconnected. The outer layer is our physical body, the Annamaya kosha, the densest, made of matter as we know it. The other four are subtler energy states that we can’t see but we can feel into them if we pay close attention. Briefly the five sheaths are:
1. Annamaya Kosha – the physical material body
2. Pranamaya Kosha – the life energy sheath
3. Manomaya Kosha – the mental sheath
4. Vijnanamaya Kosha – the intellect field
5. Anandamaya Kosha – the bliss/spirit field
It therefore seems that if we can start to connect beyond our physical self to these subtler bodies, we might start to move more from within, sensing into how a posture feels in our body through these layers, coming from a place of inquiry that only we have the answer to.
A great way to take this intention into each practise is start in a little stillness, just sit and observe the body, mind, breath and energy with a kind compassionate gaze. Keeping the eyes closed when you first start moving can really help keep this connection – move to how you feel, your body knows, we just need to listen. Sometimes we get moving and things start to feel free and the energy flows and we may move into a stronger practise, other times we may just need more nourishing slower movements, both are our practise, neither is better or worse than the other, it’s just what it is on that day.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t have goals, they can be great as they offer a measurable achievement, a way to see where the effort and work has had affect, but I think we must be sure and clear on what those goals are, what we need to do safely to achieve them and what we are working with in our own bodies. For example, achieving full splits might not be of much functional use in your daily life, unless you are a ballet dancer or gymnast but maybe just working to gain a little more space, mobility and strength in your body is useful because you get tight from sitting down for most of the day.
It might be that a year of mainly practising at home has helped start to guide us in this direction. Without a class of people around to distract us we may have found it easier to drop into our own body and space and move as it suits. This time may have even provided the confidence needed to continue a home practise which is really the key to it all – we need to unravel and know our own body and all the strengths, quirks and habits that come with it and simply work from there whilst keeping a sense of joy in the experience otherwise why do it?
It can be really helpful to just come back to the first of Patanjali’s yamas - ahimsa - which means non-harming, practising our movement without harm to self, dropping into our own bodies and energy and working with where we are each time, a constantly evolving and changing practise.