If we learn by contrast, how do we use the concept of duality to help us on the mat and in the world? I’m fascinated by the stories people tell me about themselves. “I can’t do Yoga because I’m just not flexible. I just don’t bend like that.” Is Yoga about flexibility? If we are searching for flexibility, will we find it by stretching? Think about just how inflexible that statement is. Where else might this person be lacking flexibility? As a Yoga Therapist, my job is not to point out where my client isn’t flexible. My job is to show him the places where he IS flexible and how he can use those open places to inform the places that feel less open.
Let’s say I have a really tight hip. Let’s say while I’m warming up in cat/cow circles, I notice it doesn’t move like the other side. Let’s say I start to really connect to the sensation there. Let’s say I decide it’s a really bad sensation, something’s wrong. Maybe I need an MRI? There are a few things that start to happen. The more I connect to the sensation in my hip and the fact that it feels closed, I will either start forcing it to look like the other side (pain) or I retreat from posture or from Yoga altogether (“I can’t do this. I’m not flexible. I’m hurt. I need an MRI.”) I would say between those two places of diving into pain and risking injury and retreating defeated is a beautiful spectrum, a field of exploration so vast, it needs only a meeting point to begin. I’ll meet you there.
“Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make sense any more.”
Why doesn’t the hip open when asked? I’ll save the lengthy discussion about biomechanics, diagnostic labels and what is happening in the nervous system for another post, but let’s take a look at how we can cultivate openness ourselves and with our clients on the mat and off. The moment we transition to outcome (I can make this open), we encounter our own resistance and depending on how resistant we might be to our beautiful hip and whatever is being held onto there, that can feel like a brick wall quite literally! The harder we try, the worse it gets! We need a different path to openness, to softness. It’s my job to present all of those pathways and allow you to choose what works.
Open your palm. REALLY open it. There’s a level of opening my palm where I cease to be able to feel the air. Now soften the palm a little as if you were cradling a tiny feather and you had to feel it. THAT’S IT, CHARLIE BROWN! That is the level of opening of the palms to try to cultivate on your mat. We can do the same with the back of the knee. There are certain postures (downward facing dog, wide legged forward fold, standing forward fold) where it would be desirable to bring in some softness to the knees as if they could feel that feather, to reach the tailbone to the sky opening the tops of the hamstrings softly as if reaching for that feather. In the same way as the experiment with the palm, if I lock my knees, I cannot feel. From there, check in and see if you can also soften the palms, the face, the jaw. Maybe you could really soften the belly to the inhale. My point is, there is no proper way to create softness and openness in the body. It’s an exploration. Ultimately and in that moment, it’s your journey to open the places where you can and then notice the effect on the places you thought might never open. You could just start with the place that feels really open. Yes, open the place that already feels amazing!
This past weekend, I had the absolute pleasure of taking a “Roots” class at the Dirty South Yoga Fest held right here in Atlanta. I was so grateful for the exploration. Does this mean that this is the way we do and teach Yoga now? Of course not, but what it provides is a break from what we think and believe to be absolute truth in Yoga asana instruction. It allows us to go exploring and find the contrast between open and closed. I was amazed at how open my throat felt after opening the tops of the hamstrings. If the experience of opening the pelvis and the chest leaves you with a relaxed jaw, or a level of openness not experienced before, then it’s a keeper. The same experience for a different client can leave them feeling pain in their back, especially if they are new to Yoga and don’t yet have enough experience with reaching in opposition through the crown of the head and opening the chest. Having the duality of traditional instruction and the “Roots” experience, we just have a larger spectrum of exploration available to our clients and to ourselves. ￼
Off the mat, we can learn how to be open in ways that feel comfortable and safe. We can’t just go out there in the world without any boundaries. That could feel extremely vulnerable (in the way a forced open posture would-It’s not real), nor can we go out there with our first impulse to say, “NO” or argue our point (closed). A flexible mind creates a flexible body, flexible arteries, a flexible digestive system and a flexible home. Where can you soften? Notice your posture in the workplace or with your spouse and your children. Is it soft? Is there a level of opening that is forced…or real? Can you bring in the breath in 3 parts? Does that allow you to actively listen to what is being said or to what is really being asked? Can you say, “Yes” sometimes? Off the mat, you can bring in the very same practices of noticing and softening the palms, the backs of the knees, the jaw. You can soften further by wearing softer clothing. Spend some time listening to soft music, painting with soft colors and textures. If you love to cook, bring this creativity back. Garden in soft soil. If you like to write, find a softly bound journal and a pen that has a soft, flowing point. There are many ways to create softness off the mat. Only you can choose a way that you would love. Be flexible! Try something completely new and laugh at your mistakes. You might just create something beautiful…something that moves…something soft. What if you could be strong and open in the same body? Would you still be OK out there? ￼
Know that hardness, inflexibility and feeling closed off are very important. They served a purpose at one time to help you to survive. Maybe if those qualities are no longer serving you, maybe if your arteries are starting to feel that hardness too, you can set a time and a place to meet me right here, somewhere on the vast spectrum of right doing and wrong doing, somewhere between ‘I quit” and your next punishing workout. ￼
These photographs are from my trip to Mykonos, Greece where I located a little softness of my own. If you are practicing Yoga on a hard rock outcropping 60 feet above the rocks and sea, you have to SOFTEN to survive. I would never have known that if I always practiced on a soft mat in my safe place. Allow new experience to be your teacher.