Why Isn’t Yoga the Same Thing as Exercise?
Yoga is human origami. You fold and unfold, twist and bend the body. You aim at a new shape, arrive somewhere close, and from there, you’re off to chase another one. Whether straightforward or challenging, yoga’s Asana (poses) call for a blend of lightness and strength, balance, intense focus, and the ability to let go, all the while maintaining the breath. You have to want your yoga, even if you don’t always know what specifically it is you want from it or for it. You have to be ready, because so often, the gifts yoga brings are quite different than the course you set.
On the three-year journey to Handstand, Adho Mukha Vrksasana, I learned to press into the mounds of my first fingers and thumbs in Adho Mukha Svanasana, Downward Facing Dog. It’s a tiny, magnificent adjustment that brings the base of the pose into the hands where it belongs. My teachers had been cuing it for years. One day, there it was. When I made it into my first handstand, several years later, it was a direct result of the unintended but exceptionally important rooting power in my hands.
When the big poses come, it’s magic. In a wide-open Ardha Chandrasana, Half-moon Pose, for the first time, I felt like I might float right off the ground. Balancing Sirsasana, my headstand, in the middle of the room let my feet tickle the clouds. My all-time favorite pose, Parivrrta Surya Yantrasana, Compass, every time turns my body into a human ampersand. Such accomplishments make me aim higher, reach for more. I’m not beyond ignoring more seemingly straightforward poses as a result.
After the first few times on the mat, any practitioner will note routine poses in the practice. These ably offer a stretch, but on the surface little more. Such poses are often used as transitions from one orientation on the mat to another. Uttanasana, most commonly translated as Standing Forward Fold, is a part of nearly every practice. If you’re standing in Mountain Pose, Tadasana, and you reach your arms overhead and fold at the hip creases, your next stop is Uttanasana. The hands might reach the floor; they might not. Head and neck release, shoulders stay engaged on the back body, and the hamstrings sing, zing and stretch. You’ll stop in or move through Uttanasana every time you go from standing to another orientation, another challenge.
As it turns out, like every yoga Asana, Uttanasana—a pose I recently saw glossed as “reach-out pose”—is full of hidden agenda items. It isn’t merely a hamstring stretch, but a stretch that un-creases the entire back body, from underneath the soles of the feet to the base of the neck, up into the hair, along the part, and right down to the space between the eyebrows. What I didn’t know until a few days ago, was that it’s also a heart opener.
From my very first “Om,” I’ve been hooked on yoga. Here, finally, was a practice for my body that fascinated my mind. In the beginning I was mentally absorbed, sometimes overwhelmed even, thinking about where to put my little toe and how to turn my face up under my arm. I walked away from class feeling both exhausted and restored. But shortly it was the language itself that made sense to me—not merely the draw of the Sanskrit pose names, so foreign on my tongue, but the language of energy centers and practice and a philosophy that offers an approach to living a better life. We talk about opening the body, the energy centers specifically. Anahata, the heart center, is the focus of backbends and poses with the arms—the wings of the heart—extended. There are many poses that manifest openness and release in the heart. Most yogis would agree: Uttanasana is not one of them.
Today, yoga teacher and studio owner, it’s a gift to take someone else’s class. A few days ago I walked into Gayle’s slow-flow Vinyasa class, a practice in which the poses are linked together and once you know the day’s sequence, you move through it breath-by-breath. We came to a stopping point and Gayle put us in an extra-restful variation of Uttanasana, against the wall. Using the wall to prop up the pose both eases and deepens the forward fold, the heels twelve inches or so from the baseboard, the sits bones climbing the wall, the hip crease deep. The stretch I felt in my hamstrings and low back was brilliant, but what happened next was blinding. Directly behind my heart, mid-back, I felt a crackle, a sizzle, a stirring, heat. It started at back-heart center and grew, flickering and strengthening as I hung in the pose. It was a shedding of caked-over energy, a bursting forth of release—my heart more open than it has ever, ever been.
I stayed in the pose long after Gayle released us, feeling starburst after starburst of back-body release. It is not a part of my body that is ever tight or painful—this shedding had nothing to do with the physical plains of my body.
It’s no accident that my heart unveiling happened at the height of personal shifts in my life, the change in seasons, the marking of a new year, the nearly imperceptible growth from infancy to babyhood of my studio, now open three months. It’s no accident that Gayle taught that supported Uttanasana, a pose I invited my own students to experience not twenty-four hours prior in the same room. That I was able to recognize the experience and move into rather than shy away from it? That was the yoga working.
Do I understand exactly what happened and can I reproduce it? Nope. Will I follow my yoga journey to the next surprising release? Even though there are no guarantees when or even if such a shift will happen? With relish. I teach and practice yoga at a minimum sixteen hours a week. I walk out of the studio more flexible and stronger than I have ever been; my sights this year are set on cultivating the unique combination of lightness and strength that will make my handstand still easier and allow for other arm balances and more daring postures. But when I walk into my studio, I am not there to exercise. I am there because the journey I am on in this practice supports a happier, freer, better version of myself on and off my mat than I have ever been.
This morning I bounced down to my treadmill—which I love; exercise is awesome!—the house lit by an extraordinary January Full Wolf Moon. I hope you’re seeing it too … Happiest of Happy New Years, Rxo