By Lynne Fugard
What is an advanced yoga practice?
Once we have become familiar with the architecture of the most common yoga poses, and can let them follow one another in sequence, our awareness and experience of the body begins to drop to something deeper and more subtle: not only encompassing the alignment of bones and the strengthening and lengthening of muscle, but also embracing all of the experience in between and around that basic frame. We notice the poses that inspire us with joy and liberation, and others that we dread and despise. We begin to detect our preferences, habits, tendency to compare, grasp or avoid, the stories we tell ourselves. We feel life and motion in the viscera, skin, connective tissues, the breath, fingertips, expressions of the face.
As you return to class, to the mat, to your self, this connection and awareness begins to drop into deeper and deeper layers of yourself. In this sense, Yoga is an ongoing, embodied practice of curiosity and intimacy with you, and it’s transformational.
An advanced yoga practice is not therefore established in the building of huge muscles, pushing the boundaries of flexibility, or gymnastic forays into arm balances and inversions; it’s expressed instead in the embodied, balanced and skilful attitude you adopt when faced with such intense experiences. Really, it’s about ceasing to try so hard, and feeling your way through the moment: learning to let go and flow.
As a demonstration of what I mean, what follows is a very brief snapshot of a few philosophies that inform the modern yoga practice.
Some Sweetness in your Strength
One of the most-cited founding texts of our western yoga practice is TheYoga Sūtras of Patañjali, compiled at least 1,700 years ago in India. Within these 196 aphorisms on the wisdom of yoga, the physical body is only really referenced once, in three little words: "sthira-sukham asanam" (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2.46) Translated as "Posture (asana) should be steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha)".
Although the “posture” referred to here is actually alluding to the seat adopted for meditation, this pithy advice is often extended to encompass all modern yoga poses. It’s about balance. Simply, within your strength, engagement and effort, you aim to retain an essence of sweetness, softness and ease. Often, returning to the breath can infuse your practice with more sukha, but sometimes we just need to stop trying so hard.
Be Powerful like Water
In Taoist philosophy, this attitude of non-striving, Wu Wei, "effortless action," is prescribed as the most skilful way of living. In discussing Wu Wei, Taoist thinker Lao Tzu often draws upon the metaphor of water:
“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard.” – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
On our mats, it is easy to place too much emphasis on trying to get into a pose, or on expressing the posture in the “correct” way, striving for perfection with every part of the body and therefore become overly tense and severe. But, if we can practice the art of letting go of any unnecessary tension (especially when challenged) and finding softness and sweetness within strength, then often we will surprise ourselves.
Taking our cue from water and the power of effortless effort, the “advanced” yoga poses only become possible when you can learn to yield and surrender away from rigidity and hardness, cultivating a soft strength that imbues the body with buoyancy and litheness. Taosit wisdom therefore reminds us that striving, pushing, forcing and straining is qualitatively very different from galvanising your strength and breath intelligently, working with your body and its connection to the floor, and softening around challenge.
A little yin to feed your yang
Yin/Yang is the Taoist description of such opposites (like sthira and sukha) that are always already informing and defining one another, inextricably linked.
I only really began to understand what it means to flow in dynamic yoga when I cultivated a regular yin yoga practice. In yin yoga, we yield passively into long-hold stretches (for around 5 minutes or so each time). As opposed to more dynamic “yang” styles of yoga, the aim here is to completely surrender any muscular tension or effort, taking the extra time to turn inwards, becoming more introspective by tuning into the myriad sensations, emotions and thoughts that begin to arise. Often the experience of these poses is quite intense, but we are encouraged to just relax into that challenge, and soften around any intensity. We remind ourselves to slow down, let go, and feel our bodies, noticing any habits of tension we carry with us, as well as tendencies to respond to challenge in certain unconscious ways. Imagine if you could approach a handstand with the same attitude!
Physically, we are not only stretching muscles in these positions, but also release through the web of viscera and connective tissues (fascia) that surround every muscle, bone and ligament in the body. Through softness, we find a deeper release and sense of ease: a fully interconnected and holistic experience of our body that cannot help but feedback into our dynamic, sweaty flow classes (and life in general). In yin yoga, we learn to let go, so we can really allow ourselves to flow.
In our yin/yang workshop – Let Go and Flow – on Saturday 24th February, we will be exploring a combination of yin yoga and invigorating flow towards more traditionally challenging postures. Through the combination of yin and yang, we will discover a new sense of ease, space and mobility, allowing us to cultivate a powerful, soft, supple strength without resorting to tension, strain or rigidity.
Suddenly your practice will feel lithe, buoyant, effortless, and joyful. And, by ceasing to try so hard, you might even surprise yourself.