Learning to Ebb and Flow

I spent the last week of June and the beginning of this month with nary a physical practice. Travel and illness contributed to me putting my personal physical practice on the back burner. During this hiatus, I felt pangs of guilt emotionally about foregoing my cherished practice, and pangs of physical tension from not moving my body in the way that it’s grown accustomed. This wasn’t the first time I’ve slowed my physical practice, though, and so I experienced the rest with some freedom. And I will explain why.

When I finally stepped onto my mat for asana practice after nearly 10 days, I greeted that mat, those poses, like an old friend–the kind that you know so well, it matters not how long you’ve been apart but how much you’re willing to let go and to reinvest being acquainted with.

The poses began slowly, as I breathed in, lifting my arms overhead for my first Sun Salutation. I felt my intercostal muscles open to the movement, then dove into forward fold with attention as I placed my hands on the mat beside my feet. I relished the extension of my legs into plank and the opening of my chest as I softened my hips and lifted into upward facing dog. Ah, yes, I’d missed it, and here it was, just the same as always and yet brand new.

I’ve been thinking about and teaching of the importance of consistency in a practice and of the need for a home practice in addition to studio time. Patanjali, after all, teaches that it is in consistent return to the practice that we experience the fruits of this work. But sometimes, in trying to honor the consistency of a practice, we get stuck in the mode of striving to “have” a certain amount of time or exact set of poses. Or we forget to honor our practice with the presence necessary to experience the transformation that occurs during the practice. Acclaimed teacher Erich Schiffmann is quoted in Yoga International magazine on his “big teachings.” He says: “Learn to honor your natural rhythms. Sometimes you need to do more yoga; sometimes less. You have to give yourself permission to do less when that is the right thing to do. Not just always push,push,push. The idea is to listen and remember–be guided from within.” This is one of the biggest teachings of the practice in general–to learn to trust our inner guide, to hone that wise voice and to also actually listen to that wise voice.

More important even than this teaching, to me, is that the practice of yoga is always with us. It is not something that we do, but something we are. I heard long-time teacher Donna Farhi recently speak about this state of yoga as something that is inherently part of us and that no matter what the practitioner says, everyone comes to yoga wanting to reconnect to their inherent union to joy. So as I settled into not practicing physically, I felt my practice with me endlessly. This is not something that I came to learn right away, but as I’ve grown to experience the effects of my practice when I’m living my life, out in the real world, I’ve grown to accept that this practice is available within me, is part of my living, no matter where I am. The key is in developing consistency in arranging your life around being a practitioner. What this might mean is that you often practice for two hours each day at the same time. Or what this might mean is that you sometimes practice for an hour, sometimes you practice for ten minutes, sometimes you head to a class for 90 minutes. Or that you transform your practice into a lifestyle, so that you are always honoring the tenets of being in a state of yoga. I am not advocating letting go of the work. I am a yogi in practice in my real world–and for me this means my practice does not look the same everyday.

I encourage every practitioner to find a way to be consistent in mining your practice, so that you can relearn this natural state that is yoga. It will sustain you through the currents, waves, shifts that are your life. It will be with you eventually whether you are on the mat or not. I also encourage every practitioner to be present for what your life allows you each day. It might not be what you’d like, or what another has, but it will be very rich and full if you stay there to experience it completely.