Undoing the foundation of how we do everything.
I’ve played music most of my life. As a member of the Salt Lake Symphony, I practice most days. I practice so that my embouchure (the way I engage my facial muscles in order to get a sound out of my instrument) stays strong. I also practice so that when I get to rehearsal, I’m able to contribute my part with musicality, rather than flailing to get all the notes in. As an orchestra, we rehearse so that when we perform, we’re able to communicate the music as a symbiotic whole.
The same is true for athletic endeavors. Marathon runners train in order to be able to run a marathon with as much ease as possible and, for some, to rank among the first across the finish line. Climbers like Alex Honnold (of Free Solo fame) practice handholds, footholds, stamina, balance, weight distribution and much more in order to scale vertical landscapes and not die trying.
If you spend any time on Instagram, you might think that yoga practitioners practice in order to be able to perform gravity-defying feats of flexibility. You rarely see foundational poses—standing poses, seated poses, twists or simple backbends. Since much of our lives are lived online in these times, it’s easy to look at these photos and think that the culmination of our practice is the ability to perform “advanced” poses.
Classical yoga has developed over thousands of years. For much of its history, yogis practiced 15 foundational poses. In the 1500s, a yogi named Svatmarama composed a text called the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The text compiled classical poses, mostly simple seated postures and breathing practices that yogis had been practicing for centuries. The purpose of these postures and breathing techniques was to prepare the body/mind for the rigors of meditation.
It was not until the British colonized India that the poses we call “advanced” became part of the asana lexicon. These more complicated poses originated in British gymnastics. It was at this time that the idea of yoga asana as a competitive endeavor came into being. Prior to this, practice was its own reward. Asana and pranayama practices prepared yogis for meditation because they were a meditation unto themselves.
It is understandable that when the practice of postures came to this country as a discrete practice, separate from the other eight limbs of yoga—ethical precepts, personal practices, concentration and meditation practices—that we would interpret it in the same way we do other physical endeavors. In the West, for the most part, practice is a means to an end. Whether we aspire to perform “advanced” poses or simply want to gain better balance, flexibility or strength, asana practice is the vehicle through which we attain these goals.
But what if we understood our practice, in the moment, to be the goal? What if we let go of our expectations for what we should gain from practice? Could we then value awareness of our immediate sense experiences, as they are happening, as the actual point of our practice?
The first verse in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali says, “Now the teaching on yoga begins.” You could interpret this as simply a conceptual doorway into the text. (I interpreted it this way for many years.) Or you could understand it as an instruction: The teaching on yoga begins now, in each moment of practice.
In this interpretation, each moment of each asana we practice, each moment of sitting meditation practice, is equally important. The practice doesn’t have to lead to some future, more “advanced” performance or state of being. Our practice, right here and now, is the point.
How do we shift our intention from our goal-oriented conditioning to practicing for the sake of practice? It’s not easy. Most of us are conditioned to believe that whatever we practice has to lead somewhere else and that there’s something better, off in the future, that we’re practicing for. This conditioning is not easy to unravel, because it is the foundation of almost everything we do in our lives.
But it is possible to unhook ourselves from this conditioning. The way to shift our understanding is simply to practice. For example, when you are practicing an asana, collect your attention inside your body.
There’s actually a whole lot to observe, even in a simple pose:
You can tune in to the sensations of contact between your body and the floor.
You can be aware of the wave of your inhalations and exhalations, and how they move your body.
You can feel the sensations of stretching or contraction.
You can note where you might be creating unnecessary effort or tension and choose whether to let it go.
Finally, you can shift your overarching intention from practicing in order to achieve something to simply relaxing into where you are.
This is where the yoga is. It is not somewhere off in the future or, in the case of longtime practitioners, some time in the past when we could perform “advanced” poses. It is right here, in this moment of this very pose, no matter what it looks like. The yoga is in the arising and passing of all the sensations we experience in each moment. The teaching of yoga begins and ends right now. The practice is the performance.
Charlotte Bell has been practicing yoga since 1982. She is the author of several yoga-related books including, most recently, Hip Healthy Asana, and founder of Mindful Yoga Collective in Salt Lake City. CharlotteBellYoga.com