As we learn the practice of yoga asana (poses) there naturally needs to be a lot of body part direction. Which bit do I need to move or not move, where can I expect to feel this? We might naturally find our attention more drawn to body parts we find especially tight (hello, hamstrings/hips/shoulders), have experienced injury in the past, or feel self conscious about. Perhaps we have come to yoga with the intention of releasing or strengthening those areas. Or prefer to avoid poses that emphasise the challenges we find and instead focus on the aspects that come more easily (for me, as a runner, that’s balance rather than hip openers!).
It’s easy to miss, in the flow of ‘right leg back to lunge, right arm open to twist, is that the body is not just a collection of discrete parts that work independently of each other. It is an interconnected set of systems that are continually giving and receiving feedback to each other and adjusting as an integrated whole. The muscles of the front of the thigh (quadriceps) are not directly attached to the muscles of the back of the thigh (hamstrings) for example, but they are connected via the tendons, ligaments, bones, fascia, circulatory and nervous systems. Stiffness or openness in any one part of the system will translate in some way to the rest. An important aspect of a physical yoga practice is learning to work with the mind as well as the body and noticing any thoughts and/or feelings that come up when moving through a sequence and how those affect how we flow.
One way to think about the elements of the system working together is as the different instruments within an orchestra. Each has its own part to play but the music only makes sense when all the instruments play together. Sometimes one instrument or section will need to play a stronger/louder part; sometimes softer/quieter. In a pyramid pose for example, we might want to work on the releasing of the hamstrings and focus our attention there but you might also notice that activating the quadriceps helps support that release, or that adjusting pressure through different areas of the feet subtly changes the sensations of the stretch. Having a broader awareness of what is happening through the whole body, even when working on a specific pose with a particular focus, can help us to have a richer understanding that rather than diluting the experience is actually helping us find possibilities to fine tune our practice. And that does not necessarily just mean going deeper into a pose or creating a ‘perfect’ shape. With pyramid pose again, people who are naturally very flexible may find it easy to reach a deep forward fold in that position but that flexibility may be coming from open joints and locking out (hyperextension) of the knee rather than length in the hamstrings, so then the focus should be on softening the joints and finding the stretch/strength in the muscles. This is where the quality of mind that we bring to practice can really make a difference. Are we moving from pose to pose ‘just getting through it’ to say we’ve done a yoga class, or bringing awareness and curiosity to how our body is moving and what it needs in that moment?
For this analogy I like to think of the breath as the conductor bringing everything together and regulating the rhythm. In everyday life we might not pay much attention to the breath or when we do notice the movement of the breath we feel it in the lungs or the belly but each inhale fills the body with the oxygen we need to be able to move and live. A vinyasa yoga class (more so than other styles) we start with awareness of the breath and then the movement follows that flow. Ideally we want the breath, as conductor, to lead. Even when staying in a pose for a number of breaths there is still movement there, the inhale and the exhale, but we might find that with really challenging positions we get tense and the breath gets faster or more shallow and struggles to keep up with what we’re asking of the body. This gives us more opportunity to practice awareness and curiosity, to refine and adjust what's happening in that pose, how to help the breath flow with more ease, perhaps try to understand where that tension is coming from. Are we trying to push into a place the body isn’t quite ready for? Is it nerves and thinking we are not able to do a movement that actually would be possible if we could relax more into it?
One of the phrases I often use in class is that it should feel good. Even when it’s hard, it should feel good. You should be able to breathe a full inhale and exhale. Even a non-musically trained person can hear the difference when an orchestra is out of tune, different instruments are playing at different paces, or playing beautifully. Similarly I believe that even someone who is relatively new to yoga can have a sense of whether the body and breath are in tune with each other and flowing well or not. Understanding what’s happening when that isn’t the case is the work of yoga. Discovering and listening to each of the elements. Allowing each one to play its part. Learning how to bring everything together. Letting the music play / body move without trying to force it to sound / look a particular way. Recognising that, as with all live performances, each day is different and will offer us something new to experience. Even when we do want to really focus on a particular area remembering that the rest of the body is there too and may be able to help!