I’ve got some rubberband hamstrings. I love to stand on one foot. Most of the time, gravity is challenged by me. And sure, I did hanumanasana in the cradle. A man once told me that he wanted a girl who slept in half pigeon. Well. I may or may not have fed that fantasy.
So it’s not surprising I do yoga. It pretty much came with the body. (A functional body for which I am grateful.)
But here’s the rub: I started doing yoga as an angsty teenager who wanted to find something greater than the world I perceived. I saw malls and bad movies and ugly fashion choices and made my commentary by scowling heavily. As in, I just didn’t have anything else to pierce to lodge another complaint against the world and its inhabitants. So I made myself look at the world differently.
Lucky for me, my crunchy-granola high school offered yoga. Unlucky for me, the teacher really liked my hanumanasana. Not in a gross way. But certainly in a way that pet my ego. I tolerated it because who doesn’t like to be pet sometimes? Plus, I was 16.
As I got older, and the brawn of my ego waxed and waned, I always knew I had hanumanasana. But I also kept hoping to see the world differently.
I meditated sporadically. Did asana with the ardor of a Sound of Music nun. And I played around with pranayama and meditating occasionally. Never enough to feel any different, if I’m honest. The only thing I was finding in yoga was a body moderately changed from adolescence. A good feat, I admit. But at 30, I suspected that my mind had stalled as well. I sometimes felt angry about my life choices. I’d become a lawyer in the middle of all that asana. I was fighting all the time for causes that would never resolve in a fight. I was sad. Sometimes, I was angry.
The truth I was missing is that yoga is a philosophy AND a practice. Or, to be more clear, understanding the philosophy is PART of the practice. And the way to understand the philosophy– in addition to studying it carefully– is to recognize that yoga offers a system for anyone to attend to their body, energy, mind, personality and heart.
The first step, I think, to appreciating this system is to gain control of your breath. When you start to regulate your own breath the deeper purpose becomes much more clear. But controlling the breath takes practice. Pattabhi Jois used to say, ‘practice, practice and all is coming.’
So how does this work? What does the breath have to do with anything?
Pranayama, or the practice of breath, is the fourth limb of the eight-branched system of yoga. It follows the guidance on personal discipline, social conduct and the method of asana. Krishnamacharya, my teacher’s teacher, said ‘Control the breath, focus your mind, and direct it into the heart. That is the meaning of spirituality.’ The breath, then, helps you bridge the divide between moving your body and the more subtle stuff. In Patanjali’s Sutras, it is sandwiched between the practice of asana, or poses, and pratyahara, the mindful taming of our senses. It’s that part of the yoga infrastructure that leads you toward the integration of your body, your personality, your intellect, your energy, your heart. But like bridges in America, we might have let it crumble a bit. Despite having to use the bridge daily.
We really should be a little more attentive to the state of these things.
To jumpstart that attention, look around for a teacher who can help you learn to regulate your breath. It really is just that simple. You can even call me, if you’d like. I promise I won’t totally freak you out.
Though I may ask you to consider your commitment to your own sadhana—your personal practice. This means reconsidering your relationship to your yoga. Not the yoga of poses and studios. The yoga of you. Are you simply doing a series of poses at the gym so your hamstrings get lengthen? Are you even aware of what you’re asking of yourselves when you hang out with your asses up in downdog? Or are you engaging with the science of a personal practice?
I hear you: Ugh. A personal practice. You mean I have to think about what I need? Or, maybe, like a student who recently complained that she didn’t like moving at the pace of her breath, you’d prefer to keep bouncing around like an acrobat for a little while longer? It’s cool. All of this stuff only works when you’re ready. As Patanjali put it: ‘Atha yoganusasanam.’ You have to get to the atha—the now. You have to be ready to perceive the now.
But when you do, you’ll be intermittently overwhelmed by the transformation that happens. Seemingly without your own effort, though, of course, you’re the one doing the work. The thing is, you’ll just be preparing yourself to breathe. Then breathing. Breathing to do the work better.
Which, I think, is the whole point of yoga. That you’re changing yourself for yourself, so you can explore the relationships you nurture—between yourself and your body, yourself and your mind, yourself and others, yourself and your higher purpose. Ultimately, the whole point of yoga, I think, is to help you love yourself. And that love—regardless of the length of your hamstrings, the shape of your downdog—is the highest and best use of your life.
So I guess what I’m saying is that the point of your yoga isn’t yoga. The point of your yoga is you.