Buddha was right; everything is one’s own individual experience. Then it occurred to me that as a yoga teacher I say something and the roomful of people do as I say (if only my three cats would do the same, but that’s another story…). So this week we have worked more on students not just taking my word for it. We have worked on them trying different expressions of poses for them to make their own reality of the alignment principles I keep repeating in each class, every week. For instance, I always tell students to use blocks to find parsvakonasana (side angle pose) and ardha chandrasana (half moon pose). Most of the students believe me that using the block will help them maintain the length in the spine that makes the poses open their hips and hearts. Most of them believe me that by using a block rather than resting their elbows on their knees in parsvakonasana will help them retain knee alignment and reduce risk for injuring ligaments on the inside of the knee. But this week they tried it for themselves. After experiencing these poses with the blocks they tried to touch the ground without the blocks. Some of the students can maintain the pose without props but the students that can’t noticed the difference in their breath and body when they collapsed without a block.
Urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog) is another pose we broke down more. I always tell the class to keep their gaze straight forward and most of them do. But some students come from other classes and lift their gazes up to the ceiling. So this week we tried both. The students learned for themselves that when they look up they don’t lengthen their spines as they thought they would. In fact, they collapse in their shoulders and upper chests and fall out of the pose. We also compared two versions of urdhva hastasana (hands up in the air pose) this week. I tell students to keep their palms separated, shoulders turned out so that their pinkies are nearer to each other. But some students come from other classes and put their palms together overhead. So we worked with both expressions and again students recognized that their shoulder blades come off their backs and they scrunch up their necks when they bring their hands together. So they didn’t have to just take my word for it. The students tried it for themselves and noticed the length in the spine and depth of the breath they get when they retain good alignment principles.
The yoga mat gives us so many opportunities to make life our own individual experience. The breath will tell us if we are doing the right thing. Sometimes holding the backs of the legs and bending the knees in navasana (boat pose) is the only way to keep a steady breath and truly spread the collar bones as the pose is meant to be practiced. But we won’t know for ourselves until we turn inward, check in with the breath, and find our own truth. Sometimes we do need to drop into balasana (child’s pose) to settle in before continuing through a vinyasa. We can’t wait for someone else to suggest we use a strap or a block, we need to always be present to our needs at the time and do what’s right. That is the only way we are sure to be true to ourselves, give up struggle, and reduce risk of injury.
The equanimity we feel when our breath smoothly moves from inhale to exhale in a rhythmic cycle tells us that we are doing the right thing. We will find the breath become shallow and staccato-like when we try taking a challenging pose without a prop as much as when we consider engaging in gossip or lies. Again, yoga practice on the mat can guide our lives off the mat.