After years of teaching I have come to a few tenets that I focus on when teaching. Its hard to always go over every one of them in every class, but this forum is perfect for explaining them and for your consideration of them. I call these tenets the beginning, the middle and the end. Not very creative! But, totally accurate. It’s how I teach and it is the message I come back to week after week.
The Beginning: the set up and alignment.
For a practice that aims to instill peace and to quiet the inner dialogue, yoga teachers certainly talk a lot. For each pose a trained yoga instructor gives you the information you need in the order you need it in. Your job as a yoga practitioner is to focus on the first thing they say. Whatever they say first is the most important thing for you to listen to and master. Then, build from there as you master the first step, then next time, if you were successful, master the second step. Try to avoid being keen to move forward and potentially forget or weaken the first step. If you are interested in deepening your practice, always start at the beginning. This doesn’t mean you should only do step #1 in class…but you absolutely could! You really could. When you practice at home it can be a really good time to practice step #1 over and over until you see–and feel–improvement. Or even mastery. Yoga is like golf: you can spend a lifetime doing it and still benefit going back to the beginning and improving your first step.
In classes there often seems to be an element of trying to get to the ultimate expression of the pose. And, then once there, trying to deepen the pose. People sometimes get a little ahead of me because of how slowly I build the pose and they move forward to other steps before I’ve invited them to. They know what the moves are, and are eager to get there–wherever “there” is. Of course we’ve all heard the Zen idea that everywhere is “there”. It is the journey, not the destination and all that. Never truer than in yoga. Running to that final expression of a pose sets you up for going into misalignment. Moving into depth once in a pose should be subtle and comes as a result of the breath and of relaxation, not drive and determination. Yoga flows. Your job is to follow the current, not swim against it.
So, we don’t, in my opinion, focus on trying to deepen a pose once we are in it. When you are trying to go deeper at that point, besides that potential misalignment, you also risk not getting the most benefit or enjoyment out of the pose.
Let’s talk about misalignment a bit more. By trying to move deeper into poses, it is incredibly easy to become misaligned and therefore at risk of injury. Being misaligned is, in truth, no longer actually in the pose we are doing. A good example is Triangle Pose. If, after that initial set up you try to go deeper, many people start to lean forward. Why? Because they have to lean forward to get their hand lower. Why are they trying to get their hand lower? I’m not sure. Maybe because it feels like going deeper. Maybe they feel they have to try harder. But it really isn’t deeper and you don’t have to try harder.
Perhaps its our western cultural need to strive, or a feeling that we should be as ‘deep’ as the yogi one mat over, or part of the “no pain, no gain” mindset. But it just doesn’t allow us to fully benefit from the pose. Remember, you sink into depth and allow it vs. pushing into it. More on that next time when we will talk about The Middle tenet. We will talk about the breath more and how the breath is be our guide on the journey of sinking in and some other things about being in a pose. So take some time practicing the steps; let go of the destination; and enjoy your yoga!