Last weekend I went to a yoga class in Edmonton with a lovely yoga friend. I knew going in that this studio was known for its physically challenging, vinyasa flow style. Eternally – and obviously morbidly – curious I decided to explore the class despite it being significantly different than my usual style of yoga. I spread my mat out near a window overlooking a construction site that was surrounded by various tributaries of traffic and pedestrians. The room was already hot from the sweaty class before ours and I thought opening the window may offer some much needed respite in the coming hour – I was right. The studio was a spa-like masterpiece draped in all the most aesthetic garb one could expect from a such a space. Hardwood, high ceilings, mellow colours and statues of Hindu gods punctuated every direction I looked. The studio filled almost to capacity with 25 young, fit and lululemon sporting yogi’s. The teacher was lovely and articulate, and the flows of movement were endless. ENDLESS. From Sun Salutation, to long hold standing poses, through vinyasa, headstand, arm balances and all the way around again. I was amused by the metronome like dropping of sweat beads onto my mat about 30 minutes into an hour and a half class. I was even more amused by the literal moat of sweat that was forming around the guy in front of me. I caught myself wishing for a squeegee at one point as his puddle began to encroach nearer to my sacred space.I was at purple-face point when two things floated through my awareness:
1. What’s the point of this?
2. Why would I choose to continue?
I kept hearing the words of a Hindu friend cycle through my mind: “Yoga is the uniting of the atman (individual soul) with Brahman (Spirit/Ultimate Reality)”. As I continued to move I kept this notion held close, and worked to find the connection between this definition of yoga and the experience I was having. Our movements were so rapid, and so taxing, that my attention was required just to keep steady and therefore became trapped in the physical. I think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’s hard to self realize when your just trying to survive! I wondered about the rest of the group. I wanted to stop, turn to the whole class and ask “How is this taking you closer to Spirit?” “What makes this yoga?”. I may have gotten some great answers, and I understand that Ashtanga yoga (on which this is based) is focused on asana as a practice to make the body strong. The philosophy is that with “the body and sense organs thus stabilized, the mind can be steady and controlled” (Jois 2002 16). I get that, but I didn’t see a lot of stabilizing going on. A lot of over-stretched joints and frantic shaking yes, stabilizing, not so much. What does it mean for the body to be stabilized? How is that facilitated?
I was hovering in what had to be my 43rd downward dog and wondered “if this isn’t serving my soul, why continue?”. I realized then that what was serving my soul was not the class, but my awareness of all the reactions, emotions and thoughts I was having. The truly spiritual act was the moment when I realized I could leave, or stay – what mattered was that I chose it. I think we often don’t choose, but comply unconsciously with deep seated beliefs about what we should be doing. The question of “why am I doing this” must pervade every moment of practice. Do I choose it, or did some media machine entrance me into believe this is what I need to be “ok”. Ultimately, I stayed. And dedicated the rest of my practice to respect. Respect for the teacher, my body and my fellow practitioners.
The lesson I learned was threefold: First, Consciousness is available in all situations. Despite the fact that this yoga felt more like a work out than sadhana – awareness is always available. Second, it was reinforced that some situations are better for me than others for cultivating a relationship with Spirit. I love a good challenge, but even more I love the opportunity to spend time with my self pose by pose, to dig deep into the experience like a potter digs into clay. I don’t want to do poses for the sake of poses, I want to be in poses for the sake of revelation. And finally, this was just my experience. There may have been a great deal going on under the surface for the other practitioners in the room – I must always remember to temper judgement with one of my favorite aphorisms – “there’s space for it all…..”.