~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Playing in the Poses

May 17, 2014

Here's a little yoga secret that seems to have gotten lost in our culture's cult of physicality: Yoga isn't actually about contorting one's body into crazy shapes. What appear to be yoga's most obvious features - those pretzel poses - are only the beginning of the journey toward greater wholeness and peace.

Yoga is actually about communion with all of life. It is about getting to know the deeper energy that flows through the entire universe. It is about clearing the body, mind and spirit so that we can see the truths of life in living color, and then live in ways that nourish freedom, happiness and love for all.

So just how do we get from tree pose to ultimate freedom? There are many paths to help you find your way. One possibility, though, is to transform your practice of the physical poses into the energy that rides within them. We can find ways to turn the little statues of the poses into living, breathing expressions of life. We can transform our yoga poses from nouns into verbs. And we may find this practice so liberating that we follow yoga master Angela Farmer's instructions to never practice a "petrified dog pose" ever again!

The first step, surely, is to learn the basics of the physical shapes of yoga. Once you learn the rules of the poses, the next logical step is to begin breaking those rules in the name of curiosity, creativity and the exploration of life that flows through you and the universe.

When I'm feeling particularly rule-bound and stuck in rigidity, I play the following game: I anchor one part of my body into the earth and challenge the rest of the body to move in as many ways, shapes and directions as possible.

In dog pose, for example, I anchor my feet and hands onto the ground, and then I move the rest of my body as far as I can in all directions. I shift my hips forward and then backward and then from side to side. I drop down onto my knees or come all the way down onto my belly. (No one said I couldn't do that!) I move quickly, slowly, or sometimes barely at all. Along the way I find myself rolling through many known yoga poses - child's pose, cobra pose, chatturanga dandasana - and creating hundreds more of my own.

If I'm on a roll I might shift the rule a bit, committing just three points of contact with the floor instead of four. That frees up a leg or an arm to sweep up and down and over and around, exploring that space in all directions around me. It's a yogic form of the game Twister, I suppose.

This practice helps both my mind and my body get unstuck. It fosters clear breathing and creative thinking. It's the ultimate out-of-the-box (or perhaps out-of-the-pose) exploration. It inspires me and wakes me up. At first the possibilities seem minimal, but soon enough I realize that the possibilities are endless. How rule-bound we so easily become, how stuck in our ways, how flat. It doesn't need to be that way!

This is not traditional yoga, to be sure, but it is true to yoga's aim of clearing and balancing the body and mind in a way that fosters deep communion with all of life. As yoga teacher Angela Farmer once explained, this is where all the yoga poses come from anyway: this pure and unbridled exploration of energy rolling through the body and the cosmos. We're just channels for the energy, and there are endless ways to channel life.

In class I sometimes offer a simple version of this energy exploration that I've nicknamed Painting Space, because we use our hands to explore the space around us as if they were paintbrushes, coloring in the world around us just as far as our arms can reach.

Stand in tadasana, or mountain pose. Breathe freely and easily, letting your awareness spill out in all directions around you. Root your feet firmly into the ground and commit to keeping both feet right where they are.

Now imagine that your hands are paintbrushes and, without uprooting your feet, "paint" all of the space around you. Sweep your hands as far up overhead as you can, and then around to the left and to the right and down to the ground in front of you. Touch your hands into the space very close to your body and then very far away. Don't forget to paint down low by your feet. And don't forget the space behind you. Imagine a child coloring in a shape traced out onto a sheet of paper. Make sure you color in every bit of space.

Notice how the mind begins to sense into the space around you. Notice how the body is being moved through its full range of movements - twists, forward bends, back bends, lateral stretches - without you having to march through a catalog of set movements. Notice any feelings of confusion or wariness or perhaps delight. It helps to think like a kid when you do this. Or better yet, recruit a few kids to do this with you. They'll show you lots of ways to move you haven't yet considered.

Continue moving in this way as long as it energizes and enlivens you. Notice the shape you've formed with all your painting. Is there any part of this egg of awareness you've left untouched? Just in front of the belly, perhaps, or perhaps between the legs, or behind the nape of the neck? And have you instinctively painted your egg any particular color? (I sometimes ask students in class and always love their responses: blue, gold, green, white, rainbows and even sparkles.)

When you've had enough - five minutes or so, perhaps - return to a quiet tadasana. Notice what has changed. Notice the quality of the breath, the feeling of the feet on the earth, and the space around you.

Do you feel taller, fuller, more awake and alive? And can you sense a deeper connection with the world around you, a sense perhaps that your vitality - your sense of you - shines out beyond the boundary of your skin?

As you move through the rest of your yoga practice, notice what effect this exploration has had upon you. You may want to continue this free-form movement with different sets of rules. (Anchor the shoulders, for example or ground one leg and one arm.)

Or you may use traditional poses as a starting point, and then exploring the limits and possibilities when you begin softening their boundaries just a bit. (Start out in trikonasana, or triangle pose, for example, and then let the arms roam free and see what arm variations you can come up with.) Stay on the watch for any feelings or "rightness" or openness when you've opened up the body in a way that helps life whoosh through it freely.

Alternatively, you could move into a more typical asana practice of well-formed shapes. Be curious about how the experience of freeing up your body in tadasana has shifted your experience of the more static and rule-bound poses.

On the outside you may appear still, but on the inside you will likely be riding ever-changing waves of subtle movement and breath. And you will likely be more deeply aware of the beautiful ways your body and your mind commune with the space around you.

All of this is yoga - personalized and playful, curious and engaged, open and free. And all of this reminds us that yoga poses aren't sacred statues but rather guideposts on the journey inward.

The ultimate job of yoga poses is to help us find our way to the deeper flows of energy and life within and beyond our bodies. And that can help us connect in deep and beautiful ways with the whole wide world, all in the name of love and peace.