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

Play of Life

March 15, 2010
I arrive at yoga class with the exhilarating mix of eagerness and doubt that sometimes comes with teaching for me. I’m not at all sure what we’ll do and I’m a little worried the yoga muses might not remember to show up tonight with their welcome sprinkling of magic. Having learned that the surest way to kill a party is to over-plan it, I generally try to arrive at class without too much of an agenda. And that always brings edge-of-the-seat angst that this may just be the night we all fall flat on our mats.

Bright new maple leaves tickle against the open windows along the back of the room, while a fresh breeze wafts through. These bodies look as open as spring, and as primed as the season to move, to bloom, to explore. And so, after a several moments resting on our backs, together we launch into a few easy rounds of sun salutes.

I don’t always start class with sun salutes, but when I do, they strike me as an excellent barometer of our inner state of being. Are we leaping and singing today, or is life a little flat? Are we thick or thin, breathable or congested? Floating or sinking? Should we pump through some big pyrotechnics or settle quietly into the ground?

This Thursday evening my students seem primed to fly. Spring has brought lightness to the air and smiles to the bodies around me as they move freely through their own home-grown varieties of surya namaskar. One shining woman coasts fluidly on her placid inner currents, seamlessly sailing from pose to pose. Another moves slowly, lingering soulfully at each lift and drop and shift for moments at a time. A man jumps through a tough-guy series of adrenaline-pumping salutes. And a few students stumble, challenge and recover as they seem to wrestle with some rough-and-tumble demons of the night.

The room is quiet and the air is sweet. My body smiles to see these creatures moving through a similar flow of movement each in their own way, at their own pace, with their own particular rhythm. In just a few short breaths, we’ve already found our way to yoga’s silky playground, with each of us sliding in our own way to our edge, to that place where engagement and ease meet at the heart of life.

After a few moments, I ask my students to pair up and position their mats with the front ends facing one another, two-by-two down the center of the room. I ask the pairs to stand in tadasana facing one another. One member of each pair might move through a few rounds of their own variation of sun salutes, I suggest. The other might want to mirror the first as cleanly and totally as possible, tuning into the rhythm, the style, the pace of their partner. None of us knows exactly where we’re going, but everyone seems game.

At first, it’s easy to discern who’s leading and who’s following. The power yogi champs at the bit, trying to speed up the pace of his partner. Thankfully, though, his partner stays grounded in her own languid flow, while silently inviting her leader into a quieter way of sliding through the poses. After a few minutes, he gives up a bit of his fierce will and settles into a gentler way of moving. Finally, the duo begins to move as one.

Another pair pushes and pulls just a bit, one ahead of the other as the two shift from downward dog to upward dog, both eager to find some sense of unity. Gradually, they do. Another pair amazes me - these two are total strangers, but from the start they move in perfect sync, with their eyes closed all the while. I now have half as many creatures in the room - five pairs of surya namaskars, where once I had ten students, each rowing their boats alone.

Something important seems to be evolving out of this spontaneous exploration. As interesting as it can be to tune into one’s own inner energy and to feel life blooming inside, a different kind of magic emerges when we let that energy flow out beyond our own small selves into some deeper relationship with others. Could yoga be not just about listening and feeling inside our small selves, but also outside into the vast vistas of other people, creatures, spirits, as well?

I ask the partners to switch roles. This time the transition seems a little easier. The pairs quickly empty themselves enough to make room for the leap from independence to relationship, from willfulness to receptivity, from separation to community. Their bodies move into a secret realm of soundless communication, where even the breaths begin to move as one. The room remains calm and quiet, as if we were all swimming together somewhere deep near the ocean floor.

Soon after, I ask whether perhaps the partners can move into a place where neither leads or follows, where they move in such harmony it’s no longer possible to tell where one’s movement ends and the other’s begins. Again, willingly, they do just that. These beautiful beings flow so peacefully, so harmoniously, I know they must have found some sort of relationship with their partners, tuning into something even deeper than the dialog of movement. I can no longer detect any leader or follower among the pairs.

I am breathless, transfixed by the unspoken communication that has evolved. Can we let go of our need to assert our will over either ourselves or another? Can we be together, without one of us dominating or dictating or demanding? Without one of us demeaning, subordinating or giving away? Can we empty enough so that we can see, hear, feel, touch the heartbeat, the anguish, the relaxed pleasure of another? These sun-saluting students seem to answer a resounding yes to these questions. In reply, they almost seem to ask, "Where do I end and you begin, anyway?"

As I watch these beautiful bodies float on fresh air with the golden sunset peeking through behind them, an intriguing question pops into my mind. Could I invite the whole room to move as one? Could I invite the students to feel into the space not just in the person in front of them, but all around the room, and without asking anyone to lead or follow? Had we let go of so much of ourselves?

The students look so peaceful, so fluid in their endless and infinite sun salutes, I decide to wait just a few more moments before offering this suggestion. But amazingly, I notice that as soon as I’ve had the thought, two pairs begin synchronizing their movements. And then another pair begins to fall into the groove. Tadasanas throughout the room begin to modulate, dogs hop forward and back in closer timing. Bodies start moving together, drafting on one another.

In just a few moments - without me ever saying a word - the class finds its magical rhythm and begins to move as one. Arms reach up overhead in synchrony, torsos bow forward together. Feet float back easily, while breaths modulate.

And then I realize that I am witnessing a more beautiful dance than anyone could ever choreograph. I am observing a full and spontaneous play of light and life and color through shared communication and play. I am an audience of one to a dance created out of thin air, by the potent, vital, harmonious energy of life itself.

Is this what happens when we let go of so much of ourselves that we can hear the inner voices of others? Is this what happens when we finally hear the heartbeat of the universe, the unending vitality that longs to pour through each of us, if only we would let it?

After witnessing this silky show, I know in my deepest being that yoga is a meant to be a dance of light and breath and movement and relationship, just like life. I see how I this dance strengthens and brightens as we widen the circle beyond ourselves and into the shifting and soaring vitality of those around us. And finally sensing the inevitability of this union of self and other, I am transformed.

Together we say a morning prayer to the sun, together we slip into sleep with the moon, and together we laugh and cry and create in ever widening circles of friendship beyond our own small and limited selves. And then together we live out the fullest and deepest expression of yoga: the unity of life, the undying flow of light, and the knowing that we are all one.

This article was originally published in Yoga International (February 2002)