“As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being. If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvellous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”
~ Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
I remember very clearly the first time I was introduced to Pigeon Pose. This is a deep hip opening posture performed on the floor with one leg forward externally rotated and knee bent anywhere between ten and ninety degrees. The opposite leg is extended straight back from the pelvis. In the full version of the pose the back knee is bent to allow the foot to rest in the elbow of the corresponding arm or touch the head while held by both hands.
Not only do the hip flexors of the back leg get an intense stretch but the external rotators of the front leg, most notably the piriformis muscle, are lengthening in a way is not commonly experienced during daily, what we call in the dance world, pedestrian movement.
I was a nineteen year old dancer at the time with the requisite crazy flexibility. However, this did not prevent Pigeon Pose from bringing me near the point of tears when I first tried it. It was like a lightening bolt inside the hip! Looking back it was not so much that the stretch in the deep hip muscles was so intense it was the fact that we stayed in the pose long enough to pay a great deal of attention to it.
As a dancer I most definitely had manipulated my body into positions that called on the lengthening of those same muscles but it wasn't part of my training yet to pay conscious attention to how that felt. I had been dancing from age five to nineteen with all my emphasis on the mechanics of performing the movement without taking time to feel the movement, to breath into it and let it unfold organically.
I became a real dancer the day I learned to train kinesthetically and yoga was a key part to this transition. To train kinesthetically one needs to understand two things, the desired outcome of a movement and how to feel the sensations that correspond with that movement. It won't happen immediately, but if you practice training kinesthetically in a dedicated fashion for a while, you will evolve from a robot simply copying movement in a mechanical fashion to an artist performing movement with grace and elegance. This is when your personal style will emerge and your own movement vocabulary will develop.
Where people get hopelessly stuck is in learning to recognize the difference between a picture and outcome. An example of picture is watching your yoga teacher execute a seemingly effortless Eka Pada Galavasana (Flying Pigeon Pose) and trying to copy by configuring your body into the shape of the pose. Emboldened by how effortless your teacher made the pose look you place your shin on the backs of your arms and simply cantilevering the entirety of your lower body weight forward. The pain of your shin bone digging into the back of your arms causes you to fall in a heap on the floor. You can't fathom how your teacher is managing to withstand all this pain. This is because you do not understand what is going on inside your teachers body to achieve the outcome of the posture.
The outcome is a feeling of lightness as the lower body ascends into the air gently balancing on the backs of the arms as if the legs and pelvis are filled with helium. The outcome is achieved by engaging deep core muscles and hugging to the midline. These terms, engaging core & hugging to midline are descriptors of actions that the teacher is employing that are completely invisible to you the outside observer.
Engaging the core is making sufficiently tense the core, back, gluteus & leg muscles so the lower body becomes rigid in Pigeon Pose. This has the effect of consolidating the weight of the lower body into a central axis point that can be balanced on top of a support structure. Hugging to midline is a series of actions that create sufficient tension the back, shoulder, chest and arm muscles to make a solid support structure for the axis point of the lower body to balance upon.
I could write paragraph after paragraph about externally rotating the upper arm bones and squeezing the shoulders together etcetera and it would not give you the slightest clue how to perform Eka Pada Galavasana. You would need to train with me for a period of time where you would learn each action, reflect on the sensation of that action and it's contribution towards the outcome of various poses progressing from simple to complex.
By this process, one day, you will inevitably find yourself in Eka Pada Galavasana but that won't be terribly special to you. The remarkable accomplishment will be the superhuman feeling of lightness that no one can witness but you. You will probably start laughing with a mixture of shock and delight when it happens just like children do when they first experience the revolutionary milestone of taking their first steps.
This is what is called in Buddhism beginners mind. By abandoning pre conceptions and surrendering to the process without expectation the outcome arrives somewhat spontaneously. There is no magic, just the process. All the same the results seem to arise magically. You can't do it, you can't do it, you can't do it and suddenly, you can!
Next Week: Skier's Feet: The Critical Weak Point
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!