What matters?

If you attend my classes you’ve certainly heard me repeat (ad nauseam) that achieving specific postures doesn’t matter, and, maybe in the same class, go to great lengths to try and get the “best” transition from plank to low plank, insisting on factors, like “elbows in” etc. Or maybe I would spend time adjusting everyone’s back foot in revolved triangle (I know, it’s a fixation!).

Carlo in low plank pose

So, does achieving that elusive “perfect” transition matter? Does the “perfect” angle of your foot matter?

In my mind yes, and at the same time no! And it all boils down to three of the main principles of Yoga according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (more on that later)

First of all, let’s look at the why it doesn’t matter.

Yoga is far more than a series of physical exercises, its purpose and scope go well beyond pure physical prowess and flexibility. You can be a very serious and senior Yoga practitioner and have chosen a purely contemplative or service based path and not be able to do any poses at all.

You can also be a very advanced practitioner of the postural side of Yoga and have little or no mobility, but perhaps great mind-body connection and awareness (see Matthew Sanford as a great example).

I teach classes for people with disabilities, for people in recovery from addiction and have led classes for kids with learning difficulties, do I insist on “perfect” form (if even there is such a thing!)? of course not!

In my opinion and experience, the actual achievement of ANY  postures, transitions, balances etc is, per se, largely irrelevant.

I firmly believe my life will not magically improve if I manage to stick a toe in my ear or whatever other crazy contortion.

But…at the same time… Why it DOES matter

First and foremost, safety and physical integrity, avoidance of pain and injury. I will sometimes get pedantic about the angle your foot is at if I believe it may lead to a nasty level of torque being applied to your knee. Or I may insist on maintaining the integrity of the spine in a plank in order to avoid a flexion which may pinch the lower back.

I am very conscious that our bodies can be very different but I try and offer suggestions that I believe will keep most bodies safe.

Second, the intention. To me, it matters greatly what level of intentionality, and therefore awareness, we bring to our physical practice. I think it’s crucial that we work towards being able to feel proper alignment. And by proper, I definitely don’t mean “Instagram ready”! I mean alignment and movement patterns that allow us, within the constraints of our anatomy, to express the intention of the pose at hand safely and to the best our ability. All the while maintaining a healthy detachment from the results of our efforts.

The Sutras connection

I mentioned at the start that it all comes down to three of the main tenets of Yoga, here they are:

Ahimsa – The principle of non-harming, which includes avoiding injury and looking after our bodies and minds.

Abhyasa – Abhyasa means having an attitude of consistent and sincere effort. This needs to be maintained over a substantial period of time, without a break. From this stance, the deeper practice continues to unfold.

Vairagya – Non-attachment. The essential companion of Abhyasa, learning to let go of the many attachments, aversions, fears, and false identities that are clouding the true Self.

A quiet revolution

There is no denying that there is a lot of pretty shitty stuff going on just now in the world – what with the POTUS being such a caricature of Dr. Evil – a whole load of young people being misled into thinking that blowing themselves up or ramming people with vans will be good for them , for God and for Islam – the people of Britain being scaremongered into Brexit, making the most divisive and stupid decision in centuries – a bunch of misguided neo-nazis, white supremacists and other general right wingers, suddenly feeling entitled and empowered by the likes of Trump, Farage and company – and the list goes on!

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The end of hate

Do you ever find that some changes, even some pretty dramatic ones, kind of creep up on you? That seems to happen a lot to me the more I practice Yoga and meditation.

Twisted plant

And yes, I am a lot more flexible, I can do poses that a few years ago I would have thought impossible, but the biggest changes, the important and most rewarding ones are totally internal.

The other day  I was having a conversation with a friend about how Yoga and meditation had totally changed my worldview. And while I was describing some of the changes, I realised something I hadn’t quite verbalised, not even internally, yet: I seem to have lost the ability to hate.

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Polishing the mirror

I’m on my way back from Mysore, in the lovely state of Karnataka in India. I spent two weeks practising Ashtanga Yoga with Saraswathi Jois and taking philosophy classes with Arvind Pare.

With Arvind we unpacked and studied a number of mantras and prayers, explored chapter 12 of the  Bhagavad Gita and studied chapter one of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

I had two goals for this trip, deepen my studies of Yoga philosophy and “get back” my Ashtanga practice. Ashtanga is traditionally meant to be practiced six days a week, ideally first thing in the morning, Most Ashtanga practitioners will tell you that building a home practice is not easy. Ashtanga is intense and the practice takes a minimum of an hour. Since I started teaching more and more classes I have let that morning practice slip. I would do some Yoga, and always do meditation, but hardly ever would I do my full Ashtanga practice. And you know what? I missed it dearly.

Dirty mirror

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Why all that weirdness?!?

I often start my classes with a short Nadi Shodhana, alternate nostril breathing, practice. I am aware that if you have not practised it before it can seem quite awkward, and even if you HAVE practised it before, it can seem a bit out there and woo-woo. 
I know because when I started practising Yoga, I was very sceptical about a lot of this stuff!
Yogi performing Nadi Shodhana
Why make that failed star trek gesture with the hand and do that weird nose thing anyway!? But it can have tangible benefits.

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