Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Yogic reflection 1. On curiosity

About a month ago I spent a week in retreat at El Convento yoga retreat centre in the Sierra de las Nieves in Spain. We started each day with a 3 hour ashtanga yoga session, directed by retreat-leader Nic Freeman. In this entry and the two that follow, I want to briefly record some of the thoughts that came out of this week of yoga.


Nic made a remark at some point during the week about the importance of "curiosity" in the practice of yoga. I don't always pay much attention to the hippy bollox that gets spouted in a lot of yoga sessions... But Nic is a yogi of relatively few words, and I realised pretty early on that they are generally words worth listening to.

So, at some point, I started to muse on the place of curiosity in yoga, and it became clear to me that Nic was hinting at something very important.

It seems to me that if we step onto the mat without curiosity, then our yoga practice will necessarily be poor in quality. We can perform the asanas, do the breathing and all that comes with it, but we will not be alive to the possibilities that this process brings to our human organism.

Let me give an example from my own practice: one of my first priorities when I started yoga was to touch my toes (I think this is true of many practitioners). To that end, I did a lot of forward bends in an attempt to loosen my hamstrings and to bring greater flexibility through the hips. This approach was pretty effective and rather soon my fingers were on the floor. At this point, though, my progress plateaud -- no matter how much I practised, I couldn't get my hands all the way down.

At some point it was suggested to me (I think by Katie) that I should turn my attention to the behaviour of my quads: these can be thought of as the "opposite" muscle to the hamstrings in the sense that, when one turns on, generally the other turns off. Now if my forward bend was to progress then this would involve relaxing the hamstrings -- a hard thing to do consciously, but it can be achieved if I instead focus on tensing my quads. This, in turn, can be done by trying to "lift" my kneecaps up my legs, a thing that most people can do with a little thought. I tried it and, voila, my hands descended a little further.

Years have passed and my palms still don't touch the floor but in this same spirit of curious inquiry, I've learnt a bunch of other tricks that have allowed me to enhance my forward bend: I've learned to tense my belly muscles (one of the locks -- see the next entry), to lift the arches in my feet, to allow the skin to slide over my hips and so on. I'm still not there, but the process of inquiry continues.

I find this process incredibly enriching: it transforms my practice from a resented torture session to an often surprising exploration of my own body. Nic mentioned at some point that we have to "work with what we've been given," and I think this also points at the same insight -- if we view our bodies as a gift that we have received, then we more naturally avoid resentments at its limitations and tend, instead, to cultivate curiosity into its potential.

Another yogi once told me that yoga is much more about "control" than it is about stretching or the like: we are learning how to pilot the craft in which we dwell. To do this we have to understand the many pulleys and levers that make this craft move...

Let me finish with another example of a "body inquiry" that has taken place over years of yoga: like anyone who has practised ashtanga for any length of time, I've spent a LOT of hours in downward dog -- my body in an inverted V with my weight spread evenly across the hands and feet, and my bum in the air. One of the things one tries to work on in this position is for the heels to move down to the floor. This relies on loose hamstrings, flexible hips, loose back muscles and a bunch of other body properties that don't come naturally to me.

Still, cultivating a curious spirit, I've spent a lot of time exploring the shape of my body in downward dog, and trying to understand what is keeping my heels from touching the earth. One day, a couple of years ago, I tried (for no good reason) turning my hands outwards a little, rather than having the middle-finger pointing forward as recommended. I immediately found that this allowed my shoulders to rotate a little further out, which released some tension in the latissimus down the side of my back, allowing my pelvis to tilt down a little further, and dropping my heels a good couple of centimetres closer to the floor! Glorious surprise!

I've since discovered that I can achieve a similar effect without turning my whole hand: instead I simply "over-spread" my hands so that my little finger points as wide as I can possibly manage it. I would never have imagined that the position of my little finger could so much affect the form of my downward dog. What other hidden levers remain to be discovered in this wondrous yoga machine that I have been given?

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