A long time ago I drove through the United States on the way from Calgary to Toronto.
My dad had suggested driving through via South Dakota since it was a much more scenic drive.
And I wasn’t in a rush, so I could take my time.
Crossing south across the border into Montana I was shocked at how different the scenery was. The mountains seemed more rugged, more beautiful.
Throughout my long drive, the scenery changed constantly. But it was always beautiful in its own way. And because I wasn’t in a rush, I’d often stop my car just to get out and drink it all in.
When I first learned yoga, I studied Ashtanga Yoga.
I memorized the sequence of poses from a book, bit-by-bit. And the idea that I adhered to was flowing from pose to pose, ideally without resting in between.
It wasn't until I studied with Andrey Lappa that I learned that taking a rest within a yoga practice, even between yoga poses, is a good thing.
It's a way to notice the effects of just done yoga poses on the body.
Often it feels really nice.
And that was one of the really nice things about my drive across America, I was able to take rests whenever I wanted just to take it all in, to enjoy the journey as I was actually experiencing it.
This isn't to stay that doing a sequence of poses without rest doesn't have it's place.
Doing Tai ji, it's quite a nice feeling to flow from movement to movement, smoothly connecting movements without having to think about how to do them. But in the process of learning Tai Ji, what enabled me to flow from pose to pose was practicing breaking the sequence down.
And that's part of why the yoga poses on this website are broken down in different ways. It gives you a way of exploring similarly grouped poses. The goal is to help you learn them in isolation so that as you learn them it is easier to flow between them.
But even within a single yoga poses, it's easy to break down the body into elements and practice activating and relaxing those elements repeatedly, in isolation. The relaxation is like a mini-rest. And that mini-rest allows you to enjoy the active portion of the exercise in retrospect. You can learn faster as a result.
Talking to a friend I hadn’t talked to in ages, he told me that he does yoga, not to get flexible or strong, but just to enjoy the experience of moving. He has a few rough categories to guide him, but for the most part he goes by what feels right, and uses his practice to enjoy the experience of his body.
(Something very basic that you can be aware of when doing your own practice is the idea of counterposes so that you're practices are balanced. So if you do a forward bend for the spine, balance it with a back bend. As for balancing with respect to the earth, take a look at yoga poses to improve balance).
And that’s what reminded me of my long drive through America.
Doing yoga isn’t about rushing through a set of poses.
It’s about noticing what is happening within your body as you do them.
You could think of this as feeling your body, and whether your aim is to just enjoy the experience of your body, or whether it is to improve flexibility, increase strength or just to become more body aware in general, the same idea applies.
Yoga is about noticing what is happening now. (Also known as being present)
And that’s why this site is called Sensational yoga poses. The sensational refers to tuning into the senses, so that we notice what is happening now both within our body and immediately outside of it.
Driving across America it helped to know where I was going and it helped to have a map to guide me.
When I first learned yoga, Ashtanga provided the map.
Later on I learned universal freestyle yoga. This was more like learning multiple routes to the same place with the idea of learning all routes well enough that you could freely choose from among them. This framework for conscious freedom is quite easy to learn and understand via the Dance of Shiva.
But yet another tool for use as a road map is the Traditional Chinese Meridian system.
I first learned how to use these to guide my yoga practice when teaching Meridian yoga.
The simple idea was to sequence poses based on which meridians that they worked on and because the meridians themselves flowed in a particular sequence, the meridians are a useful way of guiding stretches.
The nice thing about using the meridians, whether stretching the body or stretching it or doing a mix of both, is that it often results in a euphoric feeling afterwards.
And on the days where I seem to back track instead of going forwards, I don’t try to force myself forwards, I look for the way to create the space necessary to move forwards.
And that’s a little like something that my dad taught me about driving in general.
He keeps space around him when driving so that he can see what’s happening and so that he has room to respond, room to move.
Riding a motorcycle I learned a variation of this, and that was to position myself relative to the road for the best view of the way ahead. At the same time, I looked as far a head as was feasible and useful so that I could see what was about to happen and so that I could respond with minimal effort.
All of these are ways of being present. You have to be present to create space (or see it) and having space makes it easier to stay present. You don't have to worry about what might be around the corner. You can see it!
(You can read about one way of approaching the splits in the article self mastery.)
As for creating space, one way to think of this in terms of the body is adding bigness to your yoga poses.
Depending on what part of my body I'm trying to get more flexible, I'll look at creating space in different ways.
But I'll also look at how to create stability in my poses or stretches.
Sometimes the act of creating space creates stability, sometimes not. But in either case there's a muscular activation component and it generally creates a feeling.
The feeling is different when creating space versus stability but in both cases it is a noticeable sensation.
The irony is that it takes muscle control to create sensation but that same sensation leads to better control.
Grounding is one way of creating stability, but I should point out that in restorative or resting poses where props or the ground or a wall is used for support, stability comes from outside of the body.
Stability can be easy to confuse with strength just because to create stability often requires muscle activation. The thing about stability is that you need it when working towards flexibility and strength.
As such, something I often do with beginners is work with exercises that improve stability. This can feel like strengthening actions but the advantage of training these seemingly strength building poses is that the same stability can also be used when working to create flexibility.
Part of the trick is noticing the change in sensation in these exercises.
Something that I got both from my practice of Tai ji and also from learning to paint Chinese characters is the idea of breaking things down and practicing little bits at a time with a smooth rhythm.
I’d say for learning this is even more important than moving slowly because it makes it possible to practice without thinking and without judgement. This could be thought of as a state of no mind.
It basically makes it possible to practice and learn while in the same mind set as enjoying a journey. It makes learning a lot more enjoyable.
Note that the judgement is still helpful. However, the assessment comes after the experience, like an “After Action Review” in the armed forces. In a firefight you haven’t got time to judge. You act. And only afterwards do you assess and then train for your shortcomings.
And that’s where judgement comes in, in deciding how to break things down so that you can practice little bits at a time, either as a preparation for learning or in order to work on things that you haven't quite got the hang of.
The idea of breaking things down is to create clearly defined ideas. But when practicing, you don't practice a single idea, you practicing connecting two or more of these clearly defined ideas. You practice the transition between them so that what you practice feeling and controlling is a relationship.
A general guideline for breaking things down, whether it is a yoga pose, a Chinese character (here's some Chinese symbols for yoga poses) or a tai ji routine, is that there needs to be more than clearly defined element one element or brush stroke but no more than five. That way you can practice the relationship without having to think about it. You can experience it.
(Trying to learn Russian, if I’m learning a new sound, I may focus on it in isolation, just to get the right motor control, but after that I’ll listen to multiple syllables so that I I get a better feeling how the sounds relate to each other in different contexts to form words).
What’s a relationship? Two or more clearly defined things (or ideas) that are connected. What are ideal qualities of a relationship? Each part has room to move relative to the other(s). But even with room to move, they still remain connected.
If I have problems, like knee pain or hip pain or foot pain or low back pain, then I notice the parts of my body that may relate to that pain. If I'm working on fixing winged shoulder blades, then I focus on the muscles that control the shoulder blades. If I want to improve posture, then I focus on the things that relate to posture. If I’m working towards a pose that I can’t yet do, then I notice my body in such a way that I can find the way towards that pose. If there is excess tension or a lack of control in one part of my body then I notice the things that may cause that excess tension or lack of control.
Often times an understanding of anatomy helps in solving these problems. And actually, a large part of what I do when I teach is help my students experience their own anatomy. Whether it is anatomy or the body in general (without the "anatomic focus" the more we experience the more we understand. The more we understand the better our experiences.
Do you need to know or understand anatomy in order to enjoy the experience of your body? I didn’t have to be a mechanic to drive my car across America. However, with the body, anatomy is one tool that you can use to guide the way you direct your senses and the way that you isolate parts of it. It’s like a road map and that is a handy thing to have when you are driving from one place to another.
One of the things that helps my friend enjoy the experience of his body is moving slowly. He likened it to doing Tai ji and he told me that moving slowly forces him to pay attention.
It makes it easier for him to sense what he is doing.
And that’s why I remind my students to move slowly and smoothly. It forces them to be more aware. It helps them improve control (or practice it). And, if they move slowly enough (not too slow) there's a certain speed and rhythm at which point the pose or action becomes enjoyable. Moving slowly then becomes its own reward.