This morning in class I showed Kate how, because she hyperextends her knee, when she bends the knee (just slightly), her leg is straight. She gave me a look like she thought I might be a little bit crazy. She said, “but it doesn’t feel straight”.
After class, Tracy told me that what she loves about coming to yoga is that she thinks she’s doing just what I’ve said to do, but then I come around and adjust her, and “Oh, my god! That’s what you mean!”
Whether it’s leg straight, hips level, groins open, arms up - there is always the potential for our perception of what we are doing to be challenged by another person’s objective view. This is why we have a teacher. This is also why we use walls and floor to give us a sense of where we are in space. Standing with my back to the wall, do both shoulders come to the wall? Does the whole of my leg move to the wall, or just my calves?
I used to work in an information company with a fellow who loved the marketing phrase “Perception is Reality”. If we could convince our customers that our product was value for money, then indeed it was value for money. We could also make the claim that our data was the “most accurate on the market” - no matter that there were only two players in the market and the competitor updated only once a year, so the bar was not set very high.
In yoga, we take a different view. We challenge our perception and look for the reality that is in the body. Let’s look at an example. In Vrksasana, I aim to open the groins to bring my knee wide. See the pictures below:
Is my knee wide? Yes. Are my groins open? Well, no.
I’ve turned on my left foot in order to give myself the perception of groins open, knee wide. In doing so I’ve bunched up the buttocks and right side waist. I’m quite distorted. Knee wide is not really the point. My purpose is openness; making space in the body, in a balanced way. How then, do I challenge my perception in order to see the reality? See the next picture:
I have used the wall to give me a sense of where my body is in space. If I keep both buttocks on the wall, I can only take my knee so wide - and that is the truth that is in the body. Notice that the line of the spine is a much straighter vertical line than the first pictures, and my arms continue that line.
Using the wall helps me to understand what I’m doing, but I’ve taken the balance away, and Vrksasana is, of course, a balancing pose. In this next picture, I’m balancing, and a teacher adjusts my hips to give me a sense of where I am in space. Using the wall and accepting the help of a teacher are valid ways to look at the reality of our bodies and find the truth.
Patanjali describes this as removing the veil of darkness. We use our bodies to explore a practical, experiential philosophy. In a very real, tangible way we are exploring the idea that there is a sense in which we get in the way of ourselves. We think we know, and that shapes our whole understanding of what we do. This is as true of life in general as it is of Vrksasana.
To approach our yoga like this, we need to see our teacher as someone who invites us to explore, not as someone who calls poses, and gives us a set of instructions. Our yoga practice becomes then an opportunity to challenge ourselves, not physically, though this will likely be part of the deal as well, but to challenge our ways of thinking, doing and being in the world.