by Viki Distin
I will never forget my first days of yoga. I was "studying" with yoga master, Erich Schiffman, with my fancy mat in my secluded home studio. The truth is, Erich was teaching me via TV, my mat was a beach towel, and I was practicing in the family room with my husband watching me from the couch. Not exactly the primo yoga experience that I am accustomed to now, 11 years later.
Even still, I will never forget it. After my first savasana, I felt more exposed and vulnerable than I have ever felt. I became aware of an anxiety within me that I didn't even know existed. Despite these alien feelings, I looked at my husband and said, "This is the best my central nervous system has ever felt."
Starting a yoga practice can be both a fantastic and daunting experience. Usually by the first savasana, most students are aware that yoga is not the ordinary exercise regimen. The full spectrum of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual sensations can be overwhelming.
At Cascade Yoga Studio, we want to help students deal with these early experiences by offering an Introduction to Yoga class. This special class will provide some practice, but the main focus will be on yogic philosophy and history, with time for questions. Katherine Florentine will teach this class on the first Saturday of every month from 1-2:30pm. The cost will be a regular charge.
Although some students drop out of yoga practice because they find the experience too intense, others have a hard time understanding what yoga is about. One day while shopping I was standing next to a young lady talking on her cell phone. She was commenting how she had just come from a yoga class and that she just didn't get it.
I appreciate this confusion. When I first began yoga, my triple A personality couldn't sit still for even two minutes of breathing. I fast fowarded through the video tape during the breathing segment to "get to the good stuff," the more physical part of the practice.
I was under the delusion that I didn't have enough time for this subtle work and that I needed a vigorous workout to maintain health. Many of us begin with the notion that what we want out of yoga is a yoga butt! It takes time to realize that a healthy body may not look like what we are conditioned to believe.
Yoga advances from the gross to the subtle. The subtle work is where the real juice is. As beginners, however, most students need to work on things like feeling their feet not their spirits. Gross awareness is important as this begins the cultivation of attention. For example, many students need to work on noticing their back leg and arm while in a pose like Warrior II. It is not uncommon for students to have their awareness stuck in their front leg and arm while in this pose.
Most people tend to pay attention to their front bodies because this is what we give to the world. Focusing attention on the back of the body helps to access those parts that may be off our radar screen. In yoga, the back body represents the spiritual side of our being, as this is the part we cannot see. As students advance in their awareness they begin to feel other subtleties like "feeling your eyelashes gently interlacing" or "opening the pores of your skin," or even "absorbing the vibrational sound of om."
Cultivating sensitivity is a subtlety that has many cross-overs into everyday life, such as learning to become more intuitive, tapping into energy fields, and becoming more emphatic. By honing our sensitive side we can feel those subtle sensations that are always in the body ( like freedom, radiance, or peace), but are so subtle that most people cannot feel them.
Too much tension stored in the body or just a lack of training may prevent people from not feeling these subtleties. Early in my yogic experience, I wondered what it meant to "open your heart." The beginners' mind and body may not comprehend when the teacher asks them to feel something so subtle that it is not accessible for them at this point in their practice.
Humiliation is another reason for student drop-out. Very few students actually begin yoga feeling they are good at it. Most of us feel too tight, too weak, or too awkward to fully appreciate the benefits. It takes a while before students understand the concept that yoga is not about the pose.
The western mentality of accomplishment has to dismiss the idea of how the pose looks and learn how to appreciate the inner aspect of the practice. The very first yogic philosophy that is required is "ahimsa," which refers to non-violence. To keep us safe from injury, we need to learn how to honor our bodies and not bring a competitive attitude onto our mats. Keeping our eyes on our own mat will enable us to draw our attention inward.
Mental stamina is another part of the practice that was difficult for me. Many of the poses, while not meant to induce pain, may induce moderate discomfort. I needed to learn how to mentally persist through the experience without shutting down when things got tough. Of course, stamina improves with practice, but the lack of it in the beginning can be over-powering. Mental stamina benefits us when the going gets tough off the mats by conditionning us to persevere in life.
Those of us who plow through these early days of confusion, delusion, and humiliation will eventually be rewarded with life-changing sensations, improved relationships with ourselves and others, and inner and outer growth of sometimes miraculous proportions. Although it is unlikely that new students will experience yoga as something spiritual right from the get go, it is possible.
One of our newest students recently came out of class and I asked him how he felt. He had his hand over his heart and said, "Oh, what is this that I feel.......peace?" I smiled and responded "Yes, Michael. That is peace." Michael is an exceptional student. For most of us, however, it just takes time.