Prof Mark Williams — the proponent of mindfulness meditation for depression and other chronic illnesses (a kind of British Jon Kabat-Zinn if I may) — really spoke to me when he said that he once thought he could learn everything about Mindfulness by reading about it. And then he realised that it’s a practice. And that means you actually have to do it, and keep on doing it. And it’s through that experience that you truly come to understand.
And so it is with yoga. Yet the time and energy I have for reading always seems greater than my mat time. I wonder if this is actually true? Certainly I’m more comfortable when my learning is rooted in intellectual understanding rather than embodied experience only. I want to verbalise and categorise. (Or should I say ‘articulate and dissect’ — both words that can apply to the physical body also!). I’m more used to the vicarious pleasure from reading about things. I am an armchair explorer, having spent years feasting on travel books and tales of extreme expeditions or physical challenges.
And yet… does it have to be this way (any longer)? I’m trying to use yoga as a way of challenging myself to learn another way and experience the world more directly, more emphatically.
I asked my teacher for some help recently in in developing more awareness of what is going on for me in certain types of pose. How can I regulate and self-adjust if I can’t feel what’s happening in my body? We looked at a few poses really quietly. This was a really good way of working for me. It brought my attention to how much I could feel and identify if I focussed in the right way. (It also made me realise how much I take discomfort as a given in yoga so I don’t both trying to ease it by adjusting…hmmm: a whole different topic maybe. But an important one, so I’ll have to watch this).
Now I’m just starting to realise that while my question started as an exploration of the anatomy of particular poses, I was actually asking for help in trusting myself. A much deeper issue. It’s not a matter of whether I missed out on years of having a fully physically active life, it’s a question of whether I’m ready now to get back into my body and develop a relationship with it where I hear it, trust what it’s telling me, and love it no matter what it says.
There’s something very profound here about the relationship between intellectual and somatic experience and how the ego gets involved in offering all sorts of narratives about what the experience could/should be, rather than how it actually is. I can’t figure this out.
For now it’s simply enough to recognise the complexity of the relationship and to try to balance the competing messages. Perhaps this, in fact, is all yoga really is: picking out which thread to follow, what is the truth? Is it the sophisticated and convincing voice of the ego spinning me its comfortingly familiar story? Or is it the spontaneous, messy, unrehearsed messages of my muscles and sinews and breath? The ego speaks more loudly but I’m starting to tune in more to the confusing jumble of physical messages.
And there’s a weird joy in this.