The Practice as a Raft to Cross the Waters
“We need to learn how to honor and use a practice for as long as it serves us—which in most cases is a very long time—but to look at it as just that, a vehicle, a raft to help us cross through the waters of doubt, confusion, desire, and fear.”― Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life.
I often hear students say "I can't practice Yoga now" or "I left Yoga all together because I couldn't practice yoga", that's due to an illness, an injury, a new job, and so goes on the list or stories and excuses. This is a confusion and misunderstanding around what yoga is and one that's best for all of us to clarify and understand as soon as we can.
Yoga is not necessarily something you practice in one way and in one way only for the entirety of your life. (Maybe for some people it is, but for the vast majority it is not). The body changes due to age, pregnancies, births, injuries, stress, loss of a loved one and for many more reasons. Yoga is not the physical practice we all identify it to be. Yoga is a way of life. It is a system. A philosophy. A very deep and rich philosophy.
Asana is the physical practice which so many of us identify as Yoga, but really it is only a limb, out of the 8 limbs of yoga. It is a branch. A very little part of Yoga as a whole. But it is the door through which most Westerners, come to know of Yoga. The practice is not only for the young and the glorious. The practice IS ALWAYS AVAILABLE for EVERYONE.
Every Body, every age, every physical condition, EVERYONE! It is our attachments to a specific practice that make us believe that when we have an injury or an illness or when we are just too busy to make it to class, that we can no longer practice yoga all together. These are the times when we need it most and it is important for us to understand that there is ALWAYS a practice to support us with where we are at.
A L W A Y S
I have recently gone through a hard time. A really hard time that affected me physically, mentally and emotionally. I felt as though the earth on which I stood was gone. I could barely stand on my legs and that affected my thinking process and emotional state. I was a mess. I was tired, I got sick often, I was broken. I lost my voice. And I knew I had to keep practicing yoga to make sure I keep my head above the water. All I wanted to do was stay in bed and sleep. To escape. To disassociate. And maybe one day to wake up and realize it was all a bad dream. But of course this was not an option....
I have kids to take care of, a business to run, classes to teach, life to live so I kept going to my mat for my Vinyasa practice and it didn't feel right. Often I would just stay in a restorative pose for half an hour which was beautiful and very much needed. I practiced some Yin which was wonderful for observing the emotions I was carrying in my body and my heart and allowing them to come out and through me, but it still wasn't what I needed.
My Vedic meditation practice was a life savoir and every time I sat down I was flooded by the emotions I managed to suppress through the day just to get along and I am so grateful for having established a solid practice this past year. I would sit and cry again and again until one day I sat down and there were no more tears.
When I went to Israel to visit my family and childhood friends I knew I was going to heal. I needed this for my healing. To be around people that knew me for so long. That accepted me as I was. To eat my mothers food. To slow down. To re-establish a firm foundation where I felt supported and safe.
When I arrived a good friend recommended an Iyengar teacher. He told me this teacher saved his life, literally, after battling with a chronic back pain for many years, from which he was now free. So I went along to try it out.
I met a teacher called Eyal Sela. An Iyengar teacher. And he was exactly what I needed. After the first class I knew he was, and will be, my teacher. Probably forever. It was the same when I met Jasmine Tarkeshi and Katie Manitsas and Magadaleta Potipa, who are till this day my main teachers and support on this path. I kept coming to classes as often as I could. The Iyengar practice is not as flowing as the Vinyasa practice I am used to.
There is a very big focus on first of all getting the students stronger, before attending to their flexibility, to make sure that the legs support the whole body, as they are meant to be doing. He helped me "get on my two feet", get stronger physically, and by doing so, get stronger mentally and emotionally.
There was a lot of focus in classes about opening the shoulders and the heart, and that allowed me to breathe more deeply again, to release the tightness I was holding in my heart after it was broken as a result of lost friendship and grief.
Every word in his class was not wasted. Every word was intentional. Every word had a message. Every word was Yoga in its deepest and fullest essence.
One day we were practicing Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Standing extended hand to big-toe pose) and as we were practicing he approached me and asked; "Don't you practice it in the first series"? (he obviously was not impressed by my delivery of it...) I answered that I don't practice Ashtanga.
He looked me straight in the eyes and said: "of course you practice Ashtanga. We all do..." I smiled as I understood exactly what he meant and replied: "You are right. I don't practice the first series". Ashtanga is the system of 8 limbs of Yoga. Anyone who practices Yoga practices Ashtanga. But as most of us identify the Asana practice as the practice of yoga, we also identify the Ashtanga practice as the physical practice that was developed by Sri K, Pattabhi Jois and Eyal reminded me of this. He reminded me how important it is to be accurate. As Sharon Gannon, one of the co-founders of Jivamukti Yoga often says; “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”
Desikachar said that Yoga is any practice that brings us into balance. This is not to say that you drop your practice the second it gets hard because it is in those moments we learn a lot about ourselves. About what constrict us in our body and mind. About how powerful we can be if we choose to ignore the stories we have come to identity ourselves with. But we should also be careful of developing attachment to the practice and forcing it in times where it is not appropriate or beneficial.
To remember that there is always a Yoga practice that can help us with whatever it is we are going through, whatever we are struggling with, whatever we are celebrating. As Jack Kornfiled says, to use it as a raft for as long as we need one, and when we no longer need it to find the right vehicle to help us pass whatever stands in front of us. But never to drop the practice altogether. That's probably the worst thing we can do to ourselves.
Talk to your teacher, to your friends and ask for recommendations, for suggestions, for an advise. Don't give up. There is so much in this practice, in this beautiful ancient practice that is so relevant to our lives today, and that can show us the light even in the darkest times, that can remind us that this light is within, and help us shine it all through us and around us. Eyal, thank you for sharing your absolute and tremendous knowledge and understanding of Yoga with me and all those who cross your path. Thank you for helping me stand on my feet again. Thank you for showing me the light was still inside my heart. Thank you for making me feel safe to shine this light again.
Thank you. Namaste!