These days, I find myself drawn to teachers whose teaching comes from a place of such deep honesty and of looking inward, that it is clear they have lived, or are living, whatever message they are offering me on the mat. I felt this during a recent training weekend with Desiree Rumbaugh, in which it was clear that through the practice of yoga, she’s done the deep work of looking inward, the practice of svadhyaya, that allows one to embody a deeper teaching so that they may offer this knowledge to others.
Part of the theme of this training weekend was going with the flow. This is a phrase that is said often in the yoga world, and in the world at large; it’s one that I’ve understood as asking me to be more fluid, receptive, going with whatever arises. I tend to fight against this notion. Not that I don’t want to be more fluid and receptive; however, I find that, as Desiree taught, being in “the flow” often means being present with something very challenging, something I may not want to be receptive to at all. “The flow,” both on the mat and off, sometimes really asks a lot of me, and I’d much rather freeze up, shut down, run away. I’ve found, however, that when the flow is too much, fighting it seems to do exactly the opposite of what I’d like–if I become rigid, frightened, angry, or overwhelmed by whatever the flow is offering, I am overcome by it, much like a swimmer fighting a strong current. So what then? If I apply the rich teachings of this training, I can instead learn to become strong enough to sustain the flow. Now that is a very different concept.
I relate deeply to the work Desiree described. In the training, she spoke of the need to keep moving with the flow; as we strengthen our outer being, we may begin to notice where we get stuck or drop out when the flow is tough. Partly, what I took from this, was a lesson about how much strength is required in order to be soft and receptive, and how hard I must work to cultivate this strength so that I don’t allow myself to shut down or be overwhelmed by the flow.
This, I am learning, is hard work indeed. For me, on the mat, this is looking like a long unwinding of long ingrained patterns that have kept me freezing up my spine in an effort to protect myself or to assume a posture I’ve considered strengthening, during many poses. For instance, I am realizing I have engaged in countless standing twists with my tail bone tucked under, as if this was somehow engaging my core; however, it’s really a move that closes off part of the spine and leaves me unavailable to the richness of my upper back’s ability to move into the twist. Learning to undo, I am finding, may be harder than learning to do, but I am also finding that it holds potential to also be even more rewarding.
I believe this is part of what this practice is meant to unlock for us–the ability to be in the flow (rather than to just go with whatever comes) in an honest, present, curious way. The strength we cultivate on the mat is an integral piece of it all.
Donna Farhi writes in Bringing Yoga to Life, “The practice of Yoga avails us to the largest possible life. What is this larger life? It is characterized by fearlessness, awe, and enchantment…It is the suspension of time that occurs when we are so immersed in an activity that we become it…It is an experience of belonging, of homecoming, of reconciliation. It is an opening into what we cannot possibly know, explain or define and giving ourselves to this mystery unreservedly even though we have no idea where it will lead us. It is an awakening to the intensity of life when we drop our guard, with the full knowledge that to love also opens us to sorrow and loss…It is a state of being that is so compelling that even a fleeting instance of being this alive, no matter how many years ago, leaves us haunted.” I think we all know this feeling, but often freeze up against it or disconnect away from it, because the flow is just too much to be with sometimes. I mean this about the yoga I’m practicing on the mat and the life I’m living off of it. But I don’t want to miss the opportunity to grow stronger in this flow. To receive this lesson, I must be receptive and open. Yet, to be receptive and open without being towed under means I must also cultivate a kind of core strength that allows me to navigate with grace and depth that which flows in.
If you’ve never practiced this kind of journey on that mat, it may sound bizarre, but I know from experience that with effort in a sustained practice, I’ve learned to awaken within and around the work that keeps arriving in my physical postures. I’ve discovered that the asana work I do on that mat has the ability to change and open my perspective mentally and spiritually just as much as it shifts my physical body. If I don’t shut down to habitual patterns that signal fear or closing off, such as constantly tucking my tail bone, I get to experience a homecoming back into my own strength and openness. Then, instead of constantly telling my body, “I’m done. I can do no more” I get to discover just what potential there might be within me. In that potential, I’ve found a way to awaken to and move with all that life offers me, on and off the mat.