Find your yoga
The source of our greatest joys and deepest pains.
And there is one relationship that is entirely unavoidable, and completely determines our mood or mental state.
No. It’s not our parents. (Although, they’re MASSIVE in the picture.)
Or our children. (Ditto)
What about our chosen ‘partners’? (Double ditto)
No, it’s something else: ‘our finest teacher and our greatest friend’, as my mentor, Daizan Roshi, puts it.
What!?! Hello?!? Who is this guru that can solve all my problems? Sign me up now!
I’m talking about the inescapable ‘relationship’ we have with our bodies.
The common notion in the west is that our bodies and minds are separate: our brains do the ‘mental’ work of thinking and feeling, while our bodies are the physical vehicles that carry the brain around.
Yet for much of the time we are in our heads, reacting, thinking, analysing, projecting, fantasising – all the human mental activity that naturally occurs, while our bodies continue to go about their business of breathing, looking, listening, digesting, pumping blood around, walking, talking, healing, growing …
This is very different from the Zen and yogic way of thinking in which mind and body are one – there is no separation. Indeed, the Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ means ‘yoke’ or ‘bind’, representing the unity of mind and body. And the practice of yoga is essentially the work of fully embodying and inhabiting our bodies with our consciousness.
In actual fact, we don’t really have any choice in the matter. Mind = body and body = mind. Have you ever noticed how you can’t think or function properly if you haven’t had enough food or sleep? And how your mood sinks? That’s you and your body right there.
How about how going for a run or engaging in another ‘physical’ activity (including sex, of course. But that’s another story ...) – can leave you feeling at peace and fulfilled?
Essentially, we are – mind and body – little more than a combination (a miraculous and highly complex one, obvs) of chemicals, minerals and electrical impulses. That is what we are – including our thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams.
I've heard many people say that the only time they feel relaxed and/or are not thinking about/worried about/preoccupied with work/life/family/themselves/stuff is in a yoga class. This is great yoga work! However, you don’t need to go to a class to achieve this.
Yoga doesn't have to be an activity that we go to a particular place to do. The place in which we practise our yoga is right here, right now, always: our bodies. So we have opportunities every day to practise.
It's my great privilege as a yoga teacher to create a space for people to come and practise, and disengage their mind activities from the outside world to anchor them in their bodies.
Yoga ‘asanas’ or postures – are only a very tiny percentage – 1%, in the traditional texts – of practice. Traditionally, the asana work of stretching and building strength is just a way to enable the body (and mind) to spend more time in meditation and to reach enlightenment.
Think of your practice as ‘date night’ with your body: feel, listen, engage and love – do what you need to reconnect.
Here are some ways we can bring yoga into our daily lives, reunite our minds and bodies, and bring that relationship to life.
Love your breath
No, this isn’t about brushing your teeth or buying more Listerine. Thousands of years of teaching tell us that the easiest way to bring the mind and body into unison is through the breath. Breathing is an automatic function that we’ve been doing since birth, and yet we rarely pay attention to it. Focusing on the breath is a very powerful way to let go of the flotsam and jetsam in the mind, and anchor awareness in the body.
Let’s try this right now, wherever you are sitting.
Close your eyes.
Start to notice the sensation of the breath as it enters the nostrils, gently inflates the lungs and then leaves the nostrils.
Stay with this sensation for a few breaths and notice how, as your breathing becomes more relaxed, and you become more relaxed, the breath becomes longer.
Now, with every exhalation, feel yourself letting go – in the shoulders, the hips and the legs. Let every outbreath release more tension and holding on, as you surrender and relax – more and more.
After a few breaths like this, notice how you can feel.
Reido: shake your ass
Those of us who have used alcohol and/or drugs to enable us to forget our inhibitions, and dance hard at clubs and parties know how it feels when you’re ‘at one’ with the music.
Well, the Zen yoga practice of reido is the same thing! But without drink or drugs. Or the inhibitions.
It can be described as improvised yoga to music. It basically involves playing some music, coming to your mat and spending some time feeling the music, and letting your body do what it wants to do in response.
Start in ‘cat’ posture, on all fours on your mat and just start to move as you feel the music. Come to standing, or roll over on to your back, or around the floor, as you need.
Wiggle, shake, undulate, twist, roll, wobble, jump, bounce, elongate, roar, flop, swivel, sweep, flap – tune into your body and invite it move in the way it wants to to enable it to stretch, release, express, rejuvenate relax …
Shake out whatever you don’t need – or snuggle down in comfort, if that’s what you want.
Savasana: a human being not doing anything
You may have seen the T-shirt: ‘I'm only here for the savasana.’
For many people the best bit of a yoga class is the five to 10 minutes of guided relaxation in ‘corpse pose’ at the end. Well, why not? Just 10 minutes of relaxation a day can make an awful lot of difference to your mood and wellbeing.
Yet it can be the most challenging for people who find it hard to come completely into their bodies AND be in a relaxed state. People can fidget, yawn, pray that it will end quickly – and the process is a test of their endurance.
At the other end of the spectrum, some people start snoring as soon as their head hits the mat.
The challenge – and greatest benefit – of savasana is to completely let go and yet at the same time to be utterly hyper-aware and sensitive. Essentially, it is a meditation practice that trains us to be more present and unified in mind and body.
So do find some time for YOUR yoga – whether that's going to a class, getting into downward dog or lotus, or simply becoming mindful of your breath. Being at home in your body is the best – and only – place you can be.
Samantha Warrington is a Zen yoga, mindfulness and meditation teacher