“Yoga practice is not necessarily relaxing; it trains us to be centered, awake, confident and flexible within effortful situations.”
Lately I’ve been feeling a tad guilty when I teach yoga to beginners. Especially when they are on retreat in some beautiful place like the Caribbean. Especially when they’re thinking about one of those pictures of the yogi looking oh-so blissful, relaxed and serene.
I’m going to reveal one of the best kept secrets of the world-yoga asana practice is not necessarily relaxing. People who come to a retreat looking for a siesta-like yoga experience could be disappointed: folding yourself up like a pretzel may not be a mellow moment-and unfolding is not a piece of cake either. But here’s the good news: the results of the practice are that over time you become mentally spacious, physically strong and yes!-you will sleep better at night.
Maybe it’s the visuals that are the problem. Have you ever watched weightlifting competitions on TV? Those guys and gals grunt freely and frequently. There is no question that a lot of effort is required to lift those big, round metal things up in the air. So before taking up that activity, you might ask yourself, am I willing to exert myself similarly to get that kind of body? The relationship between effort and outcome is clear, as opposed to the picture of the beach yogini, arms outstretched peacefully, as if the ends of her fingertips were plugged into a bliss-cloud of happiness. It appears as if she could stay there effortlessly and indefinitely. But the truth is, after only a few deep breaths holding that pose, most people’s arms and legs will begin to quiver involuntarily.
So why isn’t the yogini’s face contorted like the weightlifter’s? In yoga we learn to expand our focus by loosening the boundaries of mind and body. We learn to extend up and down, right and left, front and back, side to side, all at the same time. We learn to have awareness in many parts of our body, as well as awareness of our environment, so that the practice of yoga becomes a training program for being centered, awake, confident and flexible within effortful situations.
Traditionally, yoga practice begins with standing poses to strengthen and stabilize your legs and arms, the limbs of action. These poses lead to balance, grace and comfort in what are called The Four Noble Actions: walking, sitting, standing and lying down.
As you begin the following series, called warrior poses, try to notice when your body gets tired or your mind gets bored. Stick with it anyway. When it feels difficult, try not to overexert but instead apply “right action”-action composed of rhythm, movement, direction, energy and intention, but never aggression. This attitude is in line with the warrior’s code, and engenders courage to face reality and relate to it appropriately, using the weapons of gentleness and awareness. Your body is a good place to begin because you get immediate sensory feedback, so make sure you keep tuning in to what you feel-expansive, weak, burning, energized, sweaty-all different sensations. These feelings are what keep us present and awake and continue to remind us that rather than leading with our head, we can let it rest softly over our heart.
I have created two versions of the warrior pose series. The first is for novices and for those who would like to go slower. It will prepare you for the more difficult standing version.
Beginner Version (stay in each pose for 3-5 breaths)
1. Warrior 3 Start on hands and knees. Extend your right arm and left leg in opposite directions. Reach out through the top of your head and your tailbone to find length in your spine. Lift your belly softly up toward your spine. Stay here for 3-5 breaths, then do the other side.
2. Warrior 1 Take a kneeling position and make sure your legs are at a 90 degree angle. Extend your arms up alongside your ears and enliven your hands. After 3-5 breaths, go to Warrior 2 on this side.
3. Warrior 2 Stay up on your left knee and move your right thigh out to the side, making sure that the knee is directly over the ankle. Press into the floor with your right foot and lift up through the crown of your head. Feel your arms as if they begin at the center of your chest and extend out to infinity.
4. Child’s Pose If your hips don’t come all the way down to your heels, you can make a little pillow with your hands like I have. Otherwise, you can rest your arms alongside your body.
Non-Beginner Version (stay in each pose for 5-10 breaths)
1. Warrior 1 Start by standing with your feet together, then step them apart about 3-4 feet. Turn your right foot out, your left foot in, and your torso to face your right leg. Think of your arms as the sword of the warrior, cutting through discursive thought. Try to find an equal amount of weight on both legs.
2. Warrior 3 From warrior 1, shift your weight forward and come right up into warrior 3. Reach through your fingers and out through your foot, as if someone was pulling off your sock.
3. Warrior 2 From warrior 3, float back down to warrior 1. On an exhale, open up to warrior 2. Keep your spine vertical. Can you let the feet connect softly down to the earth and at the same time find a corresponding lift in the heart?
4. Standing Forward Bend Turn your feet back to face front, step them together and fold in half at the waist. If you feel a lot of tightness in your back, or in the back of the neck or legs, then bend your knees. Let your head dangle.
After practicing these you will understand why they are called warrior poses and not powderpuff poses. Warrior poses are usually done near the beginning of a class. That’s when I start thinking that maybe I should go to the bathroom, that I need to make a phone call, or more honestly, “I hate these poses.” But I never leave and later, of course, I’m glad I did myself the favor of sticking with it. Prominent yoga teacher Erich Shiffman said that to expand is not egotistical but to shrink is. So I discipline myself to cut through those thoughts using the warrior’s sword of gentleness and awareness. I stay seated in the saddle of my pelvis and ride steady through the waves of craving, irritation and exhilaration. It might not be mellow then, but when it’s over I do feel relaxed, in a heart-mind kind of way, just knowing that I could be a warrior today, for at least a few breaths.