I fell in love with yoga in the second class I went to. (The first had been at university, when my body still carried a distinct memory of the highs of competitive swimming, and consequently I found it incredibly boring.) It spoke directly to my body: not negating my over-exercised, recently-departed from academia brain, but emphatically not allowing it to run the show, either. I remember that sunny late-summer evening as an oasis in which thoughts, memories, desires, emotions, so insistent and exhausting at that point in my life, thrummed pleasantly in the background, nothing more than a comforting buzz like the distant traffic.
As the teacher led us through the poses, my body, in all its idiosyncrasies, strange callings and needs, irrational fears and closings, rejoiced, seemed to take flight in the way it did with my new lover (now husband of fifteen years); the way it did dancing in a field as the sun came up with thousands of other blissed-out party-goers, the bass as much a part of me as my own heartbeat; with the simple, elegant ease I that recalled from lying in a cornfield at the back of a friend’s house as a teenager. My body drank in the opportunity to be itself as a parched land drinks in rain. I saw clearly that although much of what I was being guided through was hard, my body simply didn’t (yet) understand what was being asked of it. There was no sense of lack or inadequacy; rather, an almost psychedelic sense of holiness intermixed with the mundane – the simple relief of homecoming.
Nineteen years and countless hours of yoga later, I still have a love relationship with asana, as well as a growing delight in exploratory breathwork, and subtle practices such as antar mouna and yoga nidra. My practice has moved from the dusty church halls, centres loosely affiliated with the yoga path, and purpose-built studios that once nurtured it, and is tended at home (outside in nature if the English weather feels at all friendly). I don’t attend classes, and the only teaching I do takes place in a barn a minute’s walk from my house, grassroots-style. Perhaps that’s one reason why I am no longer sure that what I do on the mat is yoga.
Certainly, many of the shapes, positions, movements and sounds I move through (or which flow through me) would be familiar to practitioners around the world today. But while I continue to fall deeply, passionately in love with what I do on the mat, I am out of love, and patience, with much of what I see around me of yoga. I am not a fan of studio culture, of the power plays and subtle jostlings of group dynamics, of adjustments and assists and how-can-we-deepen-that-pose? Still less do I enjoy the mixed messages of teachers and schools and brands and communities to “be where we are” while marketing themselves in showy poses. I distrust the overreach and arrogance that is almost demanded of new teachers as we try to make our way in a highly competitive market. I am profoundly disturbed by the stark non-action of British yogis in the face of the humanitarian tragedies of our times: the lack of coherence or urgency from this community when presented with the reality of the flood tide of refugees on the move; the apparent apathy or political motivation even while spouting rhetoric about oneness and universal consciousness sickens me. Then, there’s also the nagging, growing sense that because I have little to no understanding of what yoga in India is, representing what I do as yoga might be a continuation of Western imperialism … oh, I could go on, and probably will in another blog. Suffice to say, I have a complex relationship with yoga – whatever that is.
My actual removal from classes as both a student and teacher occurred as both a shocking rupture and a stealthy meander. Any new mother knows how hard it often is to find time to even brush her teeth: for me, finding yoga clothes, travelling to the nearest town for an hour and a half and then back home again seemed a ludicrous indulgence, as likely to cause heightened stress for everyone in my house in my absence as to grant me access to the mind and body experiences I thought I wanted. (Though to be clear, I am not dissing indulgence for new mums – give a new mum in your life a present, just because.) I began to wonder – is yoga an escape from my life? Is it an end in itself, or can it be a technology for a kinder, happier life – for actually living my life? If it’s the latter, then do I really need to carve time out of my life – as full of love, discovery, wonder and beauty as it most certainly then was – in order to do it?
So I began to practice at home with more regularity, interest and trust than I had ever been able to muster when I had classes and workshops to fall back on. As the years passed (with intermittent input from teachers to whom I am grateful), I began to think of this thing that I do as embodiment. This felt like a more accurate and honest description of the practice that was unfolding, and perhaps a more realistic goal than “yoga”, given that I’m not sure how to reconcile its wildly different manifestations, let alone where I might fit into that world.
The phenomenon of embodiment has been explored in many philosophical, social and political disciplines. Within these areas, embodiment generally refers to, and is explored through, emphasis on the role that the body plays in shaping the mind. Within yoga, I consider embodiment as a method of coming to know ourselves, and the world around us, through the relationship between the two. So embodiment is not a practice that is likely to lead to the oft-quoted goal of yoga, that of “transcending the body”. It is a route of enquiry, not denial and it requires open-hearted engagement with moment-to-moment sensation.
My own (working) definition of embodiment implies:
- Working with the wisdom of the body, and not treating my animal nature as something separate, outside of me, or in any way “lower” or less valid than any other part of me. This means that on the mat, I work diligently and creatively to encourage my mammalian self to drop anchor, in order to shift the locus of selfhood from both the thinking, conceptual mind and the call and response game between my thoughts and my emotions. In turn, this might then mean:
- Locating the body as precisely as I am able in this particular, unique timespace moment: snuggling up to it, welcoming it, offering it the kind of tenderness I knew my babies were owed as their birthright.
- Prioritising the feeling sense(s) over all other ways of experiencing, knowing, and understanding, while welcoming the stimulation of all sensory input as awakenings of the relevant sense-organs, as a map to follow to guide me into myself. Recognising that there are ways of knowing that are entirely non-verbal.
- Living as, through, and with the body, as opposed to living inthe body, or attempting to silence or displace the thinking, critical mind. (These conceptions of embodiment seem halfway stations, and to me to perpetuate the mind/body split that I consider damaging to a human, particularly at this historical juncture.)
- Making an effort to learn the body’s language: its silences as well as its utterances. Allowing for the arising of questions such as, perhaps embodiment is establishing dialogue between these seemingly distinct parts of me? – without needing a definitive answer.
I believe that yoga would be a far more democratic practice if embodiment was the goal of asana practice. Because embodiment is so highly personal, it is necessarily anarchic. If teachers were interested primarily in allowing and championing the quiet inner voice of the body, this would necessarily foreground the Other, and therefore diversity, plurality and multiplicity – therefore relationship; and that lovely and rare thing, companionship; the knowledge that others walk beside us.
For a while, teaching yoga became highly problematic for me, as I tried to devise ways of simultaneously honouring each individual’s bodymind while communicating to (and from, and with) our common humanity. Although in my personal practice I have some standard vinyasa (commonly translated as “flow sequences”), I know that just as often as wanting to do this, my body strikes out in completely unexpected directions. I might start practice with an idea about what I need to do, based on what I’m feeling, but as often as not I find I am led by my body’s own mysterious workings into poses, and other forms of practice entirely, that I did not, could not have known were needed. From this perspective, attempting to keep cohesion in a class while allowing all members to dive into the mysterious depths of their own embodiment felt very difficult. Happily, I am currently at a place where I find identikit poses somewhat creepy. I love it when every single person in my classes is doing something different – everyone there has a different body, a different relationship to her body, and a different history, and it makes no logical or ethical sense whatsoever that my job as teacher should be to erase those differences in the name of some kind of “spiritual practice”.
As it is, yoga, having been pretty thoroughly and effectively co-opted by the juggernaut of capitalism, largely reflects all the cultural biases of our time, so that young, white, able bodies, clad in the symbols of affluence, hold sway, in the media at least. Even collectives such as the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, formed with the specific intention of reflecting and promoting diversity within yoga, are under attack from the bland- and blondification process that is endemic to the culture.
Asana-as-embodiment, however, invites in a specific way of knowing, a particular approach to relating to truth. It stealthily undercuts the stories we are told about what a body is (and what it needs to consume or display so as to be deemed worthy), because a human being who is in direct communication with that personal, never-ending wellspring of personal wisdom cannot be dictated to. Embodiment reasserts the primacy of our animal natures, not as denial of our highly developed cognitive, human, “civillised” selves, but as necessary balance to this. And, I contend that however it may be that we go about discovering and exploring our embodiment, this may prove to be a more practicable, accessible, adaptable and kindly practice than this thing we call “yoga” – and that it may, nowadays, even be the more radical practice, too.