I practice a few different styles of yoga, but my main practice and teaching style is Hot 26 or Bikram yoga. One thing I love most about this set series is the gift of observation. Arriving on my mat to practice the same sequence of poses, in the same order and for the same number of sets in generally the same environmental conditions, has taught me to be keenly aware of how my body is feeling at any given moment. It is a gift to notice that it changes with each class, and to transfer that to my life off the mat.
I think any style of yoga has the capacity to raise observation and body awareness, but there really is something unique about a set series that heightens it. On page 8 of “Yoga Sequencing,” Mark Stephens notes, “the asanas, and in some styles even the specific actions for transitioning between them, are like a perfect mirror onto the practitioner because the only thing that changes from one practice to the next is the practitioner, thus making the experience of doing the sequence somewhat more a reflection of the person doing it than the sequence itself.”
How do my observations of the physical body translate to my emotional state? One example is that I am consistently working towards greater spinal compression, particularly in the thoracic region, the area right behind the heart. It is not uncommon for this to be the most difficult area of the spine to bend, and it is no coincidence that it correlates with greater opening in the chest and the heart center. Some days this comes easier than others, and I have noticed an undeniable connection with how my heart feels. Back bending is difficult and painful when I am trying to nurse or protect an achey heart. When I have more freedom and happiness in my heart, there is no pain, only joy in my backbends. My shoulders tend to creep up towards the ears and round inward as well. I’m grateful for the ability to notice these things physically and how they relate emotionally. Sometimes that outside physical cue draws just the attention I need to address what’s going on inside.
Observing constant change in yoga may also relieve you of expectation and judgement. Of course we all expect that we will improve or become more proficient in our asanas the more we practice…and this is most often true…but rather than expect that by class #10 you should be able to kick out in Dandayamana Janu Sirasana (for example), you can just take it class by class, observe what’s going on in the body, in the mind, and allow your postures to develop naturally. Once we accept that our bodies feel, move, respond differently each day, we can let go of goal orientation and pressure to perform in our practice.
While it’s important not to become consumed with goal orientation and expectation in a yoga practice, another benefit of a set series is the ability to gauge progress. On p. 55 of Ganga White’s “Yoga Beyond Belief,” he identifies set series practices as “outer-directed” practices. “Fixed sequences allow us to flow through our practice with concentration and awareness, without having to figure out what to do next. We can also more easily gauge our progress–many feel improvement is made more rapidly by regularly following well-designed, fixed sequences.” This shouldn’t suggest, however, that we should approach a fixed sequence anticipating the next posture; but rather it is still important that we remain in the moment of the posture, finding the balance between ease and effort even if we have done it 100 times before.
My yoga practice, and my life outside of it, are not necessarily linear paths. Hyper-awareness of the changes in the body from day to day really solidifies that fact. It would be predictable and very boring if it was the same all the time, right? What I’ve learned to predict about yoga is that it is never predictable. As that’s transferred off the mat for me, there are times that unpredictability can bring about a certain level of anxiety…but observation of the unexpected enables me to stay firmly grounded and confident that I have the necessary tools to manage any set of circumstances. Don’t just expect, but embrace the unexpected. Pay attention to your body and the signals it sends. When that jaw starts to clench, those shoulders creep up…you’ll know what to do. Breathe.