February 13-17, 2020
“I don’t have very much hope for progress in this pose this year,” said a student commenting on paschimottanasana, the pose of the year, while I was helping her with it in class early last month. I had helped her back up to a non-hurtful place for her body.
The conversation that followed went something like this:
I asked her, “What do you mean by progress?”
She said, “Moving forward in the pose.”
I said, “What does moving forward in the pose mean?”
“Folding more forward.”
I replied, “I think I have a different view of progress in the pose than you do.”
After a little back and forth, she asked me what the purpose of the pose is, and I gave my usual response as to the purpose of the poses, “Total peace of mind.”
I think she was still a little dubious and asked what my idea of progress in the pose is. A woman asked a similar question the other day to the effect, “What learning and progress do [I] consider success for this year? What are my metrics for success?” These questions were asked by people, like me, who don’t look like the pictures of the pose look, for different reasons.
My short answer to the first woman, off the top of my head, was, “Progress in the pose could be a totally healthy and functional root chakra (read more on the root chakra: Part 1 and Part 2) and second chakra. Equal amounts of energy going down the legs, and thus more groundedness. Becoming more patient. Learning to listen to the body and hear the messages that had previously been missed. Developing a more friendly and compassionate relationship with one’s body. Peace of mind. Learning to be more comfortable in situations that aren’t as we think they should be.” That all seems more major and ultimately more important than touching one’s toes or being able to lie flat on my legs as I once could.
Here is my attempt at giving a more full response than I could in class.
It may sound like I’m not being serious, or not taking the question seriously, when I say that the purpose is “total peace of mind.” However, after the second questioner admitted that she was hoping to touch her toes by the end of the year, I pointed out, to her agreement, that if she successfully touches her toes by the end of the year and her mind is agitated at the time, and if currently she has an agitated mind but can’t touch her toes, then touching her toes hadn’t actually accomplished that much. AND since she can’t touch her toes now, she actually can potentially make bigger strides toward total peace of mind because that agitation, the lack of peace of mind, is right there for her to see and work with.
I think that it’s very important to keep the bigger picture (the Real) goal of our yoga in mind, otherwise, we may get side-tracked by what are, in the end, trivialities. I personally also keep in mind that just a few hours after the death of this body, it will be as stiff and inflexible as the next one, so it’s really that which leaves the body with the life-force that is most important to be working with while we are alive.
With all this background in mind, as I mentioned above, there is very real and very important progress that one can realize in the pose (any pose) regardless of what the physical body actually looks like while in it. In this pose specifically, arguably most importantly, we can do some healing around the root chakra. Because this pose is from a sitting position, in the pose we can find any aberrations or energetic/emotional issues with this energy center located importantly at the pelvic floor.
For a few weeks, I’ve been suggesting the focus in the pose be to visualize a four-petaled, downward-facing lotus flower (facing into the floor, as I wrote extensively in Parts 1 & 2, linked above) at the root chakra, and to be attempting first to close the front petal, so it moves toward the back of the body. If a person gets that happening, then we add the petal in the back opening, also moving toward the back of the body. Both of those mental images can help get the energy there moving toward the back which will help tip the top of the pelvis forward, the direction this pose aims. If both those petals get going in that way, then we open the right and left side petals out to the sides. Many people have admitted having a hard time getting the front petal to close, some of whom are folded well forward and some of whom are not at all. This is good awareness on their part, and points to one area of possible work, which could take months or years to get that petal “functional.”
If you are not sure about the whole energy moving thing, consider that if you can’t move the mind in that way in that region of space, then at the very least, you just discovered a stuck area of your mind. From my perspective, limitation in that (or any) location in space, or in the mind, will have a limiting effect in some other area of life or the personality as well. That idea may inspire a more open mind and sensitive awareness to what’s happening there and why it’s potentially important.
There are other meaningful benefits we may realize through a dedicated exploration of this pose, already mentioned, but it’s very important to note, as I have many times in class, that of all the (my) poses of the year, this one has BY FAR the widest array of what different bodies look like in the safe practice of it. If you’ve been to class, you’ve seen people folded flat down, like in the pictures; there are other bodies that are leaning forward somewhere in the direction of that “final” pose; then there are a number that have the knees bent, or the legs wider or wide apart, even some with blocks under the hamstrings, and some are sitting on the edge of a cushion; and more than a few sitting fairly upright, even looking like leaning backward a bit, and DEFINITELY NOT forward bending! (That’s how my body looks for the first minute or more of my daily exploration of the pose. If you do a quick internet search for pictures of the pose, you’ll see a little variation, but not as much as in the real bodies in my classes.)
These individual variations are, obviously, because there are individual variations in bodies. This pose, more than most others, reveals some of those variations quite strikingly. Some people bend forward and have sensation in the low back, or hip crease, or behind the knees: all places that I think it’s best NOT to feel it. Some people it just feels potentially hurtful to fold forward like that. Some feel it in the calves more than the hamstrings. All of these are reasons—whether from injury, life use, or genetics—that a person may need a modification from the “right” way of doing the pose.
However, I believe that every body can make progress of some kind in the pose, even if one never looks like “folding forward” or ends up touching the toes. (And just remember that from lying on the back to sitting upright IS a forward fold!) If we work with the energy in the body and be lovingly present with what comes up for us—energetically, emotionally, mentally—in that process, much deeper issues can come to light than would if we’re “just going for a stretch.” If we allow deeper parts of ourselves to come to the light, we have then created and allowed a “golden opportunity” for healing, though it may not look like we “think” it should. If it’s Real Yoga, the progress and what happens WON’T be what we expected it to be, though it will, nonetheless, feel completely perfect and right and welcome. (And full-disclosure, the first woman the other day was folded significantly more forward than she was when she asked the original question, and now without pain. If we work with the foundation, everything changes, sometimes surprisingly and radically, and occasionally quickly!)
Whatever the physical outcome of the practice of the body-centered yoga, in my experience, the biggest shifts happen in the mind and emotions as they quiet down and leave the Inner Landscape more clear, so that the Bigger Picture becomes more easily perceived and more powerfully received. May you be inspired to keep going and “digging the hole deeper,” and realize over months and years what “progress” in Yoga, or even just in this pose, means for YOU!