Judy Hirsh reflects
What is the difference between doing a forward bend in the gym, and a forward bend in a yoga studio? Sounds like the beginning of a joke but unfortunately for you I’m a yoga teacher, not known for my side-splitting punchlines.
Basically, wherever you do a forward bend, the physical work is the same - warming up, stretching out the hamstrings, strengthening the muscles in the legs, releasing muscles in the back, and opening the hips. The focus in a yoga class may be different which is where the mind/body work comes in – as a yoga student, my aim is not purely to make a ‘perfect’ shape with my body, to ‘do’ asana (yoga pose)… but to notice my mind – am I comparing myself to other people in the room and feeling inadequate/proud; as I approach my feet, am I mentally adding a pedicure appointment to my list of things to do (marked urgent) or am I wondering when the teacher is going to tell us to come out of the pose because my back is killing me…and more importantly what does this information tell me about myself? As we begin to notice and let those thoughts go, there may be a shift from the ‘doing’ and what other people are doing, towards a more subtle experience, a deeper awareness..a deep listening.
When I first went to India, I loved wide legged seated forward bend (Upavistha Konasana)– the warm weather and a twice daily yoga practice allowed me to go physically very deep into the pose and I loved it because I was good at it, it was easy for me and I liked the fact that people noticed, especially the teacher. However, when I came back to the UK and showed off my perfect pose to a friend on her patio in the middle of winter, I realised I couldn’t do it perfectly, I couldn’t get my head to the ground. In fact, I pulled a muscle in my back. I was nervous about forward bending and had to adjust my attitude - my body was asking me to ‘do’ a little less.
When I actually took notice of what my body was telling me, I realised that the point of yoga is not only the physical correctness of a pose but what I could learn on the way into the pose, the decisions I made about how far to go in a pose (or in any situation), when to go to the edge, or to know when enough is enough. And then, with nothing to prove, I started to experience a new sensation – I felt like a large fern spiralling in towards my centre; I felt free of my body, free of my judgements. I could stay in the pose with the simple idea of just ‘being’ and ‘accepting, instead of ‘pushing’ and ‘achieving’ for a change. Riding on my breath like a gentle wave, my whole nervous system seemed to let out along sigh of relief. That sigh allowed all my physical and mental tension to dissolve and I found this primary curve deeply restful and nourishing. (I had a real sense of how beautiful life is, how similar my spine was to all kinds spirals in nature) a perfect sense of balance and peace. I was amazed by this new experience and used to for further enquiry - this is what prompted me to become a yoga teacher.
Finding the unique wisdom in your body can happen when you are least expecting it – in your first yoga class or after many years of asana practice..or even in the gym, or on a run in the zone.
Next time you are in a yoga class, don’t forget to notice your mind – what are your judgements of a. the teacher, b the other people in the class and c. yourself and what can you learn about life on and off the mat. As you leave the class, you may feel like dancing around the garden singing kum ba ya my Lord, you may head straight to the desk to book that pedicure, or you may have worked out the punchline to that joke you were writing – it doesn’t really matter as long as you’ve taken time to listen deeply to your inner wisdom.
Judy teaches yoga, breathing and relaxation open classes and 1-2-1 classes in Muswell Hill, Highgate and North London