Monday, November 8, 2010

Yoga: A Journey of Exploration

by Carol Haefner
The word Yoga means "unity" and is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning "to join". In spiritual terms yoga is about joining the individual "spirit" with the Divine "Spirit" or individual consciousness with Divine Consciousness to realize our already complete nature. In more practical terms yoga is a means of balancing and creating harmony between the body, mind, breath and emotions. And, like finely woven cloth, yoga weaves together layers of expression to create an integrated whole.

Like many before me, I came to yoga to exercise my body. I enjoyed the challenge of putting my body into new and sometimes unflattering positions. And, just like many of my other pursuits I pushed and pushed hard to make my body conform to the yoga body image I saw in magazines and advertisements. But it seems that the practice of yoga will have its way with us and despite the fact I knew nothing about yoga except for the postures, something began to happen in my practice, something startling and seemingly otherworldly.

I realized I was on an adventure of exploration and I didn't have to leave my house or even my yoga mat to participate. Yoga has invited me into an "in the body" experience at every level of my being. I realized that the unity or oneness of body, mind and spirit described in yoga is what I had been seeking all my life. So, yoga (not just the postures but the entire philosophy of yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) not only describes this way of being but also gives us all the tools to realize this already existent state. I have not experienced any other body of knowledge that has been the means and the end in and of itself like yoga is.

Since those first eye opening experiences when I got the sense that I was exploring my own subtle nature I have begun to study yoga more intently and became a yoga teacher. I have started to consciously explore and I invite my students to explore in their practice who they are at every level of their being; including the mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual levels.

As I watch, mentor and guide my students and we participate in each others growth I see that it is important during yoga practice to create a safe nurturing environment where we can learn to perceive ourselves directly, free of judgment and criticism so that all that we are, think we are and wish we were can be exposed in a loving atmosphere. This then becomes the starting point for our exploration, the grist for the mill of self inquiry. We learn we can't hide from ourselves and yoga holds us in arms of compassion during our journey.

In our practice we move into Tadasana (Mountain pose), Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) or Trikonasana (Triangle). What really happens in those poses? How can they deepen our experience of who we are and move us into a deeper knowing of ourselves? I often encourage my students to journal about their experience (as I often do). It is not unusual for a student to sit down in the middle of class; journal nestled on lap, and begin writing about an insight gained during a posture. Sometimes, after class the student will share their experience and sometimes what was revealed to them was too personal and they simply leave quietly with journal and mat tucked under their arm. These to me are moments when yoga is weaving its magic!

I believe everything we do on or off the yoga mat is a multidimensional expression of who we are. As our yoga practice deepens we begin to see that each posture has many levels of expression. It is really a form within a form created and sustained by the dualities of movement and stillness, tension and relaxation. This could be expressed as the yin and yang of each posture, the coming together and balancing of opposing forces. It is in exploring these energies in every posture that we can begin to understand who we are more deeply.

Each posture has an external form, the shape the body takes to be in the posture. This is the active form of the pose. Each pose also has an internal form as our organs adjust to a new physical position. The internal expression is receptive and restful; the expression hidden from the world. At this level of exploration we experience the opposing forces of outward strength and inner stillness.

On another level is the energetic expression. We must exert energy to move into and hold a posture. At the same time the posture creates space within for energy to move. We experience energy that moves and creates and energy that sustains and supports. With the breath we discover another expression. The inhalation creates expansion and spaciousness that take us to the dynamic edge of the posture while the exhalation allows us to explore that edge and move deeply, more consciously into the pose. The inner dance of breath and energy echoes the rhythm and pulse of creation and is the bridge between the inner and outer worlds.

Each posture has an emotional expression. I find this expression the most challenging and revealing and often it creates the deepest sense of inner questioning. It seems that if we allow ourselves to explore the emotional edge of a posture we can begin to see how even deep seated emotions are changing, fluid and impermanent. We all have our favorite postures that illicit feelings of peace and comfort, surrender and relaxation. What is it about these postures that create those feelings? And we all have the postures we resist. Can we be in those postures and explore our own resistance? Can we allow ourselves to come to our emotional edge and create an inner dialogue listening and responding with compassion, exploring the continuum of emotional expression that is part of the changing nature of emotions?

As we explore the full expression of a posture, we explore not only our physical limitations but how we sometimes use our mind and emotions to create limits. Very often our limits, real or perceived, become our teachers, if we explore them with openness, curiosity and nonjudgmental awareness.

Yoga is the practice of opposing forces equalizing each other, creating balance and unity. It is the practice of active exploration and resting in the moment.

Every posture has the capacity to move us deeper if we allow the full expression of who we are in that moment to be manifest in our practice as we explore the tantalizing synergy created by opposing forces. If we can allow the posture to bloom within us and explore our physical edge with softness, our energetic edge with awareness and our emotional edge with compassion we have the potential to reach inside to our own pool of wisdom and insight and come to a deeper understanding of who we are. In this way there is nothing outside the scope of yoga practice. We can bring this same depth of experience; this same rich tapestry of sensation, emotion and mindfulness to our everyday lives. In this way yoga truly enhances every moment and creates an experience of exploration at every level of our being.

Carol Haefner, RYT is a writer, artist and teacher; author of Sisters of the Circle: One Woman’s Journey to Wholeness and owner of Stories For Life™, LLC whose mission is “Empowering through Storying our lives”. Carol conducts playshops where participants explore and express their personal stories through yoga, meditation, writing and other forms of artistic expression. For more information email: