Lately, I have been working on handstand (and so impressed with my friend Greg Jamiel’s daily progress). I have never been an inversion queen – even as a young child I was plagued with the fear of going upside down. Now as an adult, I recognize the validity of my fright and have decided to go heels-over-head anyway…and attempting to do so with a childlike abandonment. On a recent vacation, a dear friend told me that her secret to handstand was her drishti, her focus. Ah, drishti. I had been concentrating on my arm bones, my serratus anterior, my core, my legs – everything but my mental concentration.
In so much of the yoga we do, there is a focus on the physical alignment. And I agree with this – without physical alignment our energy does not flow, we get hurt, and, when misaligned, often there is no room to breathe. The majority of yoga classes are sequenced to open the body into a specific, or peak, posture with a series of postures with a similar anatomical focus. We are guided through our class concentrating on our breath and how our bodies are positioned. We need the physical alignment but I feel the mental alignment is often overlooked. We are instructed to breathe, we are asked to find a focus point, we are told there is a mind/body/spirit connection but rarely do we, as students and/or teachers, bring conscious attention to the mental alignment necessary for each posture; Each of us can get bogged down with our physical limitations. Let’s be honest, downward facing dog and warrior II can be hard for the mind to settle into.
Mental alignment is building up our cerebral focus so that we have the ability to focus on a simple object or thought with ease so we are not distracted by the outside world or our inside turmoils. Think about when you are in bakasana (crow pose) – you can get your whole body into the posture but without the mental drishti, you will fall out of the pose or worse – not breathe. Yet, when your mind is still you move into the posture and however long you are in the posture, there is ease and security in the pose. There is a balance between your outer and inner worlds. I have heard, as I am sure you have too, that the physical yoga practice is to prepare our minds and bodies for meditation. In the physical practice we are not only strengthening the body to sit; we are strengthening our own mental discipline to sit. Each posture is to move us towards that place of stillness.
We are doing the postures ultimately for meditation, concentration, and focus. The physical practice is not about doing the hardest, most advanced, way-out-there posture but rather to be able to hold a posture with ease and contentment: to be present and well in each posture. The question is: can you maintain a posture as the pose gets harder? The more mental focus you have (of course, with bodily alignment) the longer you will stay in the pose with ease. As each of us knows, once we begin to think about how great we are, worry about tipping over, or check out that cutie to our left, we will fall.
So, next time you are in class – embrace the long holds and meditate in your flow…find your still, soft gaze as your body changes shape and you move steadily with an inhale and an exhale. Recognize that your mind and body are getting stronger so you can smile with the world, hold your dreams, and move with a kind and steady intention. That, to me, is joy and enlightenment. And that is Yoga.