Most people who practice Hatha yoga never discover the true power yoga can bring to their lives, remaining stuck in a beginner’s mindset. They become masters of being a beginner. A bit like if you were learning to play the piano and all you had was the book “Piano for Beginners Level 1”.
This is because even after many years of practice they remain attached to the process of going deeper & deeper into postures, mistakenly believing that how far they are able to go into a posture is a measure of their development. They try very hard to accomplish a perfect visual form of the postures, thinking this will help them achieve their shallow expectations of yoga.
I believe there are 3 key phases in mastering Hatha yoga. Beginner’s phase 1 is all about the formation of the neural-pathways required to communicate with the muscles and to burn into the subconscious the basic physical goal of each posture. This is exactly the same for beginners learning the piano. Piano level 1 is all about forming the neural-pathways required for basic fingering, fusing it into the subconscious, so without thinking you are able to play a C chord. This first phase is where all too often students and even teachers remain stuck, becoming masters of being a beginner. They become experts in trying to achieve that perfect visual form.
Very much like the developmental stages in martial arts or boxing, as you progress, the more it becomes a question of your state of mind. To change your state of mind you need to change your focus. To change your focus, you need to change the questions you ask yourself. By asking the right questions I've seen people who were once just going through the motions with a somewhat despairing approach to their yoga turn into astounding powerhouses of strength, both physically & mentally.
The body will do anything you ask of it, like a genie in a bottle – “your wish is my command”. But, as we know, be careful what you wish for! If you ask your body to jump off a 15-story building it will. If you ask it to go deeper into a posture it will. In both cases, there is a cost. Jumping off a building you will die. Asking your body to go deeper as if you were a contortionist will eventually result in some form of sports style injury. I have lost count of the number of yoga teachers who have had surgery due to a slipped disk; knee or hip injury.
In Phase 2 we move away from the superficial visual form of the postures, focusing more on the physical aspect of opening up the body. By opening up the body, oxygen & nutrients within the synovial fluid can get into the joints thereby transforming the performance of the joints. The act of opening up the body requires far more strength than simply contorting the body, therefore you build greater strength. Flexibility is totally pointless without strength and strength is totally pointless without flexibility. In phase 2 we increase mobility and build a profound sense of physical & mental awareness.
Take for example the classic Bikram yoga Half Moon posture. A beginner learning the basic goal of the posture asks questions like "how far can I come down while keeping my shoulders and hips square?”. They learn so much as they struggle with such a question. But, in truth, it’s an impossible question to answer.
Once the beginner has fused the basic goal of flexing the body into their subconscious they are ready to move forward to phase 2, asking far more powerful questions such as - “How can I create more space in the spine?” - “How can I expand and open the space between each vertebrae of the spine, as I come down?” Remember, like a genie, the body will do what you ask of it. Now, the moment you ask questions like that, you feel your body pull your spine apart with incredible internal strength. Even though you're not asking yourself to create a stretch down the one side, you create the deepest stretch ever. Best of all, your alignment is 100% perfectly true for you.
Yes, it requires far more physical strength, but this is balanced by a calmer clearer mind. The ego doesn’t like it because now the subconscious is in charge of depth and the subconscious is just not interested in the thoughts and feelings of the ego. As new students progress into this second phase they start the process of letting go of the mental struggle beginners attach themselves too, starting the journey of becoming truly aware, in body, heart & mind. All too often this 2nd phase is a big wake-up call to those who are naturally flexible as they discover that while their flexibility made the 1st phase relatively easy it is of little value in this 2nd phase.
In Half Moon, once your subconscious has fully embraced the act of opening the spine, you must start to work your way through all the joints of the body. When I practice Half Moon, every single joint is pulling open - the spine; the femur bone gently lifting out of the hip socket, the ankles gently stretching open; the wrists opening, even my index fingers feel like they are being pulled apart. This is true for every single yoga posture. There is not a single posture where you are not seeking to open outwards.
It has taken me far longer than it should have done to get to this point, partly because of having a physical wreck of a body with chronic arthritis, though mainly because I too fell in the trap of becoming a master of being a beginner.
I have now finally moved into phase 3. Phase 3 is glorious, but I'll go into that another time.
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