Paul Grilley is a great teacher and he’s often very funny in the same breath in which he’s delivering wisdom about bodies and yoga. (That’s Taoism for you – no wasted breath!)
“If you think about it,” Paul said one day during a yin yoga training, “Every question you ask a yoga teacher comes down to one thing. Paul put himself into a contorted warrior and gasped that one question: “Is this pain good for me?””
When the laughter calmed down a bit, Paul finished. He explained the honest answer from a responsible yoga teacher is “I don’t know.”
That’s right, your teacher doesn’t know. But you do.
Because everybody and every body is different and no two people experience or describe discomfort in the same way.
The only person who can ever really know what’s “good for you” is the same person who knows how much of the right effort is going into a posture, the same person who knows whether you’re fronting or showing up, honoring your commitments or sliding along on the same old excuses.
Yep. It’s always you.
Here’s why yoga is a game changer: learning is physical.
Yoga is why you stand a chance against the general winding down and shutting down of being overwhelmed; a chance against your own squirrelly evasiveness, against settling for less than your own highest potential – and a chance against thinking all that losing, quitting, and pissing away your life is “normal.”
Brain and nervous system-wise, learning how to follow instructions is hardly the whole skill set you need for a healthy, effective life. Unfortunately, following instructions is what we often end up doing in yoga classes.
We do what we’re told and we get that rush of our needs being met, or being in the moment; we sail through a sequence we were afraid of or too tired for just an hour ago. In effect, we are sucker punched.
Don’t improve your behavior, improve your capacity for being.
Asana is physical. Its sheer novelty and complexity makes it high octane education.
In personal posture practice, your very own elite internal guidance system improves. Exponentially. So does your skill at making sense of that guidance, its bells, whistles, and signals, and the world it brings into focus for you.
Instead of getting better at heeding authority, or playing the angles, or making the numbers, you can make a deliberate choice to get better at what’s real.
In personal practice, listening to yourself becomes aligned with and responsive to the reality you’re living, not the one that “should” exist.
Your body invents you, and your world.
We are born with the necessity of inventing ourselves. And since it’s a basic, functional survival skill, our bodies are built to make it be so.
One of our physical human competencies is coming up with and managing a consistent idea or picture of the world and who we are in it, while evaluating then discarding or incorporating new information into this picture.
Our nervous systems – and, yes, that includes our brains – engage in an excellent variety of information gathering. VS Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, writes:
“Words such as ‘consciousness’ and ‘self’ actually encompass a number of distinct phenomena that are loosely lumped together.
Even though this image is constructed from evanescent and fragmentary evidence derived from multiple sensory systems such as vision, proprioception and hearing, we have a stable internal mental construct of a unitary corporeal self that endures in space and time, at least until its eventual annihilation in death.”*
Ramachandran is saying we may feel as though who we are and what we’re reacting to is a seamless reality presented from outside of us somewhere, but that experience of everything being external and seamless is actually created by us.
We make it up out of tons of fragments brought together from many ways of experiencing and many points of experience.
We exist between guessing and choosing.
A great of example of how our nervous systems process information and perception is vision.
Only 20 percent of the nerves coming into the visual cortices of the brain come from our eyes. The other 80 percent – and some neuro scientists say the percentage is 90 percent – comes from areas of the brain that are part of our memory and other neural processing areas.**
In effect, we’re always guessing about everything. But our guesses can be based on meaningless, outdated information or fresh, relevant experience. That much is our choice.
That’s why personal practice is
- essential... it’s the heart of yoga
- irreplaceable... nothing else can do what it does
- invaluable.. you will gain benefits that matter to you
Personal practice is how you teach yourself to know your own patterns, habits, blind spots and sensitivities, what you avoid and why, what you seek and what motivates you to seek it.
In other words, personal practice is how you educate yourself about questions to which only you know the answers.
*Consciousness and body image: lessons from phantom limbs, Capgras syndrome and pain asymbolia Phil.Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B (1998)
** The Itch, Atul Gawande. The New Yorker June 30, 2008.
Article by “THE MAGAZINE OF YOGA” editor Susan Maier Moul
(The online magazine is no longer published).