The mind is a perverse beast sometimes… I have inexplicably decided that today, when I have been up since 2:30am doing a bat survey, then straight onto a two hour early-morning intensive yoga class, is the day to return to my much-neglected blog. Being a girl who definitely needs her zzzzs, I really should be in bed wearing my eye-mask and ear-plugs this morning, but instead I am buzzing, inspired and raring to face the day… Why?
The reason for this strange mood is the energising effect of daily Mysore-style ashtanga yoga practice, which I am attending as part of a week-long intensive course at the Stonemonkey Studio. It has reminded me of the power of a daily, sweaty practice in a room full of other yogis, riding the wave of collective energy and benefiting from the careful adjustments and one-to-one advice from a teacher. These days I mostly practise alone at home and, whilst this is an excellent habit to form for so many reasons, my practice is never quite as deep or as satisfying as when done in a group, supervised situation. At home there is more temptation to skip the postures I don’t like, pause the sequence to get the washing out or answer the phone, or just to let the mind wander at will. Plus, summoning the motivation to practise is much more difficult when alone; conversely, there is huge motivation in hearing the grunts of exertion and symphony of breath of others around you.
Yesterday, Digby from Stonemonkey cautioned us to be aware of the ‘stories’ that we tell ourselves, and how these stories can get in the way of developing our practice. For example, we might always tell ourselves or our teacher about that old hamstring injury that still plagues us, when in fact the injury has been long-healed, it is only the mind that is clinging onto the memory of the pain and creating tension that doesn’t need to be there.
This is something that hugely resonates with me. More and more I see how the things we say, both to ourselves in that incessant, often very negative, internal mind chatter and also out loud to others, are concoctions of the brain that are cunningly designed to either justify why we’re doing something or to make excuses for why we’re not doing something. We tell ourselves what we think we need to hear. But so often this external noise disguises what’s really going on inside, and often the root cause of what’s going on is some kind of fear, when you really dig down deep. Listening to these stories can cause us to continue to live with old fears and prevent us from lifting the lid of the box that we’ve put ourself in and see what else is out there.
For example, I am working through the second series of ashtanga, which includes some very deep back-bends, one of which has come to be my nemesis pose: the dreaded kapotasana. I fear this pose (you see, even here I am telling myself a story). It involves high-kneeling on the floor and arching back to place the elbows and forehead on the floor behind you whilst reaching back to grab the heels. Gulp. When I’m being adjusted in this pose, I panic and feel claustrophobic, I feel like my lower back is going to snap in half and I feel like my triceps are going to rip from over-stretching – in fact as I type this I can feel my mouth go a little bit dry (I’m really selling yoga here, aren’t I?!). So, I have created numerous stories to explain why I can’t do it fully, and I use these to avoid being adjusted into the full posture. I realised yesterday that, when in class, I tell myself a series of ‘avoidance justification’ stories and rush through it, hoping Digby won’t spot me doing it and come and adjust me. But really, I know deep down, if I’m completely honest with myself, that the stories all come from fear and a rather cowardly dislike of the pose. Also, when I fail to avoid Digby’s eagle eye, having all those panic stories in my head means I never fully relax and surrender to the adjustment, and I therefore never push my boundaries and further the pose.
However, this behaviour is sooo natural and one of the fundamentals of being human, so there’s no point berating oneself about it – that would just become another story. The ‘benefit’ of language is what makes us different – we are a species that exists by ‘reasoning’ and telling stories rather than just acting intuitively and innately, as other animals do. I often wonder which is the better way to exist and be true to yourself – are we really the superior species?
As always, I think it’s about balance: of course there are hugely obvious benefits of language and the ability to reason and tell stories, but this needs to be balanced against our innate abilities of intuition and instinct that are within us, as they are in all of the animal kingdom, but that we often need to dig deep to find, as they are buried beneath all those layers of stories.
I have certainly been trying more and more to ‘feel’ rather than to ‘think’, to trust my intuition rather than to try and analytically explain everything, and since I’ve made this change, things are flowing better for me. I’ve realised that the first step is recognising the stories for what they are: they are just one take on things (usually the one that leads you to the path of least resistance), not THE way of things. By observing this, there is a liberation. You are not going to stop those stories being told, but they cease to own you. You can let the mind do its thing and chatter away in that incessant, human, often quite meaningless way, but by taking a step back and not engaging in and believing the stories, you are then freed up to explore the moment that you find yourself in with a curious mind, and expand into that moment, having faith in your intuition. It enables you to ask ‘What is going to happen now?, rather than the outcome being a foregone conclusion due to pre-determined mental pathways. It is in those moments of open exploration that growth happens.
So, this week, I am making a point of asking for an adjustment in kapotasana each day. Yesterday I tensed up as usual and the pose felt horrible and scary and I had a very tender lower back all day afterwards. Today I focused on relaxing into the moment and losing the stories. It still felt deeply unpleasant in my lower back, but it was less scary, and the back tenderness has receded much more quickly. Plus, I felt good after the pose. I had a slight smile on my face. I felt my story changing to ‘Perhaps I can do this after all’ and had an intuititive thought that, if I persevere and dedicate time to this posture, I will surmount the lower back pain issue and it will eventually become a pose that feels really good for my back… And, weirdly, I am actually looking forward to trying it again tomorrow. Like I say, the mind is a tricksy beast… 🙂