I was recently asked the following question: "Can you describe the hardest yoga class that you have ever taken?" Or something like that. It was interesting to sit with this question.
I remember attending a yoga Intensive many years ago. In one of the classes, we were doing very long timings in our inverted poses. Long timings are not unusual in Iyengar yoga, and we typically stay in all of the postures much longer than in many other styles of yoga. Some days we do shorter timings and other days we stay. In this class our sirsasana (headstand) was unusually long. I was immature in the deeper aspects of practice at that time, and also tended to work hard to please my teachers. I was willing to surrender in ways that were not always good for me. So, in this circumstance I continued to do what I was told and stayed in sirsasana. In spite of my better judgment I stayed, and stayed, and stayed. Those of us who chose to stay were in the pose for over 45 minutes. And though I did not experience any significant neck pain, I knew then that this type of surrender to a teacher was probably not a good thing. I knew then that the hardest pose I might ever execute would be the pose of 'not doing' what I was told to do. I knew in that moment that even though I would probably not continue working with this teacher in the years to come, that this tendency and strong desire to please could be a problem for me with any teacher with whom I would invest a certain type of authority.
Many years later—with a teacher who often reminded us to respect and listen to our bodies—I decided to do what I felt was the needful thing and brought my arms down to my hips for a brief respite while we were executing a long series of standing asanas. When studying with the Iyengars in India, we sometimes keep our arms suspended out in space, horizontal to the floor, for what feels like an eternity. Sometimes that is fine. But in this particular class we were asked to keep our arms out to the side while our teacher continued talking, and talking, and talking. The talk was not about our arms. It felt as though my teacher forgot about us—though this was probably not the case. I could feel my arms not only becoming fatigued, which is not a big deal in that context, but becoming dull and and insensitive. It felt as if I was practicing insensitivity. The effort to stay was greater than my ability to perceive myself with clarity and accuracy whilst in the pose. So I took my arms down. My teacher asked why I did that and I said, "because I am becoming insensitive." The teacher said "where is your tapas?" For me, the hardest thing was to know that taking my arms down, in that moment, was in fact a form of tapas. I needed the inner heat of tapas to burn away that part of me that felt the need to please my teacher, even when it was not good for me. I needed the inner light of viveka, or discernment, to shine a light on that part of me that needed approval, or affirmation, from an external source. I needed to let that desire to please, at all costs, go. There was no reward for this letting go save the feeling that, in that moment, I had in some small way transcended a much deeper pattern of behavior. One that had actually been a destructive energy in my life. And it was time to change—if even in just that one small way.
Learning to stay in an asana for an extended period of time is a powerful and important practice. Working with ones's edge and extending one's capacities little by little, with awareness and sensitivity, can be empowering and enlightening. Sometimes we need to stay long enough for the inner light of our own awareness to burn away what might feel like layers upon layers of physical or conceptual obstruction. Sometimes we need to go out into the sun, look at a lamp, or into another person for light and inspiration—if only to ignite, or remind us of our own inner light, life energy, and capacity for illumination. Light is energy. Why we seek it and where we find it, how we use or inhabit it, are questions worth living.
"Really, I am enlightening each day in my sadhana," says BKS Iyengar. How simple, how beautiful!!!