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If It’s Not About Stretching, What is Yoga?

There’s a myth going on now that stretching and being flexible is an unquestionable goal. Somewhere along the line, the ability to touch your toes, or even put your leg behind your head, all got confused with our general health, fitness, even goodness. But the glorified open body yoga teachers reference doesn’t actually need to be a super flexible one.

After you can tie your shoe laces comfortably, how much longer do you need your hamstrings to be? In fact, there are good reasons why over flexibility is causing a lot of problems for yoga practitioners as time goes on. For, we not only need softness, we also need tension on the physical plane to hold us together.

Most obviously, if we didn’t have a degree of tension in our ligaments and tendons we would collapse on the floor as a pile of bones. In the same way, we recognise flexibility as a valuable end then we also need to understand and appreciate what tension entails. If both are esteemed, what exactly are we to work towards in practice?

Yoga is generally pursued as a very wilful and linear attempt at exertion, pushing into resistance, just as we lead the rest of our life in the notion that the harder we push the more we get. There is no belief in the benefits of a passive quality in actions, the holding back, waiting, accepting. But, this is to be focussed on in a physical practice of yoga that embraces contraction and turning within, just as much as expansion and the possibility of change.

The real difference with between practise and regular life, is that brute force will only get you so far, another, far more subtle quality has to be cultivated. On the other hand, in a world that only considers what it can immediately see as important, we have quickly integrated into our value system that flexibility of the body leads, or belies, that of mind. Then it’s only a short jump between this kind of sentiment and our inherent happiness. Yet, again, at points boundaries are useful too, likewise opinions and viewpoints. Just like tension can also be ‘right tension’. I fear, just like with our socio-moral life, in yoga we are running the risk of polarising and negating any deeper understanding.

A lot of the current difficulties we face are through lacking any beliefs in something higher that might lend our lives value. Yoga is both pragmatic and transcendent in its outlook. Pragmatic, as it looks to reality as it is, not how we would like it to be, as its starting point for working with it constructively. Transcendent, as it involves the attempt to exceed the bounds of our singular efforts motivated by our similarly limited understanding, to reach a place beyond that of an inherent self-centred, individualistic mind set. Though It is not the endeavour of solely reaching out into hopes and dreams associated, physically, with progressive extension of our form. This is only half of the equation of reality. In seeming opposition, the other part is in the acceptance of the limitations that reality imposes upon us.

The body is a self-regulating system always seeking homeostasis. It is comprised of checks and balances as stability is instrumental in the longevity of any form. Despite our strong desire for change, body and mind function in an all-out battle with the world to keep us in the same, safe place they know. For this reason, our active attempts at practice are so often met with at least equal opposing forces of resistance in the body (not to say, the mind).

It will not allow our superficial intentions free-reign against the previous eons of conditioning and genealogy that it has taken to arrive at our current state. We often feel we’re not moving forward after a while, more often than not, in our efforts to do so, we are engaging in a stale-mate against our unconscious biological-selves. This is the best-case scenario, much worse is if we do succeed in destabilising our whole matrix.

The deeper element of yoga, seeks progress in a different way by embracing the form rather than incessantly seeking to escape it. It’s about working with a quality, the unmeasurable, unseen and hidden, rather than the quantifiable we usually associate with notions of progress. This greatly impacts upon a new approach to the way we stretch.

Most fundamentally, it takes the emphasis of pulling in one direction only as the intention of a stretch. Instead, we direct our attention to the dynamic of the ‘inner stretch’, something that could, ironically, appear more like contraction. It’s actually much more complicated; associated with creation and regulation of opposing tensions in the body operating against each other.

This is one reason why yoga is such an anathema to the rational mind, it isn’t in accord with our fixation on pursuing the most obvious notions relating to development and evolution.

It’s a tool related instead more to texture, say, than ostensible length and depth, and the freedom we seek is, paradoxically in our very acceptance of our contradiction involved in the closer inspection of the multifarious textures all woven into an infinite number of lives.

In physical practise, this is related to by the focussing on the opposing aspects involved in one breath cycle. As the diaphragm expands on the in breath, we feel the very expansion into the body we know and love. However, as the exhalation creates a kind of vacuum through correct interaction with this muscle, we enter into a state of contraction.

This is the only phase of the breath that we can actually take control of. The inspiration is just that, something received from the outside. It is the unknown, and we can only accept where it may take us, and woe to us who try to second guess this. The exhalation expresses our natural form, in its essential nature already, a contraction into matter from the formless. It is our job to get to know this better, as we can do nothing about the unknown. So, for this reason, we further increase the natural tension the exhale creates in the body.

Parodixically, we must embody ourselves by admitting, even embracing, the very limitations, prescribed-tensions that define the bounds of our own nature. The conclusion of this attunement may actually precipitate what we yearn for, which is the change and transformation involved in superseding our boundaries. The kicker though is that this is not done by us. It’s in the very absence of our doing, in the letting go of contraction and in the waiting and the patience that the magic, the deeper teaching of yoga, may come through us.

This begs the question as to how much we might actually want to let go. We also want, even need, the boundaries and limitations of our known selves. They present a security, as well as providing a way to navigate the chaos of open-ended possibility. In direct conflict to this, we also want a state of expansion, constant change and transition to something other than what we are. Perhaps, sadly for us, these contradictory impulses are the very warp and weft of our lives.

Yoga in its pragmatic orientation does not gloss over this unresolvable problem, instead, seeks our reconciliation. This is not to do with balance, as is often maintained. The term Religion, before it became associated with notions of dogma and idealism itself, actually originates from the Latin re-ligare, to reconnect.

So, if this is our actual endeavour, we must first recognise what it is with which we are attempting this. The life of observation is a life that seems to be defined by conflict. Only ‘balanced’ in as much as all sensations, experiences and variations are included within it. However, it does not, on first sight at least, look out unto a harmonious vista. It is, instead, discordant, fragmented and constantly in opposition and conflict with itself.

Instead of some fanciful synthesis of an imaginary whole, yoga, as all true spiritual practises, involves a gradual acclimatisation, a re-connection, to the whole of reality, and as it is. This is in sharp contrast to our regular game of dividing life up, rather arbitrarily, moved by random and unknown instincts, into the acceptable and unacceptable.

In our very attempts at this we have engendered a complete separation of our awareness with the outside world; otherwise, the cognitive dissonance, the discrepancy between what we want to believe, and what we find, would be unbearable. Still, if only this facing up to the multi-faceted nature actually presenting itself to us, were easy. For, in doing this, we must accept the back of the picture, as it were, that of destruction and death. Most alarmingly, the imminent approach of our own non-being.

Which, of course, can’t be done by us either, just like a true yoga practise is also more than the sum of our intentions. Only knowing life, without the possibility for ever knowing our opposite, we cannot reconcile ourselves through our rational intelligence to our non-existence.

Only through this sense of protraction does our existence have any meaning, sense, even beauty. The physical treatment we voluntarily inflict on ourselves in practise, may be the beginning of a new suggestion. Although, yoga currently, coloured by the obsession with the achievement of the most unnatural shapes we can muster, seems destined to assert the opposite direction. As if in a vain way to escape the very limits our physical nature associated us with. To, subconsciously, deny our very mortality in the notion of becoming more than just in jest, ‘a yoga god’.

A maturation with practice means the manifesting and acceptance of the shape that arises naturally from an intent kindled from a sphere more profound than just our own. At the very seat of our being, the diaphragm, issues the intake of a life force embodied in the breath that is more than personal. It is all embracing, all accepting, and only then, are we actually able to reconnect, or yoke, in yoga terms.

That is, to weave a thread through our most discordant, and often uncomfortable, unsolicited experiences. In this way, all facets of life achieve a whole within their sense of necessary continuity. No longer in denial of a good portion of our existence, even though it is often an uncomfortable truth of life to abide with, at least our perceived suffering now has a place with us, a relevance and meaning. In some sense, this is to redeem it in the very action of owning it.

We are only natural, yet we may embody this in a way that makes it tolerable to live in this state of honesty. Practically, to repeat, this is through the acceptance of the cycle of the breath, acting as a microcosm of life itself, involving the two opposing phases of tension and expansion, mirroring creation and destruction, life and the unknown.


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