Looking around the Tube on my commute, I am struck by the number of people who use their phones to watch TV or play reward-offering games which keep them coming back for more. Mindless activities, as opposed to being mindful. Not resting, but receiving at all times. It seems almost as if a whole population of workers is numbing themselves to get through the day.
Which brings me to the purpose of today’s blog.
“Why is it,” asked Rachel, our practice manager, “that in a yoga class it is not enough to enjoy a good old stretch, but we have to spend time imagining non-existing energy balls or light and lying still?”
It is a good question, and the pause that we teachers offer during our classes is usually not appreciated to an overworked and fast-paced clientele. Our minds were made to act and then recuperate, and until just about 20 years ago, that’s what everyone did. Today however, the moment we are not required to do, we turn to be fed, and the lack of recuperation is a major cause of stress-related anxiety, deeply rooted fatigue, insomnia and even depression.
In our culture the body is neatly divided into two sections: the head, being responsible for all our decisions, actions, thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes, knowledge and character traits, and the body, which needs to be exercised, fed and walked on a regular basis. We believe we are in control. The moment we enter school at the age of 4 we are exposed to the lifelong training of analysing, performing and achieving. When we get tired (and unidentified fatigue is a major problem in today’s society) we ‘relax’ by reading, gaming or watching television, which bombards us with information that needs no action. We stimulate our senses continuously. At no time is focus and turning inwards part of the plan.
Feeling restless and anxious is as good a good reason as any to start learning yoga, and most students love the immediate feeling of release they get from the movements. Cue your large class in your yoga studio, where often you are encouraged to push to your physical limit and check how deep others can go into the pose. Then you may pick someone who looks very elegant and try to copy that pose, effectively listening to their body, and not your own. So much of yoga practice and especially the lying still at the end of practice has the purpose of reducing fatigue from overstimulation, a fact that is mostly overlooked today. We believe that if we just get exhausted enough we will be able to quieten our minds that way.
Modern yoga is a physical practice for sure, developing strength and stamina and the much-loved ability to touch your toes. But yoga also provides mental training, enabling you to sit still, focus and letting go. While everyone accepts that it requires practice to become physically strong, we dismiss our inability to sit still and focus as a character trait, something that “isn’t for me”.
Having to sit still for 5 minutes and focus on something intangible such as the mythical third eye or an energy ball in the belly can be enough to immediately give up on yoga or replace it with the more core-focussed Pilates, which has many similarities to yoga but does not require any of this mumbo-jumbo.
The American travel writer Pico Iyers observes this modern phenomenon of constant stimulation beautifully:
In an age of constant acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow.
In an age of constant distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention.
In an age of constant movement, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.
To rest and be still, to connect to that energy, awareness, your spirit, soul or whatever you want to call it, is not about finding spiritual enlightenment or some kind of godly apparition that appears and tells you the answer to all your problems. Its purpose is to let go of the illusion that you are in control at all times. The reason to sit still is to connect to the source of your motivation, the reason behind our thinking and doing. And this can be uncomfortable, because if you look inward, there is only one person – you. As you learn to focus, even for a moment at a time, you start to learn about yourself: how you act and react, what and whom you give priority to, and why you are where you are.
Turning inward is the opposite of what we have learned to do. But with extended yoga practice and the stillness that comes with it, you learn to observe and to accept. The stilling of the mind requires as much training as strengthening the body does.
Sitting still is no quick fix to help you being positive, peaceful or happy. But, if you just give it time, it might teach you to become aware of it when it happens.
Want to learn about stillness, and to find your inner pause? Come and try a session with Iris, who is at Victory on Tuesdays and Thursdays.