I must admit; I am a To-Do list junkie. I have at least three different lists sitting on my kitchen counter (aka – makeshift desk) right now. There is the long-term one, with projects I hope to accomplish over the summer, and the short-term one, including all things that I am juggling right now. Then there is the “Must Do Today” (or perhaps tomorrow) one that parses out the more urgent and important matters at hand, supplemented by sticky notes in key places sure to get my attention. I am in perpetual motion, hoping to chip away at these items a little at a time. Thankfully, yoga has taught me how to slow down, let go of my expectations and enjoy the power of simply being still for some time each day.
It is easy to carry this To-Do list attitude to the mat, striving to achieve a certain landmark in a pose or simply to keep up with the teacher in a class. In doing so, the focus can mistakenly be placed on the movement, on getting to the next place without enjoying the benefits of the hold.
The state of holding a pose is a state to savor, but one that is frequently bypassed by the student (myself included!) because perhaps the student doesn’t feel entitled to this place of quiet repose. Unconsciously or consciously, one might equate a long, slow pause with an attitude of laziness or uselessness. Or perhaps the quiet moment too quickly becomes filled with other thoughts, including self-judgement.
However, the state of holding a pose is vital to one’s practice precisely because of its quality of “directionlessness and deliberate non-deliberateness” (from Michael Buck, in his article, “No Need To Always Go Get It” regarding Thai Yoga). The stillness within a pose or between breaths is often celebrated as The Conscientious Pause.
In my most recent studies with Tom Myers and Anatomy Trains®, I am reminded that the body also responds to the pause. When we move into a pose like a forward bend, for instance, we immediately feel a stretch in our hamstrings. This stretch initiates a series of communications between the muscle fibers and the brain which go something like this: (hamstring muscles) “Hey, brain! It’s an emergency down here! It looks like the hamstrings are about to pop so PLEASE put the brakes on and FAST!” In response, the brain sends out signals telling the hamstring muscles to contract. You might feel it as hitting a wall in your stretch. This contractile phase might last up to about 90 seconds, depending on how conditioned your body is to stretching.
If you, the student, move out of this pose too quickly, the muscle never has the chance to move to phase two: the relaxation phase. After a number of breaths in the pose, the golgi tendon organs in the muscle unit begin to relax and send a message to the brain something like this: “Hey brain! I think it is safe. Go ahead and release the brakes. We can all relax now!” And that is precisely what happens. The fibers of the muscle and fascia begin to lengthen. You might know it by that “aaahhh” sensation you finally get when you let go and sink deeper into the pose.
In perfect expression, each asana is designed to be light and effortless, regardless of the level of the pose. During the effortless hold, the body is refueled by the breath and by the prana. Practiced this way, the student will be rewarded with this same sensation of lightness and ease off the mat and into their day. This is felt both physically and emotionally and is transmitted into the environment around them.
So next time you step onto your mat, create an intention of focusing on the pauses in your practice, in your breath and even between the thoughts of the mind. Vanda Scaravelli, in her groundbreaking book “Awakening the Spine” tells students that only when all effort ceases does the healing begin. Perhaps when we cease the efforting, we will encounter another delightful revelation:
All that we wanted to accomplish is already here!
We have nothing more to do but to pause and enjoy the present moment in its entirety.
I look forward to seeing you on the mat soon. Peace and light to you, my friends. Namaste!