This is me doing paschimottanasana, or seated forward bend, which according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is this most excellent of all asanas… makes the breath flow through the Sushumna, stimulates the gastric fire, makes the loins lean and removes all the diseases of men.
I have practised yoga for many years, but have only recently been able to reach forward to my toes and place my head on my knees. This achievement made me realise that my approach to yoga and life are linked, and by changing the way I did yoga, I have changed the way I approach life, and along the way I learnt a couple of lessons.
Even if you know it all, there is always something new to learn
I bought Paul Grilley’s book Yin Yoga because I had had a lot of surgery and no longer had the strength to do the poses I would normally do. I had a choice: I could either do this passive style of yoga or not do yoga at all.
As it turned out, it was the best decision I ever made. Yin yoga stretches the connective tissues of the hips, pelvis, and lower spine, all areas of me which were always tight and stiff, and so even though I thought I was choosing an easy option, I was doing nothing of the sort. Yin yoga has given me the flexibility and core strength to resume the practice of those yang (or energetic) poses I didn’t think I would be able to do anymore.
Practising the impossible makes it possible
One of the first suggested sequences in the Grilley’ book had paschimottanasana or caterpillar pose as yin yoga calls it. Before adopting a yin-style, I would only ever do this pose for a few seconds, because I couldn’t do it, and because I couldn’t do it, I didn’t like doing it. So, I didn’t do it well and never long enough to improve.
Yin yoga recommends holding each asana for 3-5 minutes, so once I started holding caterpillar pose for three minutes in each session I had the time to improve, which is how the changes began.
Three minutes might not seem like a long time but I started in January last year and by about April I was no longer unhappy sitting in the pose. And by the end of August I looked forward to the way I felt sitting in this asana. My loins are definitely leaner and my pelvis and spine are no longer stiff.
Listen to yourself
At first, I could barely reach my knees, and I hated doing something at which I was rubbish. I had to force myself to sit on the floor legs out for three minutes, and some days I was really twitchy and other days, really bored. After a couple of months of sitting with my legs out and leaning the tiniest bit forward, I stopped judging myself.
It was no longer a case of thinking I was rubbish and couldn’t do something. Instead, I became genuinely interested in the pose and how my body felt. Yoga is not a competitive sport – although it has felt like that in some classes I have attended. Some days I would bend my knees so I could stretch my back further. Other days I would stretch out my legs so that my calves got a work out. Eventually, I became supple enough to do both.
Once I realised that it wasn’t a question of achieving a specific pose, it was about feeling better and enjoying the moment, I relaxed and stopped fearing the discomfort I might feel if I went too far. Finally, I reached forward to my edge.
The edge is the place in a yoga pose where one step more can mean serious discomfort. You literally move out of your comfort zone and encourage your tissues to stretch that little bit further. It is where I learnt to listen to myself and to pay attention to how I felt on any given day. So when I didn’t feel like going to the edge, I did exactly as my body told me to, and I did not criticise myself or override myself. I knew there would be another day to practice.
On the days when I did go to the edge, it was there that time took on a stretchy quality, which is one of the magical gifts of yoga. Sometimes three minutes whizzed by and other times three minutes felt like an eternity. Time does disappear and I have experienced first hand the description given in the Yoga Tattva Upanishad: He who practices … for three hours daily conquers time.
No one can know you, as well as you can know yourself
I have had a lot of teachers. Most of them said not to force yourself, which is good advice. But other teachers have told me that there are poses a person can’t do because of their body shape or age. This is something I started to believe, even though I have seen with my own eyes that this is not true.
Yoga will get you there, as yoga teacher Barbara Currie used to say when she was on TV. I now know that there is where you feel more relaxed in your own body and open to learning about yourself and life. Another brilliant example of someone who has not listened advice which could limit her is Tao Porchon-Lynch. She became a yoga teacher at 75-years-old, and at 95 is still going strong.
I have loved yoga since I was eight-years old when I came across a pile of yoga magazines which had been given to my dad. The pictures were really interesting and it was easy to get into the poses.
I attended my first yoga class at the ripe old age of 14 with my mum. I loved the teacher too. She wore a lot of make-up and heavy perfume, and looked fantastic, and was one of the best teachers I ever had. Sometimes her 80-year-old mum would come and amaze us all with poses I couldn’t do even though I had done a lot of gymnastics. These experiences left me with the belief that nothing is impossible – a fabulous gift to give a young woman.
Over the years and courses, even a British Wheel of Yoga teaching course, this belief slowly eroded. Thankfully in this last year, I have started to believe again that all things are possible, because of yin yoga and sitting in caterpillar pose. And now I know for sure that I have only scratched the service.
Yoga is an amazing comforter in an uncertain world. As B K S Iyengar says:
Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.
A fabulous gift, indeed.