I used to have one of those beautiful wooden kaleidoscopes, and it makes a good metaphor for my experience of yoga. For years I admired the craftsmanship of and symmetry of its smooth and beautifully crafted exterior. The grain engaged my interest, and I felt more calm when I touched it polished surface. Now, several years later, I’m learning how much more beautiful it is to peer inside.
Here’s what I mean, and here’s how the transition began for me…
When I first started yoga I was a veteran of endurance sports with strong, hard muscles and a severely injured knee. I could barely get into many of the poses, but I took them on as a challenge, muscling myself into their geometry as best as I could. I wanted my body to be more flexible and I pushed it hard to get there. This approach had worked for me as an athlete, more or less.
So several times a week I dodged work for an hour or so to do yoga at a chichi yoga studio next door to my office. My body begrudgingly grew more flexible and as an unexpected side-effect I also became calmer. The formula of yoga seeped into my cells like a healthy poultice: root to the ground, align the body, and stretch. It seemed remarkable to me then, and it still does.
But I was also intrigued by yoga’s reported spiritual dimension, and so I began to read its core text – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The very first words of the book sounded a gong for me. Citta vritti nirodhah – yoga’s goal is to calm the mind. More calm seemed like a good thing to me, and these opening words accorded perfectly with my own experience of the poses so far. Moreover the beautifully onomatopoetic Sanskrit captured my ear. Besides being an honest reporter about yoga’s effects, I thought, whoever wrote these lines was an artist with language.
So I kept doing the poses and started supplementing them with pranayama. This very simple system of breath control further calms the mind, and I discovered that I could use it to manipulate my emotions and energy levels. My characteristically anxious mind continued to calm down, and sometimes in the relative stillness of my pranayama practice I experienced a new sense of what it could mean to be me.
This became the pattern during my first few years of doing the poses and breathing exercises. I kept having this same experience: change the breath or the shape of the body, and the mind follows along. I kept working on my body and my breath, knowing that my mind would also benefit.
Recently a wholly new dimension has begun to appear. To me it feels as though I’ve learned to turn the kaleidoscope on end and started looking through the eye-hole, the way it was designed to be used.
The style of yogaI prefer (“Iyengar” yoga) emphasizes focusing the mind on the particulars of the posture or the breath. When you’re working in a pose or breathing pattern, you rivet your attention to the parts of the body it affects. Each exercise touches myriad parts of your body (arguably it subtly touches every part, our fibers being so thoroughly interwoven). To perform the exercise is to conduct a symphony, where every instrument with its own beautiful note to play must be heard and harmonized with the others.
What I have begun to experience lately is that this exercise of focusing the mind on the body seems to illuminate a whole new dimension of myself. This is a hard experience to render clearly in writing. A word like “soul”, “spirit” ,“life-force“ or “Self” would come in handy if I could define it well and strip away the religious connotations.
Here’s a try: when I do these exercises, I experience a deeper and more essential dimension of my existence. I perceive an aspect of being alive that underlies my thoughts and even my feelings. I experience it as the very undergirding of my conscious mind and sensate body. When I focus my mind on the actions of my body, I now seem to glimpse from the corner of my eye the undergirding of my consciousness.
So here’s the larger pattern. In my first years of doing yoga I discovered that practicing with my body calmed my mind. Now I’m discovering that practicing with my mind illuminates my deeper dimensions. This is a remarkable symmetry of scale, demonstrating the same pattern as I drill deeper and deeper. Practicing at one level seems to throw a new light on the next level down. It’s like carrying a flashlight down a flight of stairs – you always see a little bit deeper than where you are.
This is a wonderful downwardly descending spiral – or upwardly ascending, depending on your point of view. With every few steps or years that I tread, some new and interesting discovery emerges from the shadows. Meanwhile, the benefits continue to accrue and the grosser levels: my body keeps getting more flexible; my mind grows more calm and focused.
All the while, this deeper Self (or soul, use whatever word has meaning for you) comes into clearer and clearer view. As though I were peering into a magical kaleidoscope, its colorful crystalline patterns refract a gentle light from somewhere else.
Now that I can see them, I find myself I wondering what those little crystals are made of.
Can I get closer to them? How would they taste?