When my brother died of a drug over dose a number of years ago, all I could think about was that no matter how hard he had tried to create a new life for himself, he just couldn’t get any traction…that’s right, traction. If we are in a hole and we try to pull ourselves out we need a bit of traction, some friction of some sort to get momentum to lift, to change.
My brother’s death was followed by the death of one of his sons, one of my nephews. Yes, in the same way his father died - of a drug overdose.
These events sit amongst many others of significance in my life. They are not significant for the amount of pain associated with them. Events are of significance for me, only if I have grappled with the lessons inherent within them. For more than 25 years I have had a daily practice of Iyengar Yoga, and it is in my practice that I do this sifting, reflecting and develop understanding. I learn about myself and the human condition. The consequence of not having the necessary traction for change, for my brother and nephew was tragic. I have really had to sit with this situation and reflect deeply. I worked as a social worker, also for around 20 years and I understand many of the opportunities that surround people who live with addiction; people who have grown up in violence; people who learn differently and who have been marginalised. I have written programs, developed services and lectured at universities about these issues. However, it is through my yoga practice that I understand these issues most deeply and sensitively.
Yoga teaches us to have the courage to really look at how our mind works. To see how it is pushed and pulled by fears and desires and how it makes up stories to suit its imaginations. In yoga asana, we learn to feel where we are.. literally, that is spatially; we learn to recognise what is compressed and where space is needed; we practice to feel how support allows the breath to change, as opposed to bracing our weight which deadens our sensitivity. We learn where we are slipping around our stiff bits.
When understanding comes, and is integrated into our lives, our choices change and our lives change and we can be different for ourselves and for those near to us.
Understanding traction, or friction in a yoga practice is as important as understanding support, space and stillness. This is so we don’t keep slipping around our stiff bits. At one level this can mean our stiff hamstrings and shoulders, but it also means our stiff attitudes and judgements: our ideas of who we think we are and who we should be. Our practice is meant to give us traction; the means to get a grip of ourselves and to change. A practice teaches us to be real and accountable and to have the skills and courage necessary to make different life choices.
Practically speaking, when we are stiff in our hips and hamstrings our knees and ankles are ‘punished’. At some stage it is better to be accountable/aware of how to work with our hamstrings and hips so that the knees and ankles are able to get on with their work. It’s also the case in twisting poses that people twist into the flexible areas of their spine and in doing so completely miss the area that needs to be ‘accountable’: we are slipping around a stiffness and there will be consequences.
Each asana, each sequence, each practice, is an event… but if the practitioner doesn’t stop and engage with the event it doesn’t become significant. It is just another event. Like another product or thing that can be thrown away. We practice with the mentality of a consumer rather than one seeking self-realisation and peace. A practitioner of yoga has taken the time to learn how each situation (pose and sequence) is significant. A yoga practice shows us what we are meant to learn so that we can develop, grow and live a life of purpose and peace. Left to our human nature, especially in a ‘fast grab quick fix’ society, we can miss the lessons of an ‘event’.
At the Hervey Bay School of Yoga we teach yoga in the classical tradition where students learn to be present to themselves in a real and practical way in their asana postures. As a student works in the practical realm of asana, in accord with the greater principles of yoga, they are open to experience aspects of themselves that they have been missing. All that slipping around the stiff bits has blocked the deeper lessons that can only be learnt through an honest encounter with the conditions of their own Being.
Recently I have the privilege of welcoming Russell into the teaching body of the school. Day to day, week to week over the last 5 years I have watched and walked alongside him. Yoga as pilgrimage is the phrase that comes to mind. When we go in search of new or expanded meaning about ourselves, or a higher good - through experience - the journey is called a pilgrimage. When we learn the practice of yoga as pilgrimage it is a journey of encountering powerlessness and at the same time inner strength, confidence and great clarity and purpose.
“As soon as there is stopping, there is happiness. There is peace. When we stop like that, it looks as if nothing is happening, but in fact everything is happening. You are deeply established in the present moment, and you touch your cosmic body. You touch eternity. There is no more restlessness, no more seeking.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Until you experience it, you can’t believe that pressing into your feet in dog pose can affect your mind – in a calming way!