Stillness: The Hard Part of Yoga

The challenge of the yoga practice is not movement, but stillness.

Recently I came across a blog from a woman who was in the same yoga teacher training program as myself five years ago. She had taken my class last autumn and devoted a night’s thoughts to it. It was a very sweet summation of that night’s sequence, which happened to be rather physically challenging. Reading over the portion of the sequence that she remembered, I tried picturing the movements; odd, but it’s the difference between a musician who knows basic chords and just plays, and the one who knows how to read music note for note. I am definitely of the former. I’ve never written out a sequence, so seeing it on the page was eye-opening.

The blog was not only focused on that, but it was the central part of the reflections. My first thought was: if a teacher pulled that out in class, I’d be challenged! Yet I sat back and thought about the students who come regularly to my class. They attend because they know they will be challenged—at this point in my life, I am a physically driven person, and my classes represent that. I expect this will change with time. (I’ve always thought that yoga evolves to tai chi at some point.) The paradox, of course, is that to be strong you must be soft, something hard to grasp in a culture driven by “big guns” and “tight buns.”

The hard part of the yoga practice has nothing to do with tons of arm balances, inversions, and difficult backbends. If anything, that’s the easy part. I try my best to teach like a four-year-old plays, which appears spontaneous and almost incomprehensible (to us much less flexible adults, that is), and yet is completely orchestrated, if by nothing else than instinct. No, the hard part is, and always has been: stillness.

I offered that idea to my classes this week, which have been focused on the area in the upper shoulders and neck we hold so much tension in. There’s a lot of hip opening as well, and a few challenging arm balances, yet overall it’s an attempt to stretch our shoulders without tensing the neck. After forty-five minutes of non-stop motion, when we settle into hip openers and forward bends, I let the students know: now the work begins. Because that is precisely the moment when people start playing with their toes, fixing their clothing, staring at the clock.

The hard part isn’t movement. We do that every day. The hard part is silence, with being alright while seated in an uncomfortable position. How can we find comfort within discomfort? No easy task. How can we meditate when we’re taught that focusing on “nothing” is a waste of time, that at every moment we should be accomplishing something? Maybe we’re just taught the wrong things growing up. If we don’t correct them, we never grow.

The tough part is being just fine with who you are, right here, right now. Nothing more challenging in the world, since we’re always told we need to get somewhere, be somebody, do something. The paradox? Well, none, but for posterity’s sake: the greatest challenges bring the greatest fruits. It’s one you taste not by reaching out for it, but by remaining still and letting it fall into your lap.

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