I love chaturanga. I really do. It's one of my favorite poses, right next to upward facing dog. What I love also is the space between these two key elements of the Sun Salutation, sometimes called vinyasa. If you do a vinyasa style of yoga, then you are probably very familiar with these poses. You've done them somewhere between ten and ten thousand times -- but who's counting? What I wonder, though, is do you love them, as I do? Do you even like them? Do you think about them at all?
Not twenty minutes ago, I was on my mat, taking an absolutely lovely class taught by my dear friend Kate. Kate and I did our 200-Hour Teacher Training together at O2 Yoga in the spring of 2012. Ever since our graduation, she's been one of my favorite teachers -- she's creative, she's precise, she's calming, she's silly, she's quietly in command of the room. She's the kind of teacher -- like so many of our fabulous instructors at O2 -- that gives students the space to experience the poses while reminding them of the nuances that lie therein. When she asks me to straighten into the back knee and draw back on my right hip or when she asks me to take a deep inhale to lift through the spine and then twist on the exhale, I listen carefully -- I do as she says. It doesn't matter that this is my two thousandth time on my mat -- I listen. I treat every moment, every breath, every word spoken by my teacher with the respect it deserves. It doesn't matter to me that I've already done three vinyasas in this class, let alone all the vinyasas I've done over the years -- they all are important to me.
In class (tonight and many other times -- if not most other times), other students seem to be in a hurry, ready to push through, let's get to the pose and ignore the set up. We set up to do Prasarita Padottanasana C and once Kate said which of the four versions we were doing, I watched students in front of me immediately reach to clasp their hands at the small of their back, despite the fact that Kate was gently cuing to extend arms out to the sides and to draw them back, clasping hands together. The extra seven seconds spent setting up the pose were skipped by those students who heard it was the "C" version and went into it as if to beat the bell. Well, there's no contest element in our classes -- there's no reason to rush on through. I thought about that on the inhale as I extended and then on the exhale as I folded forward and then I thought only of my breath and what Kate was saying from that moment on so as not to distract myself from the practice.
Earlier today, I was chatting with a few of our other senior teachers about the importance of transitions, of how "game changing" it can be to focus in on the precise execution of the "simple" or the "mundane." La di da, another vinyasa. Let's hurry up to down dog, shall we? I mean, sure, I get it -- downward facing dog is also a pretty awesome pose. But I challenge you to stay bright and alert even during those frequently occurring transitions. I promise you it will strengthen and heighten the value of your practice and your time on your mat.
I also challenge you to spend the class doing exactly as the teacher says (unless what the teacher is saying seems dangerous or otherwise unsafe to you). If you do a practice, cue by cue, you will almost definitely come away with some hot knew knowledge and/or awareness of how or why this yoga thing works for you. New students sometimes nervously ask me what they should bring to class and almost always I say, with the straightest possible face, "Your sense of humor." Beyond that, bring some humility and maybe even some curiosity. Turn off your autopilot. You are here voluntarily -- you might as well get the most bang for your buck, am I right?
I find my practice in the transitions, in the moments between the postures. Getting an arm balance or achieving a "yoga first" of any variety can be quite exhilarating and fun, but that's not the meat of the practice. That's dessert -- that's pie with an extra scoop of ice cream. Awesome. But appreciating the movement of your body by half-breaths (inhale/do this....exhale/do that....) -- that is what it's all about.
Love the transitions. Celebrate them. Treat them with respect and believe in their importance. Doing so will bolster your time on your mat and any of us with a regular practice knows how a positive experience in practice will translate into life in the "real world."
Every moment of the day has its own degree of importance -- waking up to the promise that how I move through those moments matters has changed my life for the better, breath by breath.
I come to stand at the top of my mat, hands pressed in equal standing.
On the inhale, I sweep my arms back and up, gaze follows as my finger tips press together above my head.
On the exhale, I fold forward, pressing my palms into the mat.
On the inhale, I step back to my plank pose.
On the exhale, I lower into my chaturanga (pushup).
On the inhale, I roll over my toes into my upward facing dog.
On the exhale, my hips pull back to my downward facing dog.
I hold here for five breaths, pressing my hands evenly into the mat, using this time to check the distance and position of my feet.
On an inhale, I hop my feet to the top of the mat.
On the exhale, I fold down and press my palms into the mat.
On the inhale, I sweep back up to standing.
On the exhale, my hands press back at heart center, my return to equal standing pose now complete.
That is the precision of a Sun Salutation A. My body in cooperation with my mind carries me through each of those half-breaths. Sun A's are among my closest friends and I value my time spent with them and all of the other repeated yoga commonalities. I'm thankful for them -- they've taught me to slow down and understand how and why I'm spending my moments as I am. I'm in no hurry to abandon them, these pillars of my practice.
Thank you, yoga, for these lessons and these opportunities to learn them.
Thank you, transitions, for being the very thing to bind this all together.