Thinking about really taking my yoga off the mat
We move into an asana and hold. We are encouraged and instructed to explore our body, to do the pose ‘better’… Are you pressing down onto the outer edge of your foot? Lifting your sit bones? Spreading your hands? Opening your shoulder area? The aim of the yoga pose, we are told, is to ‘embody' that pose, so you try to take your brain (and hopefully your breath) into your body and fill it out, explore it, tell the parts to work harder, work better, to find the asana … Are you ‘embodying’ the pose? Is this what they mean? Have you done it? Or is it something that still eludes you?
If we start with a definition (which is always a fun place to start) there are lots of definitions of ‘embody’ available to us - and some of them, I think, can be applied to what we are being challenged to do.
Embody, we are told, means "To incarnate” - so to literally give a body or a corporeal shape to a spirit. It’s a great image - and maybe, it is a loose, but plausible idea of what we are trying to do. We are giving a corporeal shape to an asana, but not really to a spirit…
Embody is also defined as: “To give concrete form to”… Hmmm. We are taught that yoga is the antithesis of being ‘concrete’; that we are meant to be fluid, with breath and prana flowing through us. But if we substitute a word like 'tangible' or 'physical' for the word concrete we get: "To give tangible form to"... and this might well serve as a definition of what we are meant to be doing...
Some of us will gravitate towards the softer definitions of “To express” or “To personify” - as we know that some of the asanas have their inspirations in animals, warriors and sages.
Whichever of these definitions sits best with you - what they all encourage is the connection of the brain and body to give form - and the use of the mind, spirit and imagination to energize that form.
I think that sits well with what our teachers are encouraging us to do when we are told to embody an asana. We are trying to give form to an asana through a brain/body connection - and then energize that form with spirit and imagination.
Having landed on a definition I like and feel that I can genuinely use in class to improve my yoga on a number of levels – it has got me thinking about how I can take that idea into other aspects of my life.
I confess that most of the time I think of myself as a moving head. My body is merely a vehicle, a brain taxi, transporting this ‘valuable’ head around as it thinks, makes decisions, emotes, creates, observes and evaluates the world around it. And even worse, a lot of time, even that valuable head of mine is just floating around, ‘mindlessly’ getting on with the tasks and challenges of life. Driving, sitting at the computer working, doing the dishes, making something for dinner…
What if I took the idea of ‘embodying’ and tried to apply it to the other 94% of my time that I am not in yoga class? What if, while I am sitting at my desk, I think about my brain and body connection… What happens if I go inside and explore what it feels like to do what I am doing? What if I think about giving form to what I am doing? What if I energize what I am doing with imagination and spirit?
Well, it will certainly stop me from doing things mindlessly. It should encourage me to view myself more ‘holistically’, outside the context of yoga. And make me become more present. It should eventually change my awareness of myself and my reality and ultimately my way of ‘being’.
And it would be in line with where cognitive science is going at the moment – to embodied cognition. The idea that not only am I not just a mind connected to a body - but that my body is actually influencing what is my mind. Not only are my thoughts not just confined to my mind - they are influenced by and maybe even determined by my body’s physical experience in the world. Perception, thinking, learning, perspective, memory all rely on the interplay of our senses. Our bodies are processing information constantly and embodied cognition tells us that the way that we experience the physical world through our bodies actually shapes our thinking. The way we move our body, how we're standing, what we're touching or holding can influence the way that we think about or how we evaluate a situation.
I don’t want to get lost in the science or the philosophy of this - but it is reassuring to know that the mind/body connection isn’t just a theory or a thought experiment, or exercise you try once and never again. It is real and maybe even more powerful than we realize.
So, I am committed to trying to ‘embody’ more aspects, more moments, more experiences of my life. To take my yoga into my everyday and see how things change…