(From spring 2012)
The opening practice for Hayloft Yoga could not have been sweeter. Spring at the barn is positively enchanting! Frog ribbits from the pond outside soothed us as we worked in poses; then, toward the end of practice, a gentile rainfall added to the tranquility. I think the horses knew what we were up to, as they seemed unfazed by our activities above them in the hayloft. Even when we practiced “horse breath,” (inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth buzzing our lips like a horse) they continued methodically munching on their dinner. Perhaps we were speaking their language?
The breath, for me, is the foundation of all yoga. In yoga, breathing is called pranayama. Prana is the Sanskrit for energy–the energy of everything around us, of God, life force energy. So, as we re-learn to breathe in our yoga practice, we learn to observe and perhaps enhance the flow of prana in and out of our bodies.
As we work with the breath, we begin to learn the language of the body. Most of us are limited to our awareness of the body’s language only when there is pain. “Ouch!” is like the body screaming at us, loud enough that we will slow down our busy, outwardly-focused lives to listen. By that time, there may already be a problem: we’re sick, we’ve strained something, we’re fatigued, and we have to take a day off to recover.
Yoga offers us a different approach: we begin by listening in, learning this new language, and we see that the body is constantly speaking to us. Very slowly, through continued practice, we find that we can move more mindfully, we find space in our lives for self-care, we sense when we may be starting to feel under the weather so we make nurturing choices instead of “pushing through it.”
It all starts with an awareness of the breath. And that can be elusive in itself!
I love how B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the major contributors to yoga in the West, puts it: The breath must “be enticed or cajoled, like catching a horse in a field, not by chasing after it, but by standing still with an apple in one’s hand. Nothing can be forced; receptivity is everything.” As we sit at the beginning of each practice, we practice drawing the senses inward and observing the breath. As we do this, the mind gradually stills. We breathe–not forcefully, but with awareness, watching the breath, listening for the language of the body.
Learning a new language is not easy. But neither was learning to ride, and that was an entirely new language, wasn’t it? Horsepeople, whether they are aware of it or not, are already practicing this inner awareness, thanks to their equine friends. Horses are exceptional practitioners of Pranayama. Their entire survival depends on their awareness of breath and body language. Their awareness is fine-tuned (far beyond the sense or smell that alerts them to the carrot in our back pocket, or the sense of sight when they see the invisible boogie man on the trail). They feel our moods and our intentions. This extra-sensory awareness is something that can be shared across species. Practicing yoga helps us to become more horse-like, practicing and fine-tuning our “extra” or “hiding” senses.
I am honored to report that many new faces joined in tonight. One comment at the end of class was truly a compliment: “This was not like the other yoga classes I’ve been to.” All yoga is good yoga. For me, some of the most important aspects of yoga are lost when the primary intention is to “get fit.” Of course yoga helps us become fit. That’s an awesome side effect, but it’s not the main attraction. Yoga (and horses!) help us find ourselves–our authentic selves–and to be present to that in us which holds the highest potential.
Thank you sincerely to everyone who joined Hayloft Yoga in 2012! Deep breaths until we meet again … soon!