Over the summer I read a book called “The Night Circus”. It was required summer reading for my daughter, and I often like to read what she is reading. This book blew me away, and I want to share a quote with you that came towards the end:
“Magic” the man in the grey suit repeats, turning the word into a laugh “ This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it. Look around you” he says , waving a hand at the surrounding tables “not a one of them even has an inkling of the things that are possible in this world, and what’s worse it that none of them would listen if you attempted to enlighten them. They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence”
I will give a little bit of context (without ruining the story, I hope!). The book is about 2 magicians who were identified as having the potential for being magic at a very young age. Their mentors devised training programs for them that were very rigorous and completely consuming. They didn't just practice smoke and mirror magic, they were magic, and their task as youngsters was to harness their powers. The strain that these magicians were under to perform their amazing feats was illustrated throughout the story. Unlike Genie in the 1970’s series, it wasn't just a nod of the head that made these magic things happen. It was a result of many years of practice, incredible focus and a good dose of will power and inner strength. But as a result of their training, they were able to use their magic for the creation of great beauty and joy, initially for others, but eventually for themselves as well. It worked because they were so highly trained.
I thought of how this quote, and really the whole book, tied into my yoga practice. I have a nice-size internal list of what I would like from my yoga practice. Often I get frustrated that I am not seeing what I want come to fruition. What I know should come from a dedicated practice doesn’t always seem to be happening. Why is it not happening is a question I don’t usually ask myself for the simple reason that I already know the answer: I don’t practice enough. I know I fall short in time and dedication required to do the work that I know will fulfill my list. Just like if I wanted to be able to bench press 300 pounds, I need to get on the bench and work. If I don’t, it is never going to happen. It is true that the characters in the book were more or less forced into the time set aside for practices by their mentors. But shouldn't my desire for results I wish to see be my mentor? Fortunately the universe has once again conspired to me move toward this goal. This fall I began two trainings. One is an advanced training with my long-time teacher/mentor Parvathi, and the other is to become a TRE trainer (Trauma Reducing Exercises).
These trainings are avenues toward what I consider to be magic. That is, they will lead me closer to having “an inkling of the things that are possible in this world”. I consider it equally good fortune and misfortune to have already had glimpses into what the human mind and body are capable of. The good fortune is knowing the great potential for humans to go beyond the limited mind, and that it is possible to overcome our suffering. The misfortune is understanding it is at my fingertips and all I need to do is continue to extend my reach, but then finding I succumb to distractions, the lure of attachments, of cravings, and the biggest demon of all — comfort.
I am grateful that I have been invited into these structures that support my practice. I know it will be difficult. This level of practice will require time I do not have, and a focus I am not sure I can maintain. They will be revealing and challenging in ways that will not always be comfortable. Both will take several years to complete. (The universe thought it would be a good idea to have them run concurrently — what am I to do in the face of the universe’s ironic humor?). Often I think it would be easier to be sequestered in a room, like our young magicians were, without choice, without distractions. But the roll of the karmic dice puts me here — mother of two high schoolers, directors of two yoga studios, and student in two trainings. Distractions, obligations, and comfort — this is after all the tantric path — life is our training. I share all of this with you for a couple of reasons. One is very self serving, and that is if I forget something you told me, or to return your email
or phone call, please just kindly remind me, and forgive my lapse. I can say that my eyesight has been slowly improving with my practices, but not my memory. (That is on my wish list you can be sure!) The second is that perhaps my words may inspire you to follow the practices, whatever they are, that you know will lead you towards having an “inkling of the things that are possible in this world”.
Here is more from the book:
“But some people can be enlightened” Widget says.
“Indeed,[says the man in the grey suit] such things can be taught. It is easier with minds that are younger then these. There are tricks of course. None of this rabbit in hats nonsense, but ways of making the universe more accessible. Very very few people take the time to learn them nowadays…”
If you have had experiences with some kind of practice, ritual or discipline, or trust and have faith in someone who has told you these things work, do them. Why would you not? Because of lack of time, focus, money?
That is just self deception. The world needs real magic these days, does it not? Sometimes just immersing oneself in the discipline is the magic itself.
When I tell people I am a yoga teacher they like to share their yoga experience with me. Once a woman who had a pretty severe scoliosis told me she had been going to yoga for a while at her doctor’s suggestion to help stabilize her spine. I asked how it was going and she told me, “Great! I think it’s working because I am always in pain when I leave.” Conversations like that make me cringe. I have them a lot. Yoga is not supposed to cause pain. One of the primary tenants of Yoga is “do no harm”.
Sometimes a yoga teacher doesn’t know how to get a student out of pain. I was working with one of my teacher trainees at a corporate event and after watching her interact with some students, I told her I would prefer she ask the participants what they are feeling rather than tell them, which is what she was doing. Her response was very honest. She said she doesn't ask because she is afraid she won’t know what to tell them when they give her an answer. This revealed the focus for rest of this persons training. An experienced and well-trained teacher will continually ask students if they are comfortable.
Following the “do no harm” tenant of yoga is chiefly the responsibility of the teacher. Teachers should know what body parts are typically stressed by each pose they ask a student to undertake (for example, pigeon pose might compromise someone’s knees). The teacher should alert students of that possible outcome and if a student admits that a vulnerable place in their body is being compromised by a pose, the teacher should know an alternative to offer. A good teacher will also remind the class now and then to scan their bodies and make sure they are doing okay.
But “do no harm” is also the responsibility of the student. Students need to stay attentive to their bodies while they practice to make sure they do no harm to themselves. You should be willing to move out of a pose that hurts. Admittedly, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the effort of contraction, and pain. But if we keep looking for that difference, and are able to feel it, we will learn what is good for our bodies and what is not.
Students should trust their instructor enough to say “I don’t understand what you want me to do,” or “I am not sure what I am doing,” or “OUCH. This hurts.” It doesn't mean you are doing something wrong, it just means you don’t know or are not sure. When you admit you don’t know something, then learning really begins. And isn't that one of the reasons you are going to class, to learn more about yoga and your body?
Yoga should not cause pain. You may be stiff from moving something you have never moved before, but that should feel very different from pain. You can work hard and sweat. You can exert a lot of effort trying to get into the pose, but you should not be in pain. Especially in the joints. In particular, you should not feel pain in your knees or the sacroiliac joints.
You might be attracted to yoga to help with physical pain (joints, muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc.) or emotional/mental pain (What so and so said really hurt my feelings; I wasn’t invited to the party and I feel hurt; I didn’t get the job I wanted, etc.) Sometimes we can feel directly injured and hurt on an energetic level (like an x-ray or negative environment - a place you are not comfortable for no apparent reason). Yoga can help with this as well. It is important to consider that yogis recognize that pain on the physical and mental level can arise from disturbances in our body’s primal energy, which yogis call prana.
When our energy is depleted or disturbed we can become tired, stressed, and sometimes end up in chronic pain. Many times this is a pain that the doctors cannot explain. When I have a client who tells me their doctors have done many tests, and taken x-rays, and scans and can’t find a reason, I consider their prana. I test it out by theory by giving them prana balancing practices to do. If they then feel better and the pain goes away, we have confirmation.
So what does prana have to do with working in pain? If you put yourself in pain in a yoga pose, or go to a class where you don’t trust the teacher, or feel uncomfortable for reasons you can't put your finger on, you are disturbing your primal energy, your prana. And because physical ailments can actually arise from disturbed prana, how is the class helping you?
My Yoga Therapy mentor, Mukunda Stiles, said we should test our teachers for a year. If after a year you do not see the results you want from your yoga practice, find another teacher. If you begin yoga seeking freedom from pain, becoming pain free could be one of the criteria. But only one: Do not only ask yourself if you are becoming pain free, but how about becoming drama free and stress free? Are you sleeping better and feeling overall more joyful and excited about life?
These days there are many yoga studios to choose among. Finding the teacher who is best able to serve your physical practice as well as your spiritual and energetic practices should be an essential part of your yoga journey.