A Simple Practice for Complicated Times
I’ve heard that it’s smart to establish a regular yoga practice when life feels like smooth sailing. That way when storms arise and we are thrown off course, we have a safe harbor and a solid set of tools to help us get back to where we need to be. For a little more than a decade, I’ve made it a habit to show up on my mat in Baptiste yoga classes as often as I can. I go when I’m feeling positive, strong, and like I have my act together. Then, when things inevitably shift, and I feel burnt out, or overwhelmed by the demands of life and the state of the world; without hesitation, I know where to go to come back into balance. Practicing yoga doesn’t take my problems away. However the act of moving through a familiar sequence of postures on a rhythmic breath, while keeping a steady gaze, in a heated room full of other practitioners; always leaves me feeling better than when I walked in. I feel more equipped to deal with life. I can access a sense of calm presence and I feel more spacious. Even on the worst days, life seems manageable.
Although I also enjoy practicing other styles of yoga; heated Baptiste vinyasa is the type of yoga that I return to again and again. The external heat feels cleansing and healing (think traditional saunas and heat therapies) and I’ve come to welcome that moment when the sweat starts to form on my skin and eventually rain down on my mat. Heat adds a quality of ritual that distinguishes the yoga room from other spaces. I feel like it helps sharpen my focus too. I love how as the room gets steamy, I see things with more clarity. Often when I’m done, I experience a walking on air, lightness of being that feels fantastic.
I like that the sequence is balanced and complete. I never leave class feeling as though I’ve missed out on a group of poses. I also appreciate that the poses are accessible, and can easily be modified in many ways. On days that I’m feeling tight, or weak, or not at my best, I can take gentle versions. Other times when I’m feeling it, I’m free to explore more challenging expressions. Because variations are welcome, I never feel like I’m coercing my body into a shape, or being held back. I decide how deeply to take any pose. I find this aspect of the practice empowering.
Although experienced teachers will tailor a class to meet the needs of its students; often stopping to break down a pose or teach a transition, or possibly working with a theme or a set of essential actions; the sequence is, at its essence, predictable. Knowing the poses and generally what comes next lets me practice other yogic tools, such as holding a steady gaze point (Drishti) and Ujaiyi breathing. The subtle, rumbling breath we use is as important as the postures. On a good day, matching movement to breath cycles feels natural. Breathing in a full, audible and intentional way provides a steady pace that is neither too quick nor too slow. It helps me to stay calm and alert, and it allows me to drop into a meditative flow state.
The lack of surprises in the sequence also facilitates self-study. I find it interesting that breathing my way through the poses feels so different from day to day. I live close to the ocean and do the same walk with my dog along the rocky coast on most days. I often begin with a head full of fog. Once I start moving, breathing deeply and establishing a rhythm, my spinning thoughts burn themselves out. As the fog clears and I wake up, my surroundings come into sharper focus. I always take the same, familiar route; but the wind, the waves, the clouds, the tides, the light, the smells, the temperature, the wildlife, and the vegetation that I encounter are always different. I find it impossible to notice any of it until I clear my mind of chatter. My ocean walks and my yoga practice are complementary and in some ways remarkably similar.
Unlike my solitary walks, though, the Baptiste sequence is practiced in a room with many other people. I cherish that it’s inviting to all! Although I don't think this heating, vigorous practice works for everyone during every season of life, it is for absolutely anyone who wants to give it a shot. It’s a simple and straightforward practice. However, simple and easy are not the same thing. I’d say it’s a practice for people who want to move; not quickly; but on breath, and for people who find joy in working their bodies. I generally find it easier to get “in the zone” when I’m moving, and I love a little physical challenge. I value how I can come in feeling bent out of shape and weighed down by the world, and as I go through the poses, stuck energy moves through, and I feel more like myself.
As a beginner (and an introvert) I found the large classes intimidating and a bit off-putting. I felt self-conscious and as if I was being judged by others. Initially, I also felt a bit claustrophobic. But, it didn’t take me long to notice a feeling that comes with practicing on breath with so many others that made me feel like I was coasting on a wave. I’ve observed a similar sensation when meditating in large groups of particularly focused people. The work becomes easier. Regardless of whether I’m breathing steadily in Child’s Pose or taking an advanced variation of a posture; there is the same uplifting feeling of shared energy, of connection and of being part of something bigger. Over years of practice, I began to witness where my own ego shows up, and have come to realize that the judgment I perceived was coming from me and my personal self-talk. As a result of this observation other parts of my life have opened up as well.
In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali suggests that yoga is the clearing of the fluctuations of the mind so that practitioners can see their true nature as timeless and eternal beings. I have found a practice that puts me on the right track. After practicing, I generally feel as though some of my mind static has burned off, allowing me to view my life-stuff with more detachment. From the big picture vantage point it’s easier to put things in perspective and stay calm. Even huge world problems seem less paralyzing when I’m in this mindset. Ultimately, it becomes easier to see myself in others, and to act with kindness and compassion. Feeling less reactive and judgmental, and more open in body, mind, and heart; makes me increasingly likely to take a positive role in solving the world’s problems, rather than contributing to them.