Pick a Pose, Any Pose...
When I first started practicing yoga some thirty-five years ago, I would trudge over to the Protestant church on Lake Street in South Minneapolis—even on the coldest of winter days—to study in the church basement with William Pottengeier, an Iyengar teacher known for his extensive knowledge of the body and his jovial manner.
Sitting with legs folded pristinely underneath the torso, William would lead a small group of us—maybe five or six students at most—in a mysterious invocation to the three-headed cobra sage named Pat-Tan-Jali. For the next hour and a half, we would huddle around William demonstrating postures with the utmost precision. He would urge us to exactingly perform the same posture, down to the most minute detail. A hushed tone would settle into the class as we performed each āsana in an almost ritualistic occult fashion that was sure to awaken our latent faculties of supersensuous powers—lifting some miniscule muscle, externally rotating some specific limb, aligning the inner and outer portions of some part of the body that I didn’t even know I possessed. I felt simultaneously confounded by the profusion of new somatic information and exhilarated by inhabiting my body in a wholly different way.
Over the next week or two, I would practice the poses I learned from William at home. Trying each pose on like a sumptuous garment in an upscale boutique, I would attempt to remember every detail from every conceivable angle from the feet to the head and back down again—lift, roll, tuck, anchor, invite. As I tried each pose on, I would adjust, alter, and adapt the pose to my frame all the while paying heed to William’s voice in my head, reminding me to focus on the precise structural alignment in the physical body.
This experiential approach was ultimately very empowering. As I practiced on my own, I became intimately aware of my body in the postures, gaining insight into the subtle organizing principles of the body and mind—where to engage and where to release, when to push myself and when to simply relax. As I gained greater confidence in my body, I would come back to William’s class with a different understanding of myself and my limitations, as well as my boundlessness. I, of course, had loads of questions, too.
I continue this experiential approach to my yoga practice to this day, and because of this, you will often find me suggesting “yoga homework” for my students in own my classes. I sometimes give one specific pose or another for self-experimentation, and sometimes I simply tell the class: “Pick a pose, any pose, and work on it for the next week.” Yes, I get some groans, and we all laugh, but with each attempt, each experience, my students come to know their bodies at a deeper level.
From personal observation, I find that we often go about our lives without ever having a direct—and by that I mean, intimate—connection to the lived experience situated within the mind-body complex. I feel that as a yoga teacher the greatest gift I can give my students is the first-hand experience of their own bodies and their own minds. The yoga practice—āsana, prānāyāma, meditation, and relaxation—then becomes something that allows my students to experience themselves more directly on all levels of being—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—which, I believe, is ultimately what the embodied soul longs for, that is, the ability to experience itself in totality.
So, I invite you, the reader, to pick a pose, any pose. Practice it with love and grace, and initiate yourself into that practice, so that you can say: “Now I know this pose. Now I know my own body. Now I know my own soul.”