I have been thinking recently how much asana are like gateways. Each pose is a kind of portal, a corporeal threshold through which we enter into new, increasingly subtle relationships with our bodies and various forces or energetic patterns. The postures present us with a complex set of challenges that call upon particular mixtures of strength, flexibility, and equilibrium, and each of us responds differently to the call of different asana. What is the heart of a pose? What is its nature? What qualities does it elicit in us? What does it ask of us?
When I began practicing yoga, I was, as some beginners are, fixated on finding the external shape of a pose. My focus was directed outward, and I would look around me to see what other people were doing and then try to translate that shape into my own body. My efforts were often strenuous as I tried to coax, or more often, coerce my body into submission. Not being endowed with an especially patient nature, I wanted to move forward, to see progress, to measure my sense of my own development.
Perhaps fortunately, I had some physical impediments that prevented my practice from advancing as quickly as I wished. I was frequently handicapped with injuries and pain that threatened to sideline my physical practice completely. During the long months during which I had to curtail my practice and tailor poses to my recalcitrant body, I realized how limited and narrow my initial understanding of yoga was. I began to close my eyes as I was practicing, learning slowly to refine my ability to listen to my body and my breath. “Was I breathing?” asked Pat. Not much. “If I put my hand on the back of your heart, would I feel your breath?” she asked. Not really. There were a few days when I wasn’t able to move at all and I could only breathe, and this taught me the first rudimentary steps of patience and gratitude. It also showed me that even the apparently simplest, most fundamental actions, like breathing, were infinitely complex.
As I waited to heal, I started to see that yoga poses are not meant to be entered by force with the brute power of strength and will. Instead, as we wait, they may start to open and reveal their true wonder. Scott’s often repeated words to me as I prepared to go into a pose were, “You have nowhere to go. You’re not trying to get anywhere.” This became my mantra. Where was I trying to go anyway? Why was I in such a hurry? Maybe the goal was really not the pose. Perhaps the pose was simply a way for me to learn how to live with an unruly body and mind, to begin to cultivate patience. I began to experience moments, rare to be sure, when I suddenly found myself in an asana without effort. The adage that poses are invited into the body began to make sense. Asana may beckon us into new, subtler kinds of relationships with our physical, emotional, spiritual, and energetic selves most rewarding when we take the time to listen deeply.
“Subtle” is a fascinating word: its root in Latin is a conjoining of sub, “under” and texlis, “a web or woven stuff.” “Subtle” designates a movement inward, from the surface to beneath the body’s covering, whether we conceive of that outer weaving layer as skin, fascia, muscle and ligaments, or the material body in general. The term “subtle body” is, of course, in many traditions a technical term that describes the etheric body. It is composed of a woven latticework of slender passageways that channel chi or prana. To make one’s practice deeper or subtler might involve a movement toward the body’s subterranean reaches, the rarely visible or the invisible. It might entail refining the vision or the senses in general so that we begin to sense our subtle body, its fluctuations and blockages of energy. Whether or not we can hone our awareness enough to sense our energetic selves, the repetitions of asana in a yoga practice chart our evolving and deepening relationship to our natures, opening a series of limitless doorways into the possibilities of exploration.
Elizabeth Harvey, seeks through her teaching to cultivate yoga’s potential to promote psychic and bodily harmony.
She sees yoga as a practice that joins physical, spiritual, emotional, and energetic systems, and she has a special interest in restorative yoga’s capacity to cultivate deep healing and balance.
She came to yoga after many years of practice in the martial arts. She completed a teacher training course with Scott Davis, Pat Harada Linfoot, and JP Tamblyn at Octopus Garden, additional teacher training in restorative yoga, and she continues to study medical qi gong and psychosomatic therapies.
She has spent much of her life exploring and writing about literature and the history of the body. She balances her love for yoga with mountain climbing, teaching, and writing. Her current projects include a book on touch and a book on spirits, souls, and the history of air.