Recently I found myself in an early morning outdoor yoga class high on the shoulder of a mountain in a remote corner of southern Utah. Our classroom was a meadow in the shade of a stand of aspen trees. As a longtime student of literature, I was captivated from the day I began practicing yoga by the metaphors that are woven into the instructions for each asana. We are continually enjoined by our teachers to root our feet into the earth, to lift our gaze to the sky, to feel our bodies sway as we stand in tree pose, or to hear ujjayi breath as the sound of the ocean. In this particular outdoor practice, I was struck by the passage from the metaphoric to the literal: as I attempted to root all four corners of my feet into the earth, I felt not only the energetic stability of the ground, but also its unevenness, the unfamiliar bumps under my toes and arches that prompted me to accommodate my feet to the earth in new ways. As I sought my balance in vrikshasana, I fastened my eyes on a tree in the middle distance, a single spruce anchored tenaciously to a rocky canyon wall. As I lifted my eyes to the sky, I saw the crystalline blue through a shadowed mosaic of leaves. A local dog joined us partway through the class, occasionally stretching luxuriously from head to tail in a canine version of downward facing dog, rolling over onto her back with paws in the air for savasana. Our teacher decided that because the July Utah sun was already so strong, it would be prudent for us to practice moon salutes instead of sun salutations, a reminder of the many ways that the fierce summer heat of this land prompts us to modify our yoga and our lives. Practicing yoga in the open air returns us to the literal roots of this ancient practice, evoking how the forms of yoga mimic the natural shapes of the world around us, whether through the geometry of form or through vegetable and animal figures.
Deepening my practice has meant for me an increasingly subtle awareness of what yoga does and is. When I began teacher training, I thought that deepening my practice might mean, among other things, improving the precision and depth of my poses. Certainly, I learned enormous amounts about the importance of correct alignment and how scrupulous attention to the engagement of particular muscle groups increases both the safety and the energetic power of postures. I did not initially realize however, how deeply yoga could alter one’s consciousness. I came to understand only gradually how my emotional life could be altered by the shape of my body: how standing in tadasana on the subway could change my sense of psychic as well as physical stability, or how rolling my shoulders back in a social context could literally transform the receptivity of my heart. These insights are, I think, part of the expanding consciousness that yoga engenders. What may initially sound like a series of fanciful metaphors—drawing the earth’s energy up through the feet, extending the spine towards the sky, releasing the dark emotions held in the hips, feeling the introspective comfort of child’s pose, opening the heart—comes more and more to possess a kind of literal life.
Cognitive science has shown that our reality is organized by metaphors, many of which are so deeply buried that they have become naturalized and thus invisible. They constitute our sense of the natural world. Although spatial metaphors such as “up” and “down” or “inside” and “outside” shape our apprehension of the world, we have mostly lost our consciousness of their metaphoric nature. Metaphors are figures of speech that are based in the materiality of the world, and the evocative language of yoga engages both metaphors and their material, literal roots. Inversions in yoga are said to reorient not only our bodily systems but also our perspective on life. They turn us upside down, allowing us to see that our point of view is always provisional. Each asana orients us differently in relation to gravity and symmetry; the continual search for new equilibrium in each posture alerts us to the incessant change that defines the world. Deepening my practice has given me a newfound awareness of energetic connection, within my own body, to my human community, and to the cosmos. It has given me a new respect for rhythm, the diurnal pulsations of night and day, the rotations of the seasons, the transformations of the human life cycle. It has taught me to see how the energy of life forms, of rock and sky, are constantly metamorphosing into other shapes. It has helped me to understand that metaphors are themselves anchored in a material world, and the language of yoga shuttles continually between the literal and the metaphoric, converting one into the other, a linguistic alchemy that reflects the transformations of the practice.
Elizabeth 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 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.
Thank you Elizabeth.