I love a long hold.
If you come to my yoga class, you will either love holding postures longer than you expected, or curse me out afterward, in the kindest way possible. It’s OK, I can take it. It happens all the time.
We’ll get into a reverse warrior and hold it. And hold it. And then hold it some more. And then a half moon pose. And we’ll hold that, too, for maybe five full rounds of breath, which averages to about 30 seconds. It might not sound like a long time, but trust me when I tell you that balancing all of your weight on one leg, while tipped on your side, will make your body talk to you.
Patanjali, the Indian sage said to be the author of the Yoga Sutra, the go-to source for yoga, wrote in sutra (which can be translated to mean rule) 1.2: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
I find this to be 100% true. It’s what attracted me to the practice of yoga in the first place all those years ago, when I gingerly unrolled my mat in the crowded exercise room at the gym, feeling like a flight risk, ready to flee if anybody looked at me funny.
From across the gym, that Sunday morning yoga class looked like an oasis of escape in the aftermath of a breakup. Though I wasn’t particularly broken up, it still occupied my thoughts. My intuition said, “Go to that class.” And I listened. It was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. Maybe for the first time ever, my looping, negative, anxious thoughts ceased to exist for 60 minutes. What a godsend.
How could I think about anything when I was trying to contort my body into these unusual shapes and hold them? I couldn’t. That’s the beauty of yoga. You can get out of your own dang mind for awhile. We all can benefit from regularly escaping the crazy train of our thoughts, even if only for an hour.
Nowadays, I find that similar relief while holding a posture, breathing and exploring the stillness. I still practice fast-moving vinyasa flow yoga classes, where you move into and out of postures at lightning speed and often don’t hold them long enough to attain your alignment, let alone any exploration of self. You’re in, you’re out and you’re onto the next thing. And therein lies the problem. In, out and on to the next. Isn’t that a metaphor for our lives in general?
We rush from here to there to everywhere and don’t stop for even a minute to take a few deep breaths and soak it all up. We don’t like to be still and quiet. I wrote about this recently regarding our phones and the way they’ve become an appendage. We turn to them when an empty moment looms like the Loch Ness Monster. Goodness forbid we should simply sit and do nothing and be quiet. That’s what I’m asking students to do when they hold a posture. It’s good practice for your life off the yoga mat. And I think the rewards are worth it.
A lot of people come to yoga for the physical benefits, such as improved strength and flexibility. Thirty seconds in downward facing dog with one leg extended behind to the sky will do that to you. But I almost want you to explore your mental state in that 30-second hold even more: What’s beneath your endless thoughts, what Buddhists call the “monkey mind?” What are the stories your mind spins? Can you let go of them before they carry you down the river and drop you off at I’m Furious and I Don’t Even Know Why Town? You know what I mean — when you start having a conversation with somebody in your head that turns into a full-blown argument. All of a sudden you’re completely livid, and nothing has actually happened. Or is that only me?
Underneath all of that is where you can begin to find the unflappable you, the you you strive to be, but the you who inevitably gets knocked out of sorts daily, sometimes hourly, by the stuff of life. It reminds me of an Eckhart Tolle quote I recently saw. He’s the spiritual author of New York Times best-sellers “The Power of Now” and “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.”
“You do not become good by trying to be good,” he said, “but by finding the goodness that is already within you and allowing that goodness to emerge.”
I can only tap into this briefly, sometimes in meditation or yoga postures, such as corpse pose at the end of class, or by sitting in nature, before all the drama and ego come crashing back in. But it’s there waiting, every second of every day. And better to tap in for a millisecond than to let it go untouched for a lifetime.
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