From time to time, I have found myself far from any kind of yoga studio or hot room, but I still have tried to make some kind of practice. Until recently, I have met with mixed success. However, for the past two months I have been practicing a slimmed down version of the sequence without any heat but with quite remarkable results. I had promised myself some time ago not to write any more about yoga, but this is worth sharing. So read on at your own discretion.
Firstly, let me set the scene: for nine weeks, I have been spending six hours a day sitting in a classroom, trying to get my head around another language. At the end of each day I really need a yoga practice to help me unwind my head and my spine. It is natural that I should turn to the same yoga sequence, one I know fairly well, and do the best I can with no heat, no smoke, no mirrors, no dialogue – just the sequence and my experience of each posture and my understanding of my own body.
Regardless of all the other noise that surrounds the yoga world from time to time, let me say that I trust this sequence. Although I do not teach this any more, I continue to believe in the efficacy of the sequence itself. But I have to say that my experience with this yoga has been peppered with regret. My life was changed because of the practice and I will be ever thankful to the man who put this sequence together, who picked these postures out of many and ordered them in such a way that they work every part of the body in a logical and healing progression. The source of my regret has never been the sequence, but rather the manner in which the sequence has been led and the environment in which it has been practiced. Both of these have frequently interfered with my practice rather than supported it. Therefore, I welcomed the opportunity to develop my practice without heat and without any distraction other than my own mind and body.
I have enough space in my room for me to spread a thick towel on the tiled floor and open the door so I can breathe some fresh air. And as always, I start with a breathing exercise, pranayama, either one or two sets of ten repetitions performed quite quickly. Next comes the warm up postures in the sequence, and I like to do two sets of the first combination - half moon, back bend and hands to feet. And then from this point on, just one set of the remaining postures all the way through. I move into each posture with some care, feeling out my muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints along the way, and then once in a correctly aligned position, I hold the posture for my target time, which I count. Most of the postures I hold for twenty seconds, except the principal balancing postures of head to knee, bow and tree pose, which I hold for thirty seconds each. There are a few shorter postures which I hold for twelve to fifteen seconds, such as the compression postures, balancing stick, and each part of the locust series. I allow myself a brief rest between each posture in the standing series of about ten seconds and a full twenty seconds between each posture of the floor series. I finish with one set of a final breathing exercise. My time in each posture begins when I am sure that my alignment is good, when I am still and when I am breathing normally.
The hard floor has been a challenge for my knees, so often I use a pillow between the tiles and my kneecaps. And I always work within my range of motion, not beyond it. But the results so far have been extraordinary. I feel stronger, more in control of each posture, more focused within the posture, and invariably more energized at the end. I am stretching enough not only to maintain my body's capabilities but to increase them. In several postures I have been able to extend or improve the asana in a number of ways: increased stretch, better balance, more focus, improved technique, sound breath control and lastly that elusive stillness.
So the question is, how has this happened? While I have practiced plenty of times outside of the hot room, I did not expect to improve any posture without heat. Frankly, I am surprised that this has happened.
I attribute this improvement to the fact that I deliberately work carefully within my range of motion and focus on technique and relaxation. This is possible because I have more energy to play with; my body is not burning energy to combat the heat. And that increase in energy gives me choices: I can use the energy for more technique, by fine tuning muscles or grip, or I can choose to stay longer in a posture that has previously been giving me problems. In either case there is improvement. If all is working well and I stick to the target time for the posture, then that energy supports greater concentration. And with more concentration comes relaxation, and with relaxation comes stillness. It is like unlocking a door and finding a corridor that leads to a room I have not been in before.
Of course my mind wanders from time to time, so I ask it to come back and try again. There are times my minds sends me all sorts of nonsense, but I know that I don't have to hold onto any of it. I can just let it go. And then I start again, always by using my breath. There are lots of times when I need to start over. But I accept that now and I don't get too bent out of shape if that is my practice, all the way through. Tomorrow, it may be better, or at least it will be different.
I am not sweating as much, so I realize that I am not benefitting from the cleansing that follows from that level of sweating. The first part of the sequence is a highly effective means of warming up the body to support movement. And as long as that movement is within a tolerable range of motion, then I have not experienced any discomfort due to muscle pulls or strains. So for me it seems to be a trade-off: I am giving up sweating but gaining more energy and concentration. Of course there is a downside: the yoga does not seem to go as deep. I find that if I miss a day, then I feel a difference immediately. Before, I could get by with a practice three times a week. Now I feel that I need this every day otherwise I can feel a difference in my spine.
I know that this may not work for everybody and I am not advocating it to replace whatever works for others. For the time being, I have no inclination to return to the hot room although I recognize that this could change at some time in the future. It is probable that for some time I will live far from any hot room, so I need to learn how to use this yoga without extreme levels of heat or humidity.
I am grateful to have found a way where I can continue to practice this sequence of healing postures independently. Every day my spine talks to me and tells me that this is working. When it stops talking I will think again, but for the time being I know what is good for me, and that is enough. There is a life outside of the hot room.