I love to teach yoga to newbies. There’s an almost palpable sense of coming alive in those first few classes. As students learn to move in new ways, it’s not unlike a toddler explore her range of motion- testing out a foot here, or the gaze here, or marveling at what her body can do and how it feels to be in different shapes. Finally, when savasana comes and a group full of workaholic adults lies down to rest and breathe together, I love to watch as their faces soften and their bodies relax into their mats. I think most teachers would agree: it’s pretty magical to watch and work with the someone waking up through the practice of yoga.
There’s also quite a visual distinction between the novice and the experienced student, of course. As a new student moves into a standing pose, you might observe a sort of “floppy” quality to his arms and legs. He’s watching the teacher, following the verbal instructions, and simply moving himself into what seems like it might be the correct position. You might observe that the hands and feet seem disconnected, even lifeless; an afterthought, or a forgotten accessory.
A more senior student, on the other hand, is keenly aware of the sensations in her fingers and toes; the lines of energy lifting and expanding from uddiyana and mula bandha; the subtle changes in the breath and the micro-shifts of flesh, bone and breath within the external shape.
So we see, then, that there’s a distinct difference between simply bringing one’s body into a shape, and bringing the feeling of the shape into the body. The beginner student moves (or, in many cases, forces) the body-pieces into an approximate puzzle-shape and then stands lifelessly in place. The senior student moves her body into her variation on the asana and then begins to occupy it actively, breathing and moving within the pose in a way that feels completely embodied and alive- full of presence.
Tara Brach’s latest book, True Refuge, defines this quality of presence beautifully:
Presence is not some exotic state that we need to search for or manufacture. In the simplest terms, it is the felt sense of wakefulness, openness, and tenderness that arises when we are fully here and now with our experience.
I remember very well what it felt like to “wake up” through this process- suddenly I was in my body, and breathing with it, and truly, there is such a sweetness and tenderness to being completely with yourself, aware, awake, alive. It was quite poignant and almost, in a way, heartbreaking, when I realized how I’d neglected myself in this way.
As is so often the case, the on-the-mat experience provides a fantastic metaphor for our lives off the mat. Recently, I’ve been examining my relationships with others- current and historical- in light of this quality of presence.
I believe that it is not enough to simply move ourselves into position with another person- that is, to say, I’m your lover, I’m your friend- and then occupy that space lifelessly. True love- romantic or otherwise- is only, I think, alive and breathing when it is infused with this wakefulness, openness, tenderness.
Maybe it’s inevitable that this will happen with certain relationships, at certain times in our lives. Perhaps we are so occupied with our own challenges that we can’t embody love in this way. Maybe we’ve never learned how. In my own case, I can see quite easily that while I might have called myself a wife, or a girlfriend, and truly felt that I was living in that role, there was an inauthenticity, an incompleteness, to my actions. At the time, I didn’t know how to fully be present with that person- to love him fully, actively- because I was so unhappy with myself. It’s also clear that we were poorly matched, in many ways- so that to be fully present would have meant to acknowledge a painful truth.
In another case, I can recall asking myself why I felt so terribly lonely when I was with someone who said that he loved me deeply. I knew that it was true- and yet I believe at the time he simply wasn’t capable of completely embodying love. He was in the pose, so to speak, but the presence, the attention, the wakeful, open and tender quality was not there- and so our relationship could not flourish.
“If you do not give right attention to the one you love, it is a kind of killing. When you are in the car together, if you are lost in your thoughts, assuming you know everything about her, she will slowly die. But with mindfulness, you attention will water the wilting flower. “I know you are here, beside me, anti makes me very happy.” With attention, you will be able to discover many new and wonderful things- her joys, her hidden talents, her deepest aspirations. If you do not practice appropriate attention, how can you say that you love her?” -Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings
As part of the spiritual path, bringing mindful presence to our relationships is far more challenging than the work we do on our mats, at least in my experience. While I can do hours of asana practice or meditation with some degree of awareness and presence, I’m challenged deeply by the daily work of embodied love. My concern with my own self-image, my need to protect myself in some way, often stands between me and full presence with others in my life. Like most people I know, I’m struggling to somehow look good and feel in control. There’s a vulnerability in setting that aside in service of this quality of presence. With practice, this grows easier, I’m finding, and the feeling of really, really giving your full loving attention to someone is its own reward.
Some yoga students never make it past their first class. It’s not easy to work with ourselves in different ways. Sometimes the pain of waking up may feel like too much. And yet- that tenderness, that feeling of being fully present- oh, that’s worth it. We deserve our own kind attention in this way, and we find that because we are kind to ourselves, we’re more able to give that same kind attention to others. And, waking up, we become open and receptive to embodied, active presence from those who are also learning to love fully and completely.