Noticing Change and Stillness in Your Yoga Practice
By Scott Johnson
In the beginning
When I first began Ashtanga Yoga back in 2002, I remember turning up to my first workshop particularly stressed. Two of my close friends were fighting with each other and I was stuck in the middle of it. I left my young family for the weekend because I’d only been practising Ashtanga for 6 months and wanted to discover more about it. I was transfixed by it. Transfixed enough for it to have changed my life to take such a trip away from Louise and Herbie.
My first Ashtanga teacher Les had told me about Oxford and how there was a rich Ashtanga yoga community there. I decided to go and see John Scott who, at the time, was one of the most prolific Ashtanga yoga teachers – and I believe still is. I chose him mainly because I had his book. And he looked kind. And bendy. This was way before YouTube!
Although I was very new to the practice, I had fallen for it. I was enjoying the way my body had strengthened and opened. The sensation after each practice was warm, new and exhilarating. Then I met John. His workshop was a revelation. I remember being deeply moved by the way he taught and shared the practice – for the first time it felt deeper than just a physical practice for me. I also remember trying to convey how I felt to him afterwards but making an embarrassment of myself (or at least I certainly thought so).
Driving home after the workshop I reflected on the whole weekend. Even though the situation between my close friends hadn’t changed – there was still tension between them and I was still stuck in the middle – I wasn’t being disturbed by it anymore. I couldn’t stop feeling a deep sense of peace and contentment in myself. This was so new. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling the way I was. I just was. This was the first time yoga had really moved me. And it was in that moment that I realised I’d found a teacher who could point me to something deeper than I could find myself.
Yoga as movement
“Yoga as the movement from one point to another, higher one” – TKV Desikachar
This is a great explanation of the meaning of yoga by the teacher TKV Desikachar (The Heart Of Yoga, Chapter 8: The Things That Darken The Heart). This is a really lovely definition and I see so many ways that this meaning can be translated. In fact, the understanding and meaning of yoga can be so personal that each person can individually relate and connect to their own as yoga plays out in their own lives. Yet, Desikachar’s reference speaks to me particularly. Yoga has moved me and it continues to do so. Since I began in 2002 it has moved me to a place I never believed possible. But what I find interesting to ask is: What is being moved? To where? And what does “to another higher movement” mean?
A still point of mindful awareness
When we practice yoga we are breathing and moving and directing our attention to those two things: breath and movement. We are training the observational qualities of our awareness and learning to focus our attention on the things that support us being alive: our breath and physical bodies. This can allow us to notice the very essence of what it means to be alive.
In the practice of Ashtanga yoga we are learning to focus on the body in movement in one breath, then the body in movement in the next. The movement of breath and body from one moment to the next. And what is it we are noticing? The point that notices. We are training the awareness that notices the breath and body and allowing that to stay attentive to whatever arises. So, even though our body is moving, our attention is staying still and focused. A still point of awareness.
When we become that still point we find we can get nearer to truly moving into ourselves. A state where time feels like it can stop and we become present to just where we are and what we are doing. We just feel the body as the body and the breath as the breath. Without labelling. Then we feel our life as our life. Without labelling. This can allow us to see and feel that little bit more clearly.
Even if you are a beginner, that sensation at the end of a class where you have rested your body is you having moved from one place to another. I say to all our beginners: really notice how you come in and then notice the effects when you leave. It’s these points in time I find so interesting as a practitioner: how a practice moves me from one state to the next.
Where can we find our own still point?
We all have still points that just arise. When we see a beautiful sunset and are transfixed. Perhaps when we are watching a bonfire late in the evening and are taken away from our thoughts into the light and flicker of the flame. These are naturally arising moments that can just happen. But they are states that we can re-discover. That we can cultivate.
In a yoga practice, this place comes up mostly when we are taking relaxation at the end of our practice. When we’ve let go of having to be anything, having to do anything and allowing ourselves to let go. This is why it’s so important to relax at the end of practice. To let the movement in our body go, and then reintroduce movement back into the world after relaxation as quietly as possible.
Movement through relationship
“Being still does not mean don’t move. It means move in peace.” – E’yen A. Gardner
This autumn, 14½ years after that first John Scott workshop, I spent a much-needed 5 days practising with John in Scotland. Since 2002 we have become friends. I was with some other really close friends and it was a time to “just be” after a particularly busy 6 months. When I turned up John asked me if I wanted to practice with him in his teaching group after the main class. I politely and respectfully declined. I wanted to be a student again. His student, just for 5 days.
A new friend Peg, and her daughter Meghan, were also there to practice with John for the first time. Over those 5 days I watched Peg and Meghan be moved the same way I had been 14 years earlier, even though they’re far more experienced than I had been. I watched as John gently changed their view of their yoga practice so they began to feel and notice themselves practising in a deeper way. I also watched how they moved from one place to another, to a lightness in how they looked, with deep warm knowing smiles being the new look. How seeing their practices in a new, slightly different way helped them to transform their view. It was mesmerising. I found myself falling again for the practice simply by relating to someone else’s transformation through my friend and teacher. I was personally moved again.
Moving into the world
This made me notice something else. It’s such a turbulent time in the world at the moment. So much confusion, negativity and battling with others. Where can we even begin to make sense of it all? The answer, I think, is in each other. Those of us who have a practice are able to come together and to return to the simplicity of how we breathe, how we move and how we relate to ourselves. Perhaps it’s from here that we can then begin to see the world in all its beauty and, at the same time, in all its frailty. How the ripples of movement and openness in our practice become the ripples of how we see the world. When we practice we come back to the simplicity of this body, this breath. Then we can choose to act. We can choose how to move in this complex yet beautiful world.
At Stillpoint Yoga London we see the practice as a real way of moving toward a balance of strength and letting go, both in the physical body and also in life. We invite you to come and meet us each morning to breathe and move through dedicated yoga practice. And perhaps to find your own still point.
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