Seven years ago, I came to the practice of Anusara Yoga on the advice of a friend, Nancy Kyes, who is herself an Anusara teacher. I came to heal a shoulder. What I have discovered, in the course of those seven years, and in the healing of that shoulder, is as surprising as it was unexpected.
So what did I discover? Let’s start with something seemingly very simple. Recently, often it seems, I have been seeking out my kula mates to ask them for help, both for support and also to be a mirror for me. Over and over, they have told me, go practice into your heart, let what it tells you guide you, and live into what emerges. And it works, very simply. I can be in the midst of some stormy sea of crashing waves of misery and fear, or just the uncertainty of not knowing, and the simple fact of coming to my mat, breathing into being there, hearing the teacher weave the theme, chanting with the class, and then moving into asana, offers me an outstretched hand in the crashing waves. I am brought home to the calm, warm, and courageous center of my heart, and know that whatever emerges is. Is me, and is divine.
But if someone had told me to connect into my heart seven years ago, I would not have had any idea what they meant, or where that was in me, or how I could do that even if I did have a clue what it meant. I simply could not have heard them. Maybe in fact they were saying that, but I was not ready to hear it and understand what it meant or how to do it. So, what has changed in seven years? What has been the role of heart centered themes in the evolution of my practice? Because, whether I knew it or not, they were always there.
When I first came to yoga, I of course did not know how Anusara teachers did things. I had to learn how to listen, to pay attention. First, I had to learn to pay attention to my shoulder. Then, to the physical postures. And later, to my breathing, and with that, to an inner expansiveness. Along the way, as I healed, to acceptance and gratitude. One day I realized that I was actually feeling the philosophy in my body, that my body embodied the Tantra. The thing is, through it all, I kept coming to yoga. Really, I don’t know why. I just showed up. Two years ago, I realized that I had been coming to yoga class for five years, and that it was the most consistent, persistent, and disciplined thing I had ever done (well, if you don’t count raising two sons). I realized, I was always there, for me. At that moment, I knew: this is love, this is what it means to be loved, by myself and by my teacher and by the universe. And so, eventually, long years later, I had learned to pay attention to my heart.
There has been some conversation in the broader yoga community recently about when a student might be ready for themes about the heart, or certain Tantric philosophical approaches, to be taught. About when the threshold is reached when a student is ready. But this is a more subtle argument I want to make. My friend Nancy says she teaches that the heart is a physical place in the body. Given our continued insistence in the West on mind/body and body/god dualisms, then it is a miracle to experience the physical and emotional heart at all, much less experience the heart as divine. She says, bring students into their bodies and into the conversation, and bring their own construct of the word “heart” to the conversation. Evoke and create the space so they can remind themselves of what it means and stand in that space (parallels to the Gita come to mind here). Expand their capacity to experience themselves at the highest that they can imagine for themselves. Concentrate on what it means to be human, and what is a heart, what is a body, what is a mind. Then you can expand outward to cosmological constructs, such as the nature of consciousness and the connection of the heart to the divine. And I completely agree. But what I have to say is also somewhat paradoxical in relation to that question.
As Nancy suggests, it was my body that first learned to listen to my heart, not my mind. And then my mind followed along. And my body learned because I had decided, in my mind, not to listen at all, but underneath, paradoxically, my body was listening all those years. Somehow this practice of asana allows us to experience ourselves as an embodiment of love and of universal consciousness and desire, that creative urge in the cosmos that is divine. And it very much helps, it does not hinder, to have that voice of the teacher threading the themes of the heart into the practice, right from the start, even if we are not ready to hear them. Because our bodies hear them, even if the rest of us can’t yet.
Even if we are completely just focused on trying to heal our bodies, as I was. So I think the words are very important, do not misunderstand me, and some less experienced teachers may not be prepared to weave these exultant themes into sequences of poses and also at the same time help their students to learn to heal their physical ailments by carefully aligning their bodies. I admit, I had many experts helping me. And yet some of what I have learned from my teacher comes from her own wildly open heart. What reaches people is the warmth of her heart as much as her heart theme. So she has the authority because she is so good at opening her own heart, and then also weaving the philosophy into the Universal Principals of Alignment. Body language and the context of the room are powerful; the spoken word is a small part of what is happening. Still, the words one chooses are extremely important. So, to be clear, I believe that heart centered language can never not be taught, because that is what yoga is (“nishprapanchaya shantaya,” as it were). In this mysterious process of asana that yokes and interweaves language and space and physical practice and relationship, I have healed my heart. We all, in this age, no matter what our physical ailments, need our hearts to be healed. This practice is heart healing. It opens our hearts, and the universe floods in.
Photos by John Watkins.