Feel the Practice

At the beginning of Nikki Costello’s Teacher’s Practice at Big Apple Yoga a week ago, she noticed all of us gathered in front of her with our pens, notebooks and silent phones. She then said something startling: she asked us to put all of our accessories away, and simply

FEEL THE PRACTICE.

Often when advanced students and teachers get together, they are so excited about learning new things—for themselves, for their classes—that they spend more time writing down or photographing what’s being taught than actually feeling it. As Nikki pointed out, once you step out of the experience of doing yoga to record it, you’re bypassing the physical in favor of the intellectual; you’re prioritizing mind over body, essentially undermining the intelligence inherent in action.

For me, it was a fascinating exercise—shutting off the recording brain in order to more deeply transcribe the yoga onto my body. In many ways, it was exactly as Nikki described: by focusing on the outermost layers of our physical being (all of our “embodied” bits like skin, muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, etc,) I began to feelnot think about—what was happening on a more subtle level. This doesn’t mean that I was able to do an elegant parivrtta parsvakonasana. Far from it! (And good thing no one was taking pictures!) It means that while I was in the pose, I was more in tune with how it felt.

This exercise was also a concrete illustration of the concept of Samskaras, those karmic grooves, both mental and emotional, that inform our behavior patterns as well as our physical habits. On my first attempt at parivrtta parsvakonasana, I immediately slipped into my same old groove of “need a block here, have to crank the twist over here, merde, now I have to ratchet my too-short arm upward without giving myself a torticolis, blablabla.” The second time, I let my body evolve the pose from the legs up, without forcing, without overthinking every step, wobbling and looking clumsy the entire time—however!—feeling more ease in the pose than before. Was this a reworking of a negative Samskara? Or was it the recording of a new one?

A few years ago, a teacher of mine suggested that perhaps Samskaras are not fixed in concrete. Perhaps they are channels carved in clay or wax, meant to be formed, reformed and shaped over time. From this point of view, Samskaras are no longer these impossible-to-escape ruts holding us captive, but instead the way in which each of us engages yoga to continually write, sculpt and refine ourselves.

So while we might not have been recording Nikki’s class on paper or on film, we were indeed imprinting the yoga practice physically, etching its shapes and movements into our bodies.