Yoga asana as Somatic Inquiry – or let’s not mistake the map for the terrain

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I recently had a thought-provoking conversation with fellow yoga teacher Heather Blashki, exploring the question of how do we inspire students to trust and feel their somatic experience as a guide for asana, rather than the common tendency to simply copy the teacher? I came away from this conversation with an urge to describe a somatic approach to yoga.
 
A few days later my friend Ilan Abrahams sent me an email with Glenna Batson’s description of five features of a somatic discipline. I was inspired to read this as it describes so clearly what I see as essential in a yoga asana practice. Watson describes these five components of a somatic practice as:
– slowing down and paying attention
– using sensory feedback
– learning through internal experience rather than imitation
– applying a rhythm of doing and resting
– exploring movement rather than simply completing exercises
(Source: Glenna Batson, Somatics 101, Dance Magazine, July 2006 by Nancy Wozny)
 
The world of teaching and practising yoga asana revolves around the maps we carry for our teaching/practice. Every style or tradition of yoga puts forward a different map and these usefully highlight different techniques for exploring the form and function of postures.
 
But let’s also remember: the map is a map, it is not the actual terrain. The purpose of any map is to enliven our actual, lived experience of the body. The somatic terrain in this moment, in every body, is much more magnificent than our maps. The felt experience of the body itself gives us an incredible harvest of somatic wisdom.
 
This somatic approach reminds us that the goal of asana teaching and practice is to illuminate first and foremost: our ground of immediate felt experience as our primary guide. Yoga asana technique needs to be in service of waking up a deep and moment-by-moment inquiry into our felt experience, to wake up the wisdom of our body-mind. If we can access our own felt knowing then we will find uniquely integrated ways of moving, way beyond standardised techniques. Then we discover: each student has the ideal body, in this moment, to find his or her own integrated posture. Can we teach to this wholeness and intelligence that the student has? As teachers can we offer guidance and tools in service of the student’s wisdom? Or do we think we have all the answers on how to do postures and pour this onto students?
 
Of course, there is a place for following external, teacher-led cues for posture, based on a specific approach or map for asana. But as a whole, the yoga world greatly exaggerates the place of “teacher-teaches, student-follows” asana technique. We need to balance external cues with a waking up of the student’s internal somatic knowing. Where external cues meet internal knowing and adaption by the student: this is a rich and fertile place!
 
In keeping with this emphasis on yoga asana as somatic inquiry – let’s pause for two minutes and explore a somatic inquiry right now. Please do this short exploration before reading further so you can bring your somatic knowing into your reading.
 
Somatic Inquiry: Step 1: Open and close one hand, at any rhythm. Do this several times BEFORE you look at the next step.
 
Step 2: Continue to open and close your hand several more times, bring you awareness to your breathing. You are now feeling your hand opening and closing and your breath together. Allow your moving to change any way that unfolds for you. Do this several more times with your eyes closed.
 
Step 3: Reflection: What did you notice? What changed as you brought your awareness to include the breath and movement together?
 
I have explored this inquiry with students over many years and students consistently remark on how connecting to the breath slowed their movement down, brought in a more fluid rhythm attuned to the breath, brought deeper sensitivity and aliveness to the movement and a felt sense of moving from the inside out.
 
In the first step of this inquiry, the cue is a mental one, to open and close the hand, and this evokes movement that is usually fairly mechanical. This echoes how yoga asana can be quite mechanical when a student only relies on teacher-led cues for postures. To use a very basic example, a student may move into Trikonasana (Triangle pose) by automatically reaching the hand to the shin or to wherever their ‘usual’ landing place is or to where the teacher instructs, to a block, to the ankle and so on. This approach means that a mentally constructed external cue creates the shape of the posture. When asana is practised like this, asana becomes mechanical, stylised and conformist with form dominating over function, where the shape of the a posture is mimicked and copied, and a ‘group-think’ takes over with rows of postures all looking the same, expressing an externally imposed idea of what a posture looks like.
 
So what does yoga asana as a somatic inquiry look like? Firstly, we pause. We slow down. We feel sensations and let the sensations guide us with how far to bend to the side in Trikonasana. We may still follow/offer external cues, but primarily we let our internal somatic experience guide us with how far to bend to the side. This wakes up all kinds of possibilities. My hand may reach my thigh one moment, a little deeper the next. When we connect with our actual felt experience, we realise that the body changes every time we practise and in every moment and our posture reflects that changing somatic experience. We realise each posture has an ebb an flow reflective of the ebb and flow of the breath and of the whole organic system of the body.
 
Through proprioceptive awareness, we can notice habitual ways of moving and, powerfully, our sustained proprioceptive awareness can bring us choice and open up new ways of being and moving.
 
May our practice and our teaching wake up our knowing, feeling, sensing selves so we can enjoy the self-empowerment, self-knowing and self-discovery this brings.
 
Anahata Giri offers yoga classes, workshops, teacher training and mentoring, yoga therapy and embodied listening sessions to help others connect with their inner guidance and wisdom. She is the founder of One Heart Yoga & Meditation at the Abbotsford Convent. www.oneheartyoga.com.au