I have been working with this woman in her late 70’s, maybe early 80’s. She has a lot of physical issues. Some of the issues are newer, occurring in the past 2-3 years, and some are much older. Today, when I was walking through the house to get to the room we were going to work in, I noticed a photo. The photo was of 3 young women, possibly in their mid to late 20’s, or early 30’s. The 3 women happen to be extremely beautiful – almost like the actresses of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. They happen to be dressed rather on the dapper side as well. 3 women, arm in arm, obviously friends, having a good time in their youth. I stopped to get a better look at it and I asked her who was in the photo. I had a feeling it was her, many decades back. She got a big smile on her face and said, “I am in the middle, my younger sister is to my right, and my best friend, who is no longer with us is to my left”. I told her it was a beautiful picture, and that they all looked so happy and carefree. This made her smile and laugh a bit. She then said, “Ahhh, yes, we were all young and went on a trip to NYC when that photo was taken. We did look so good back then”. I told her that they all looked stunning, like models, and that her good looks have stayed with her, and her good heart is also still in tact as well. This seemed to make her happy. We then continued forward to the room we were going to practice in. As we began to practice, I had her lie on her back and begin to connect to her breathing. Typical yoga stuff. As she lay there, I watched her breathing, her relaxed face, almost no expression, except that you could tell there was a smile lying below the surface of the skin which is so different than a face with little to no expression that contains a frown below it. If that makes any sense. As I watched her, I could completely see all of her beauty, her inner beauty was obvious, and her outer beauty may be a bit different, but it is essentially the same. The only difference is the value society places on youth versus the aged. In all reality, she was just as beautiful in this moment as she had been in that photo so many years ago. As we continued to practice, and she began to move, different physical issues would come up and I would ask her if a movement increased the pain or decreased it, or was it the same. She would answer and often refer to her physical issues as “old friends”. She might say, “ohh, that old friend in my knee is fine, no worse, no better, just letting me know they are still around”. She handles her physical issues, in my mind, in a zen manner. She accepts the issue, embraces it, and simply tries to understand how to deal with it. At other times, when a particular movement, or maybe if I physically adjusted her, and it felt good, a positive, gentle sensation in her body, she would smile and fully experience it, enjoy it and appreciate it. I may have taught her a class today, but the reality is I was gifted with so many life lessons from a beautiful soul. As a society we truly need to SEE the older generation and give them our attention, our time, and our love. Be willing to spend a bit of time slowing down for someone that is slowing down. Look past what society says is beautiful and see that beauty is not young or old, it is both, and the person with true beauty will always have that smile that sits below the surface of the mask that we all have.
I have been asked why I include Supta Padangusthasana 1 in almost all of my restorative classes. First off, what is Supta Padangusthasana? In Sanskrit, supta means lying down or reclining. Padengusthasana is broken down into three words: Pada, means foot, angustha means big toe, and asana meaning pose. Putting that all together you get, reclining hand to big toe pose. When I teach this pose I do not teach the classic version, but instead use a yoga belt, replacing the hand to big toe part. I do this because most student do not have the mobility in the hip and hamstring which is needed in order to do the pose comfortably. Without the use of a yoga belt, the benefits can be lost. The student lies on the mat, and instead of lifting one leg up and grabbing the big toe with their hand, they place a yoga belt over the foot, and take the pose with this modification, working towards the eventual classic version.
Back to the question, why do i use it in nearly every restorative class. There are a number of reasons I feel this pose is fantastic, whether in a restorative class, or any other class. If this pose is done with integrity and purpose, it can do more than simply stretch out the hamstring and the calf muscle. The first thing this pose accomplishes is simple – it awakens the legs and the foot. It brings an instant awareness to energy within the legs. Is the leg limber or stiff, is it fatigued or energized, is it asleep or awake? With effort, it will awaken and move towards limber and energized. It will increase blood circulation in the legs, hips and low back. This blood will nourish the muscles and stimulate the nerves. It will help remove the fatigue and stiffness in the leg, providing the leg and hip more mobility. It often can relieve some of the pain and discomfort of sciatica. It also provides relief to some knee issues. It helps bring proper movement and range of motion to the hip and the hamstring, both of which affect the sacrum and lumbar spine. With time and practice, sacrum issues and lower back pain often subside as well. With lower back pain, sciatica and knee issues so prevalent in students, I feel that this pose, done in a mindful meditative manner, is a must for many students.
In all the years I have been practicing yoga, I have encountered numerous teachers who understand the theories of asana. They have no problem explaining the most technical points of a pose. A few gifted teachers take it a step further. They understand the most technical points of the pose, but they understand that without the breath, an open curious mind, and a willingness to focus intently without judgement, the practice is nothing more than exercise. They give you the time and space to practice. They do not tell you how to feel. They don’t tell you how to feel because that is your experience. They simply teach the pose, and give you space to breath and have an experience. Then you choose to do a pose like exercise, or you choose to find the beauty and poetry of the pose, and move from the outer to the inner, it is ultimately your decision. Eventually you must climb above the physical struggle and face the ego and its struggle to accept at first the asana, and eventually the life, your life. Your limits, your weaknesses, your strengths and gifts, the dark and the light. There is a delicate balance between, your mat, your world, and yourself. If your practice does not serve you, and enhance your life, then you should make changes, it is pretty simple. Yoga can heal you, can harm you, can change you for better or worse, but it can only do these things with your approval.
In order to let a student find inner wisdom, the teacher must be confident enough to give the student the freedom to seek. A rigid, authoritarian approach will simply decrease the students ability to find that which truly resonates within, and diminish the students experience. Only when a teacher is no longer driven to be perfect, to be all knowing, all powerful, to be the master, will the student grow to full potential. The hard lessons must be softened with kindness, and the truth will emerge. Then, when the student is ready to receive and the teacher is ready to relinquish, wisdom will be found.
If you do not pay attention to your journey, never experiencing the path, the ups, the downs, the way you impact others along the way, and instead only focus on your desires, your goals, your imagined destiny, your hard earned endpoint will often feel empty and satisfaction will be short lived. It is our connection to the journey and our connection to our environment and our fellow humans that creates contentment, fulfillment and happiness.