The Heart of Yoga by Jennifer Harvey
My initial experience with yoga occurred many years ago, at the wonderful age of seventeen. I had heard about hatha yoga, and though I did not know much about the discipline, I was curious enough to sign up for a class. I remember the experience vividly. At the initial class, we were instructed to try to touch our toes but, much to my surprise and embarrassment, and despite a little “cheating,” my fingers still dangled a few inches above my feet. However, the teacher promised that by the end of class we would be closer to the toes if not touching them and after practicing a series of yoga poses (asanas) I was touching the ground.
The ability to touch my toes was not as intriguing as the process that got me there. It wasn’t due to a lot of stretching (I was used to that from sports and ballet) but more from a combination of certain asanas, breathing, bringing attention to certain parts of the body, and “relaxing the mind.” As we practiced different and more challenging asanas, we were instructed to focus on our breathing and to observe what was happening. As I stayed in the asana, I became aware of the inside of my body and of different sensations, and then, noticeably, an asana that might have been difficult became easier, by observing, breathing, and maintaining proper alignment.
Upon leaving one class after practicing some breathing techniques (pranayama) I realized that everything seemed more vivid and alive. In fact, I was feeling more alive. My teacher explained that through the practice of hatha yoga, I was beginning to develop strength, flexibility, and balance not only in my body, but also in my mind and my emotions. I was beginning to see the effects of yoga in my daily life. If I was centered, I was more peaceful, courageous, and compassionate. I was more my Self without effort. She said that with practice, I would know what she meant by Self, with a capital “S”. Yoga was a mystery that I liked and ever since have continued to pursue variations of the teachings.
After years of study of hatha yoga and other mind/body and spiritual disciplines, I have a context with which to understand my initial experiences. As my teacher said “Yoga is the scientific art of remembering our true nature. It is a science in that it has tried and true ways of remembering which are more effective than other ways…and an art in which each person can creatively and uniquely participate in the process of reunion and remembering.” This true nature is the “Self”; who we truly are.
Yoga is translated as “union” or “yoke.” Hatha yoga is a particular form that uses asanas and pranayama as the foundation for this union. Through the outer form of the asanas greater awareness of the inner body is cultivated, which connects us to the core of our being where enduring health and well being can be nurtured and sustained. The asana practice can be challenging, which surprises many people who have thought that hatha yoga is just about relaxing and stretching. Yoga is the balancing and alignment of apparent opposites (such as mind and body, infinite and finite, stillness and movement, contraction and expansion, stability and freedom) toward a sense of integration and wholeness. Hatha yoga provides an opportunity to explore the relationships of these opposites as they manifest together at the same time while practicing the asanas.
There are still many asanas I struggle with to find this integration. As I balance on one foot I may become rigid in my body and mind or I may wobble and shake. Yet, as I observe, align the body, free the breath, steady the mind, soften the heart, an awareness begins to occur that deepens my experience of the asana and of myself. It is the same expanded awareness I caught glimpses of so many years ago in my first eight weeks of yoga and continue to be mindful of today. It is the natural unfolding of my innermost Self and a reunion with that true nature that eternally abides in my heart and is at the heart of yoga.