Tonight I found myself sitting on the floor with my two-year old boy, building a tower made of Duplos (if you must know, Duplos are like Legos but smaller, i.e. harder to swallow). Now, you may think that this is my usual past-time on Friday nights, but no, I usually let my husband do the honors, because I don't have the time or the patience and I'd rather do the dishes and make sure everything is tidy. But tonight, after my first week of taking the online seminar Yoga for Writers, my readyness to observe how we all express ourselves has increased significantly. And so I watched this incredibly lively little boy, who is not known for his ability to sit still, become very focused and engaged. He seemed to enter a special zone, and I believe it was because with those colorful little bricks, he was finding a way to express himself.
In all these years I had never thought about it like this, but after a week of discussing writing attempts and ambitions with fellow writers online, I have had one major insight: Self-expression is a very fundamental human need. Whether we are amateurs, professionals or somewhere in between, most of us have a passion that has become their vehicle for self-expression – be it painting, playing an instrument, singing, sewing, dancing or, well, writing. Just like my son, when you find your voice, or your vehicle, you enter that special world, you get tunnel vision and become fully present. Everything that was troubling you, suddenly slinks further and further away. Not surprisingly, these are the words I often use to describe the effects of a yoga practice.
Could it be that this need to express ourselves is also what keeps bringing us back to our yoga mat? As we practice Asana, our body becomes a vehicle for self-expression, similar to dance. We express ourselves by putting the body into different shapes. Drawing cobras, warriors and triangles in thin air. It's true that the poses are set and look like they don't leave much room for interpretation. However, this couldn't be further from the truth. The poses look and feel different on everybody and every body. And who says you are not allowed to play with the poses or transitions in between? Who says you are not to explore and discover which little tweaks and creative variations work best for you? Every pose is a unique expression. Every pose is different from day to day and evolves tremendously over the years, as we get more accustomed to this practice or take breaks from it for a while.
As I was teaching today, it suddenly occurred to me, that the beauty of self-expression even goas as far as our breath. On a micro-level, we are constantly ex-pressing, and I mean this in the literal sense. If you consider the latin root of expressing, pushing out, then you realize this is exactly what we do when we exhale - pushing air out of the lungs, sending back out what we originally took in by inspiration (pun intended): The breath is a metaphor for every creative process: First we take in what enlivens us and gets our brain working (like oxygen, for example) and then send out a new version that has gone through our system and came back digested and slightly altered (like carbondioxide, for instance). Making sounds, be it talking or singing, happens on the exhale. Whatever we communicate to the outside world is inextricably linked to our exhale.
Yoga links breath to body movement, one way of self-expression to another. It occurs to me that eventually, yoga creates a container for all emotions that arise. Whether positive, neutral or negative, at some point emotions will well up. Being in a yoga pose when that happens, represents an alternative to simply reacting to our emotions. As we stay present in the body and with the breath, we are able to fully inhabit what we feel in our body. We are not denying our emotions, but we are also not acting on them. We simply make space to experience them, we literally em-body them. Within the container, we can express what we feel and admit to our emotions, without causing harm or disturbance to others.
I suddenly see a new reason why many yoga teachers like working with intentions. I always considered it a valuable technique for positive thinking, for planting a seed and slightly shifting the conditioning of the mind. But it is a brilliant stratagem: As we plant an intention (e.g. “I will lift my sternum and expand my chest”) on the physical plain, we pair it with a second intention on a mental level. On the gross level, we can immediately witness the outward manifestation of intention. Could it be that this alchemy, the power of externalizing intentions speedily when it comes to the gross body, rubs off on the mind, so that the manifesting of our intentions out in the world would be considerably accelarated? I like to think that it is so. And just imagine, the things we could do, if we silently voiced our intention while exhaling or silently saying a mantra on the exhale!
This, right there, is the miracle of life. Creativity and self-expression. A basic human need, not just for those who have been called professionals, but for everyone who has been kissed by the muse.
After a week of mutual exchange with my fellow yogi-writers it's painful to see how we all measure our own merit by gauging the results of our practice: Could it be that this is exactly when the beauty of self-expression starts eluding us? As soon as it becomes about results, we start missing out on the process. While it is rewarding to see our work completed, what is truly healing is the work itself: Feeling the breath moving through the body as if it was a hollow bamboo shape. Feeling the body warm up from the inside as we move through sun salutations. Feeling the mind become open and still as we approach Shavasana. That is the beauty. Not becoming more flexible over the years and one day, suddenly, mastering forearm stand. Being in the zone, forgetting time and space, while searching for that perfect metaphor or perfect light or perfect music phrase, that is what connects us with our Self. That is what it means to be fully present. And like all journeys, this one won't radically change who we are. And still, every time we return, we will never be quite the same as before.