“Fill my heart with gladness, take away my sadness, ease my troubles, that’s what you do.” ~ Have I Told You Lately, Van Morrison
“The presence of truth can make us feel naked, but compassion takes all our shame away.”
This is one of the many phrases of which I took note while reading Light on Life by B.K.S. Iyengar, the father of modern yoga. I took notes because I’ve been assigned homework for the first time in 30 years! I even had to hand in a one-page reflection paper by a certain date, typed and printed! I’ve signed up for yoga teacher training, and reading this book was my first assignment.
I’ve been surprised at how excited I am about the organized structure of the training. There’s a plan for everything over the next five months, and I find this very appealing, probably because it’s been a while since I’ve actually had any sort of plan. Over the past few years, my only plan has been to practice as much yoga as I can and then to see what happens next. I call this my no-plan plan, and so far I think it’s been working. The practice has been like a treasure map, and following it has brought me out into the world in a way that I wasn’t.
And now it’s brought me to teacher training. That’s what’s next, and the program has already begun.
Light on Life was a surprisingly easy read. The book was full of information, and reading it made me realize how much there is to learn, so much so that it would almost be a disservice to my practice not to learn more. Still, I have to admit that, if this book hadn’t been assigned, I probably wouldn’t have read it. I must confess that at first I judged its cover and thought I’d have trouble relating. But I was wrong! This book is all about yoga, which means that it’s all about the life of anyone who’s reading it! So much of what I read is what I’ve experienced for myself that sometimes it was as if the author were speaking directly to me. And this was especially true with what he had to say about harmony.
Iyengar writes, “… you will work from your heart, not your brain, to create harmony.”
I hadn’t known when I bought my mat that its manufacturer had named it “Harmony”, and I certainly hadn’t realized that harmony would be the gift that my practice would give to me. When I first found yoga, I was still a big planner. I had been working from my brain for a long time, mostly because my heart hadn’t proved to be that smart. And this was fine for a while, because I’m actually a thinker at heart, and so it’s always been easy for me to be in my head. I even remember a remark about this from a boy I liked in college. We were sitting on the lawn outside of a fraternity house when he asked me what I was thinking about. And I remember that I couldn’t answer him.
“You have to be thinking about something,” he’d said. “That brain of yours is never quiet!”
Looking back, I’m sure I was just tongue-tied. But had I been practicing back then, I think I would have had an answer for him.
According to Iyengar, harmony is born of the heart. It’s a sign of spiritual serenity, which he says is something that’s found in our bodies. And we can find it by practicing yoga. From wherever we are, we can always trace the route back to our hearts with the practice.
“As long as you do not feel the serenity in the body …” he writes, “… there is no chance for emancipation. You are in bondage.”
This is why I think my no-plan plan is working. At least I think it must be, because I seem to have accessed some of this serenity! When I first started practicing, I hadn’t known that yoga would map the way out of my head and into my heart, and that, on top of that, I would even find peace. But, according to Iyengar, this shouldn’t be a surprise. He says that I was born with the ability to set myself free, and that my own body can do this for me. And that’s exactly what’s happened. I can find peace in any pose, even in variations of those as simple as Tree.
Tree is the first pose of the balancing series, a peaceful pit stop found midway through the practice. Standing on one foot, we prop the other against the inside of the standing leg and place our hands in prayer at our hearts. In one class, we grow our trees, lifting our arms and even bending back. In another, we fold over and move into arm balances. And, in still another, we close our eyes, but this is the one that gets tricky.
With my eyes closed, I get lost in the dark and the peace escapes me. My body tilts this way and that, and by time the instructor counts to three, I’ve already fallen out of my tree! But that’s okay, because right away we’re asked to switch to the other side and give it yet another try. Only this time, before we close our eyes, the instructor has a request.
“First look at your eyes in the mirror,” he says. “Find the peace there.”
I take a good look in my eyes, and it’s as if I can see all the way down to my roots. And this steadies me for when I close them again, which makes everything different on this side. Now there’s harmony in my Tree, and I’m able to balance and calmly breathe, this time for a count of five.
Every good map has a key, and if the practice is a map, then the breath is its key. According to Iyengar, we have to breathe intentionally in every pose in order to make our way out of our heads and back to our hearts. That’s why he directs us to inhale just a little bit more than we think we can and to exhale just as much.
“Inhalation is tension,” he writes, “exhalation is freedom.”
The road to serenity can be winding, and these are good directions for us to follow, especially when we’re lost. The breath can help us move from difficulty to ease, and return us from places where we thought we should be. And this is good to know, because there are lots of forks in this road, and it can be easy to get stuck. But these are also the very places where we catch our breath. They’re where we stop and close our eyes and remember who we are inside.
And that’s how we find our way back to our hearts, where the truth of the matter always lies. And if we’re to believe what Iyengar says, then there should be no shame in whatever pain we might find there. It’s okay to inhale truth, if we can exhale compassion.
“So while you are sweating and aching,” he writes, “let your heart be light and let it fill your body with gladness. You are not only becoming free, but you are also being free. What is not to be glad about? The pain is temporary. The freedom is permanent.”