Practice on Your Own Mat …

practice on your own mat savasana feet“[Marichi’s twist] is one of the relatively few poses in yoga where your gaze ought to extend beyond your mat. You look into the distance. There are fewer poses like this than you think. Most of the time, you should keep your gaze close to you. Keep your gaze within the area of your mat. That will keep your concentration where it needs to be: inside.” ~ from Poser by Claire Dederer

An hour into a Bikram yoga class, I’m supposed to be mindfully minding my breath. I’m supposed to be perfectly still, eyes open, paying attention to my body, quieting my mind. Usually, I’m not. Usually, I am looking at the person next to me and wondering where she got that cute shirt.

The spine strengthening series comes an hour or so into a 90-minute Bikram class. Four poses: all variations on back-bending, all performed belly down. Cobra (bhujangasana) targets the low spine. Half Locus (salabhasana): the middle and upper spine. Full Locust (poorna-salabhasana) and Bow (dhanurasana): the entire spine, stem to stern. I’ve suggested renaming the series to the “spine bending ass kicking series.” So far, it hasn’t caught on.

Between the two sets of each pose is a short corpse pose (savasana). Resting on the belly, head turned to one side, eyes open. It’s during the belly-down savasanas that I mentally wander the room asking questions, making up stories … just generally distracting myself. (Evidently, the mind roams even more wildly when the eyes are closed — which is startling.)

Here are thoughts I have had during the savasanas in spine strengthening series:

“Interesting tattoo. I wonder what the story is. I don’t think I’d ever get a tattoo. It’s more permanent than marriage.”

“Wow. She looks really good in those shorts. I would not look good in those. At all. I bet she’s twenty-five. Good lord, I could be her mother. I wonder if my legs ever looked that good. Probably not. I had Early Onset Cellulite.” (And then I smile to myself because I am so very amusing.)

“He’s wiggling his fingers. Does he know that he’s wiggling his fingers? Maybe his hand hurts. He’s supposed to be still during savasana but he’s not. He’s wiggling his fingers.”

Instead of watching my breath, this dialog rolls around like a big ol’ bocce ball in the pickup truck of my mind.

One Saturday, Sara took us into the first belly-down savasana and said, “Relax your left ear onto the towel and let your eyes focus on that magic spot on your mat.”

“Magic spot”! Sounds good. So I did. I found a little loop of towel to look at and – zhoom! – just like that, I was in my own skin, sensing my body. I could suddenly feel my heart beating and my breath moving. Instead of insinuating myself onto my neighbor’s mat, I was present and connected to how my practice felt for me right now. By taking my gaze onto my mat, I got into my body.

Many times before, I’d heard teachers say, “Practice on your own mat.” I thought the instruction was intended to avoid comparing ourselves to others. (Which is cool and helpful since I have a similar running dialog in regards to how much I either suck or rock compared to who’s practicing next to me.) But this was the first time I understood that practicing on my own mat is the most direct way I can connect with what is actually happening for me in this moment.

I notice the same as I move through my day. I can spend a good deal of time looking around, mentally making up stories and offering ever-so-wise suggestions.

“He’d feel much better if he didn’t eat that way.”

“A more thoughtful person would clean up their dishes.”

“She romanticizes the way things were instead of living her life right now.”

Oy. While I’m rolling on like this, my thoughts feel so real and true. But they’re meaningless. They are just distractions from whatever I’m feeling that I would like to avoid.

Either in yoga or out in the day, when I notice that I’m having my bocce ball dialog of stories and judgment, I practice bringing myself back onto my own mat. I do my best to literally or figuratively find that magic spot on my own towel to focus on. Inevitably, as soon as I do, I notice sensations that my dialog had rolled right over: pain, fear, sadness, anger, loneliness.

Practicing on my own mat brings me back to myself and reminds me to pay attention to my own experience. It is the only one I have true access to and the only one I can really do anything about.

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