By David Berson
I am fascinated by the ability of the body to remember sensations, seek them out, and evolve them into natural responses. When you learn a new physical activity such as a sport or a dance there’s an initial stage of being awkward and very aware of the motions. Over time the body develops what is sometimes call muscle memory. We start to react or do without thinking of the details of how we do what we do. The action becomes second nature.
A common approach in teaching is to introduce an idea in a simple and clear manner and then carry that idea forward in to more complex and challenging arenas. This approach is used in yoga classes by starting with simple a pose or two that enable one to focus on one body part or action. The continuing sequence of poses develops the idea and shows how it is used to make increasingly challenging poses more attainable.
Yoga begins with us experiencing poses with our body. Some times a prop is used to introduce the area of focus for the day’s class. The contact of a strap or a block with the body gives a kind of impression. For example, we may use a strap in harness pose to create good back posture. The strap forces us to stand up straighter by moving the collar bones up and the shoulder blades down. In the process we feel the ease of breath created when the rib cage is lifted and expanded to make room in the lungs. From here the class can go in many directions with poses that reinforce and benefit from good back posture.
Similarly, if a yoga class starts by lying on the floor with a block between the shoulder blades (stump pose), there’s really good chance there will be backbends later in the sequence. The block in stump pose induces the back to start arching. Here the block may feel like it is actually leaving a slight impression by way of an indentation in the skin. Even when we come out of the pose the body reminds us of that specific point of contact with the prop. As we move to other poses we still feel the block from stump pose. As a result, we arch the back more than if we had not made that impression.
In the course of a typical week I practice in the evenings after work and in the mornings on weekends. I have come to notice that my morning practices feel more aligned from the beginning. In the evening I have to work harder to come into alignment. I realized that during a day of sitting at a desk my tendency is to rest my elbows, lean into my work, and not think about how I am in my sitting posture. My body then remembers this shape and carries it into my evening practice. My body picks up the bad impressions of my work posture. When I practice in the morning my body has not yet had time to take on the influence of sitting around and I am free of those impressions.
Our bodies have a great capacity for memory. We should choose the first impressions we wish to have so that they carry us through the day.
David Berson is a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher and teaches three classes a week at Sunset Yoga Center. Find his schedule here.