My first introduction to yoga was 50 years ago. It was not the enlightening experience you might expect, though it was quite revealing. I came across a Yoga paperback. The guy in the front cover was really good shape. It was difficult for a skinny wimp of a teenager like myself to believe that these static poses could take me part way towards the next Spiderman, but in my adolescent years I was willing to give anything a shot.
Naively I decide to go all in. What to wear? From the pictures it seems I should be wearing something that looks like a giant diaper. We didn’t have any white towels at home, so I took our largest bath towel, it was blue with a large kingfisher print. I fashioned something close to the pictures in the book. Actually it looks more like I have strapped a flock of unwilling seabirds loosely around my middle. It doesn’t feel particularly secure either but no problem, I have the house to myself.
Stripped down to the bare essentials I prepare for my first pose
Wait what? I thumb through to the index to look up 4 words in sanskrit to figure out where I am going to start. Got it Tāḍāsana means stand up. It sounds simple enough but check out Wikipedia for 3-4 pages on how yogis stand up at the front of their mat. It’s not as straightforward as it sounds.
Continuing from the book with Warrior I:
The arms are stretched up, palm touching.
Inhaling spread the legs sideways by jumping or stepping, creating a gap of ⅔ body height.
⅔ of body height. Is that important? What is ⅔ of 5ft 8 inches? Clutching the paperback in my teeth I reach for my slide rule and tape measure.
Exhaling turn the trunk facing to the left while rotating the left foot 90° so it faces forward and the right foot so it points slightly to the right.
The left foot has to be precisely 90°, “where is my set square”. The right foot slightly right? What does that mean? 15°, 25° I have a protractor. I could use that if the instructions were clearer. Why were the instruction so precise for the left foot and all sloppy for the right?
Bend the left knee till the thigh is parallel to the floor, avoid extending the bent knee past the ankle and keeping the other leg straight.
Balancing Dad’s spirit level on my left thigh I start to feel warrior one. But I am still not clear on the other leg, should it be straight or not. There are two ways to read instruction 4.
There are 10 more instruction to complete the pose and the clue is buried in them “the knee is locked.”
Side note never lock your knee out in any pose, whatever the book says.
Continuing – Looking up seems important too but how then to read the rest of the instructions. I build a simple device. In the days before selfie sticks, it’s a spatula and some well positioned duck tape. Now I can have the book in front of me by holding the spatula between my teeth. I resume my warrior I reading the further instructions while in the pose. As I reach up with my hands my kingfisher diaper feels like it is trying to escape. One false move and I am in trouble, but I persevere with the pose. We have net curtains at the windows and everyone is out.
Semi-naked in the middle of our lounge , spirit level balanced on one thigh, slide rule in hand and tape measure extended across the floor and spatula clutched between my teeth I look up and pause for “1 to 4 breaths.” Well is it 1 or is it 4 there is a big difference. I take a deep breath anticipating enlightenment.
The door bursts open, Mum and Dad rush in. They are back unexpectedly early as mum is not feeling well. I freeze and look over in horror. With a gentle thunk the kingfishers successfully make their bid for freedom.
I did not practice yoga for a few years after that.
The book is, I suspect, long gone and until google offers “search from images in your mind” I doubt I can find it as I have no idea of the title or author.
Today of course there are plenty of online resources to explain the poses. The instructions I used above were actually from Wikipedia. The collective wisdom of the crowd came up with that version of Warrior I.
There are lots of approaches out there. For the doctoral candidate with a minor in geometry how about the Yoga Journal style
“Raise your arms perpendicular to the floor (and parallel to each other), and reach actively through the little-finger sides of the hands toward the ceiling. Firm your scapulas against your back and draw them down toward the coccyx” – Yoga Journal.com
My first lesson was simple – Learning Yoga from a book is hard, very hard. Actually I think it’s impossible.
Like so many other things you can’t learn Yoga by reading about it. There are too many small adjustments and correction that just make written descriptions impossible to remember, follow or appreciate. Most of these refinements make no sense until you have been working on the basics of the pose for a while anyway. Instructions talk of 90 degree angles with an authority that would humble a guru. Only advanced yogis get to 90 degrees in most poses. The rest of us are somewhere on the way towards 45 degrees and happy right there. In complete contradiction other instructions are sloppy, “turn your back foot in slightly” . Why does one foot matter and not the other? What is important? And that fundamental question “Am I doing it right?” only an instructor can tell you these things because everyone is different and every pose is unique to them.
The knowledge passed down for 5,000 years has stood the test of time. Learn from an instructor, one that you like and resonate with, and use books for reference. Nothing has changed in 5,000 years though the western world is trying hard to do that with science and marketing. Not everything new is an improvement. That said I do appreciate 21st century yoga clothing. After my first experience with Yoga, to this day, I have not taken as much as my shirt off in a yoga class.
– Clive Beavis, Vinyasa Yoga Instructor