Asking for advice is difficult because we don’t always want to hear it. Listening to people comment on our choices can be difficult because we sometimes prefer to ignore what’s apparent to any casual observer. I sometimes think the deepest, most aggressively suppressed insecurities appear more clearly in my consciousness than the more subtle stuff. The formatting that makes you the kind of person to take the last cookie from the plate or makes it impossible for you to breathe on another person without apologising is harder to access than the stuff that makes you cry or lose your temper or indulge in retail therapy.
Most people don’t get access to our deep-down selves. Why would they? The majority of the time, we are engaged in low-stakes interactions, ordering coffee or making plans to meet or negotiating some kind of deadline. Even if you have a childhood fear of abandonment that haunts you from the moment you wake up to when you fall asleep, it isn’t relevant or appropriate to make it part of your conversation with your hairdresser about whether you want to trim your bangs or let them grow out.
Experimenting with asana myself, and hearing about others’ experiences with it, makes me think that there might be a little more wiggle room in those categories. Or that we might be worse at keeping things secret than we think we are. Spending time in the Mysore room (or waiting outside the Mysore room) makes it apparent that every practitioner has a personality. Not just strengths and weaknesses, it isn’t just that some of us have strong shoulder girdles or open backs or whatever it is. Every person’s body is sending messages about their attitude, emotions, past trauma, future potential, eating habits, and so on ad infinitum. All yoga asana showcases this mess of factors, and the daily ashtanga practice uses repetition to make it appear clearly to the practitioner and his or her teacher.
It’s funny, this seems like a real dig-deep-over-many-years exercise, and it is, but I think that might just be true the first time you do it. As in, learning to recognise that this is the case probably takes years of preparing your mind for this possibility. The idea that people’s internal lives somehow appear in their gestures or breathing or how they hold their spinal column is pretty disruptive, because it means you can’t keep things to yourself. Privacy, discretion, secrecy all get a little destabilised if you are willing to think about the body and the physical practice in this way. But if you accept that principle, it could be that a whole world of information opens up to you, and you can learn this language of embodied communication that we are all unconsciously speaking all the time.
In the best cases, getting stuck on a pose might force this language into view. It pushes us to direct all your concentration and strength and flexibility to successfully performing one asana, and to review the catalogue of obstacles to doing that asana well (or well enough for our teacher to advance us!). We start to see the muscles that we are tensing unnecessarily, the moments where we are forgetting to breath or breathing fast and shallow. The bigger challenges take shape slowly, and we find we have always slouched or struggled with tight hips or avoided opening the front body too much. This the the bit that reminds me most of learning a new language. Once you see this new thing clearly, once you have this new tool, it becomes useful for everything and you see everyone doing it. It’s like when I learned the word discourse, or sacrum, or the Arabic word for skipping an appointment – I had never needed any of them before, but once I had them, I could see these concepts at work in a way that I couldn’t when I had no name for them.
I would not advocate watching other people doing their practices while you are doing yours. But, when your gaze wanders and you see someone else, it’s likely that other person’s practice will make an impression. Their practice might be “strong”, or they might be “flexible”, “calm”, have a “beautiful” practice. It could be “distracted” or “aggressive” or “angry”. Our brains being what they are, it’s likely some adjective will show up to describe it before we can retrieve our focus. But maybe we can turn the ability to receive these kinds of impressions inward, and see what information we get then. Or just try to look at your nose, like you are supposed to.