Getting “The Feeling”

The thing that kept me coming back to Hatha Yoga during my eight years of on-again-off-again practice was “the feeling.” I felt something when I practiced, and I didn’t feel it when I didn’t. But what was I feeling? It felt like a summer breeze. It felt like getting out of the shower after having been in the sun all day. It felt like enthusiasm. It felt like love. It felt like life. And the feeling would appear when least expected it: in the checkout line at the grocery store, in my car, at work, hours after practice. My whole body would feel open and spacious when I practiced, and it would feel stuck and clogged when I didn’t. I stumbled on this feeling by accident and didn’t really understand it or know how to control it. It wasn’t until I discovered Ananda Yoga® that I began to get a feel for “the feeling.”

A familiar saying of Paramhansa Yogananda’s is: “Tense with will; relax and feel.” As Westerners we understand using will power to tense. We know how to push and strive. But we are not very good at the “relax and feel” part. That requires getting very quiet and listening with the whole being. I’ve seen that Ananda Yoga is designed to create the opportunities to listen for the feeling. The affirmations help to bring the mind into the body, and the pauses between postures offer an opportunity to relax and feel the movement of life-force (prana) in the body.

I must admit that I didn’t seek out Hatha Yoga for “the feeling,” nor do most of my students. Usually the student’s mind is so disconnected from the body that it will take months, if not years to begin to perceive “the feeling.” They want the stretch of the postures or the release of deep relaxation, but they couldn’t care less about going inward and comparing the left and right thigh after tree pose. They want to go to the next stretch.

Helping Students to Get “The Feeling”

How to get them to listen, to connect, to feel? Quite by accident I discovered a wonderful bridge between stretch and perception.

There I was, a new teacher trying to remember everything I was taught, trying to get in the perfect balance of standing, seated and prone postures, trying to breathe, talk and demonstrate all at the same time. I had the class in jathara parivartanasana (supine twist) and it felt as if my brain were as twisted as my students’ bodies.

I sat on my pillow for a moment to catch my breath and was just about to ask them to inhale the knee up, etc., when it happened: I was watching one of my students as she took a deep breath and her whole body melted. The waist released, the hips went vertical, the knee glided down. It was beautiful. It was obvious that she enjoyed it too, so I didn’t have the heart to pull her out of it just yet.

I waited, and right before my eyes the other students began to melt in the same way. They had been holding the posture about three or four minutes by that time. I guided them out of the twist and prepared them for the other side. I instructed them to put the breath into the waist, lower back and hips, and to relax on the exhalation. Then I waited. They were stiff and apprehensive for the first three minutes, then one by one they melted into the posture. It was awesome!

A Complete Practice in One Asana

Since that day, Jathara Parivartanasana has developed into a mini-practice on breath, relaxation and listening. We hold each side for five minutes and direct the entire awareness into the waist, hips and lower back.

Spinal twist lying down

Using the inhalation to expand the waist, the student then exhales slowly and witnesses the body responding to the breath. I stay with them the whole time, gently encouraging them to stay aware of the subtle movements of the body. I let them know that internal organs are being massaged and moved, and I remind them to be patient while these organs find a place to settle. I place blankets under knees and toes to remove fear and striving when necessary. I continually guide them back to the breath, paying special attention to the exhalation and the accompanying melting.

When coming out of the posture, it’s very important to remind the student to push into the floor with the foot as it comes back around so that the hips can be lifted and squared to the floor. I have them bring their knees to the chest very slowly and mindfully. After a pause, we move to the other side, and the process begins again.

The expansive inhalation, the melting exhalation, the settling of the internal organs, listening intently to the subtle shifts and messages of the body — all these have a liberating and empowering effect on the student. During this process, the student learns to direct the breath with intention and then immediately experience the result. From Jathara Parivartanasana we move into deep relaxation. Then with the heightened, but relaxed, awareness of breath and body, we are ready to flow naturally right into meditation.

Now when we do, say, Trikonasana to the left and I ask my students to come back to center, close their eyes and notice, I see smiles. They perceive the twisting like a corkscrew. When we do the other side, they feel the balance. John, a student who comes two to three times a week told me recently that he had always believed that being relaxed was weak. Now, he feels great power and energy in being relaxed. Imagine that!

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