The Yoga Map
There are maps for just about everything – roads, parks, museums, hiking trails, airports and much more. They help us get to where we need to go and navigate a foreign terrain.
For instance, when hiking in the forest, having a trail map that reflects the surrounding area is important so that you don’t get lost. Wilderness maps can notate various landmarks, direction, elevation, type of terrain, water sources, where the trail markers are, where they lead, and so forth.
They can also show us where not to go – avoiding steep cliffs, unstable ground, and other unsafe areas. In the wilderness, staying on a trail can be a critical aspect of survival.
But sometimes, maps are not clear. They can be poorly written or confusing. They might be written in a language you don’t understand.
A map can also become inaccurate if the original landscape it reflected changes. A winter storm can easily shift a trail or swell a river. A hurricane, tornado, or flood can level anything in its path, thus rendering the land unrecognizable to any original map.
So what do you do, when the very map you hold in your hands, no longer reflects the landscape in front of you?
Follow the map anyway? Find a new map? Go in blind? Decide not to take the journey at all?
In the practice of yoga, there are maps too. Quite a few in fact. They chart out specific details of how to practice. How to move in and out of a particular pose, how long to hold it, how to breathe, how to meditate, and so on. As different lineages of yoga have their own way of practice, no two maps are the same, and the practitioner knowingly or unknowingly chooses which one to follow. Understanding this can be helpful for the practitioner so that they can seek out the map that supports them in their individual journey. If you were wanting to hike in the Eastern Sierra Mountains, you wouldn’t take with you a map for the Appalachians.
Through my own practice and studies with teachers, the way I have come to learn and understand yoga, is that these maps are not meant to be rigid. They are meant to serve as a guide. To be utilized as a tool to help us navigate new and foreign terrain. I believe that inherently built into these ‘maps’, is the understanding that our terrain, our landscape, is always changing – both internally and externally.
The body we have in our 20’s is not the body we have in our 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. And if we are lucky enough to arrive there, it is definitely not the same body we will have in our 80’s and 90’s.
During the course of our lifetime, we will have many experiences that will affect our mind, body, emotions, and spirit. We are constant and ever changing beings. Yoga is a system of developing conscious awareness that can be used to help us adapt to our own evolution. It is a system of non-harming principles and for this reason, I believe it was never intended for practitioners to follow everything so concretely, that there is no room for adaption.
For example, the tremendous benefits of practicing inversions has been clearly stated and proven. But if a practitioner has a condition of the body that cannot tolerate bearing weight on their neck or wrists, should headstand be practiced anyway simply because one map said so? Following the guidance of a map can be useful, but as a practitioner, we should also utilize discernment. In the scenario mentioned here, the benefits of being inverted can be reached without putting the body in physical danger and another map might show how to achieve this in an alternate way other than traditional sirsana (headstand pose).
One of the reasons that I began to love yoga so early on in the practice, was the understanding that yoga first meets us where we are. It can help us determine where on the map our current location is. As any adventurer knows, you cannot set foot onto a trail without first knowing where you are. Knowing where you are, is the first step into beginning anything. And once you begin your journey, the map; rather than forcing you onto one particular trail or another, can be utilized to help you decide which one is most appropriate for you right now. If you are beginner, chances are you will first travel the trail that is less steep, and then with experience eventually explore the lengthier, more challenging trail. As you go, continuously checking in with your reference points of where you are in any given moment is important.
The same is true of our practice. By consciously reflecting where we are in any given moment, it can help us in the decision of what step to take next. It can help us to decide what to practice and how to practice. We can ask ourselves, is today a day that I need more rest? Do I need a more vigorous practice? Do I need to self-care for a grumpy hip or achy back?
THIS, is where the magic of the practice happens. Where the practice not only supports what we as an individual needs, but also teaches us to rely on our own map. To rely on our inner guru; our inner guide that knows exactly where we need to go and how to go. I remember my teacher when encouraging us to establish a home practice, would say that this is where we begin to find the teacher within.
The wise teacher within, is what helps us to follow the map that is right for us, and/or write new maps. Because either gradually or suddenly, our inner and outer landscape will undeniably shift, and we may no longer identify with first map we picked up.
Being able to let go of the map that no longer serves us or no longer supports where we are in reference to it – depicts a wise yogi.
A yogi - that has found fluidity in the changes of life, rather than being battered by it because of our own rigidity.