Monday, May 20, 2013

Becoming like Water

Now that it's spring here in the Colorado Rockies, I hear the song of the western meadowlark every time I'm in the wide open spaces. Their song sounds like flowing water to me. It feels like they're praising its sound in song.

In my yoga classes, I often speak of building the poses from the ground up, whether one is balancing on their seat, their feet, or their tete. Or their front, back and side. Building speaks of solidity, of structure, even of permanence. It's very important to have that sense of structure, of container. Eventually I contradict myself and tell them to become soft and fluid, to pour themselves into the posture.

It's all George Hernandez' fault. George was my tai chi and wing chun teacher. He would tell students we were painstakingly learning the forms, only to throw them out once we mastered them, in five or ten years, depending on how willful we were. Every time he'd say that I'd think to myself, What's the use of learning something we're only going to throw out? He would explain that you would never go into a fight using a form. You'd not only be an easy target, you'd be a laughingstock. You adapt your form and your movements to your opponents' and gain the advantage. Through dedicated practice, your lens becomes bigger than the forms and postures can contain. You see openings, and you thread your punches through them. You're certainly drawing from what you learned in choreographed fights, but the biggest thing you're really learning from them is awareness and improvisation.

Bruce Lee. What a specimen.
The exact same, except for the punches, is true of yoga. It would seem that martial arts and yoga are polar opposites, but they both work with energy, chi, prana, ki, or whatever your tradition calls it. Martial arts and yoga make the best use of the energy each practice generates, for different ends. Wing chun master Bruce Lee famously said, "You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend." It's about inhabiting space to the fullest extent, and being able to move from one space to the next. In both yoga and martial arts, the breath is the catalyst for filling space.

I often feel that certain problems are solid and intractable. Sometimes I dream that the solution to the problem was right in front of me all along. My mind was making it hard. I am not alone in this. I see it in my yoga students' bodies. The chips on their shoulders. Defiant posture. Defeatist posture. Being too hard on themselves. Less often, in go-go, bad-ass American culture, being too easy on themselves. Non-responsiveness. Non-awareness of the unnecessary, soul-sucking tension they carry within their beings. I touch their shoulders, the backs of their necks, their backs, inviting them to let breath and awareness melt the solidity, to find the softness and fluidity that is just beneath, like water beneath hard ground.

I don't claim to know what enlightenment is. It feels like water, letting water carry me where it will, rather than where I will. If I could sing like a bird, I'd sing the meadowlark's song. Yoga is practical enlightenment, in the sense that you are gradually letting go of burdens you never needed to carry in the first place.