It feels great to be back in the practice; heading out to the studio each morning in the dark and setting up in the corner to do my own practice while the group of 16 teacher trainees do their thing with Nicky. Even though I’m not receiving any instruction, just being around people helps to focus, and I am kept entertained by Nicky’s snide remarks to her students and their echoing groans and pants while I happily laze through some backbends at my own pace.
The course has only been on for four days and I had a day of (exhausted, jet-lagged, frozen, failed) self-practice before, and I am amazed at how quickly the body recovers when you give it half a chance. A little less sugar, a few more carrots and all of a sudden I can touch my toes again. By the same token, whenever I get off my practice and bogged down under the heap of classes and admin that is NataRaj, I am invariably surprised at how much torture the body can endure—little sleep, too much coffee, chocolate, wine and stress. You feel the toxins accumulating and they just keep building long after the yoga-alarms start sounding, but the body plugs along. I feel sorry for these bodies, like horses who are made to pull loads that are too heavy or run on broken tendons. We do such terrible things to them but they carry on anyway, and they never stop giving to these authoritarian egos until they are forced to give in by sickness or injury.
But then we come to Nicky and she sets us right. Nicky is a pretty right-brained person, a little spacey at times, but fiercely knowledgeable about the practice with a deep understanding of what it’s for. Plenty of teachers will list off poses to you, many will give you instructions about technique and alignment, and some will even insert Hallmark wisdom into the class to prove that the practice is spiritual. Nicky does it differently.
Nicky offers a tough-love yoga practice that drives a wedge under your ego and pulls it off to reveal the real you. It hurts like hell, it makes you cry, it makes you shake, but damn it, you get somewhere, and the transformation is bloody spiritual.
There are many yoga teachers out there who justify the importance of the practice by icing the physical postures with a spiritual justification: wrap your leg around your head and think of a person who needs the most love, as if your feat of impractical flexibility not only helps you but makes a distant recipient of your hamstring energy better off, too. I just don’t believe that goodness in the world is proportional to the flexibility of my legs. And I really don’t believe that spreading lovey-dovey language all over my yoga mat—or anyone else’s, for that matter—is going to bring anyone closer to Self-realisation. Ego-realisation, maybe, but not much about the Self.
Moving through ego hurts: shame, anger, sadness and guilt are what happen when the ego is asked to twist in ways it doesn’t want to. All these come up in a serious practice, and to the unsuspecting, it seems like we’re doing something wrong. We tend to think of yoga as something to do at a spa or by the beach, something good for us but still a bit indulgent and relaxing; and we think that spiritual pursuits are of the same nature—a luxury, not a responsibility. So when it hurts—not that hurt-so-good gym pain, but that broken-hearted, exposed-wound kind of hurt—we can feel angry at the teacher, victimized by our circumstances, guilty for not doing better or ashamed for being vulnerable or weak. None of these feel good, until you start to recognize them as part of the practice; and passing through them as the essence of the practice.
One key aspect of Nicky’s teaching is that she has you hold the pose—and hold, and hold. And it burns, and it stings and you are sure your body is about to come apart at the joints and you are about to scream and cry and shout and laugh and rage all at once… but you don’t. You hold the pose. And as you hold, things start to change; the body intelligence starts to wake up like a sea monster that has lain dormant for a thousand years. It shivers and the ground cracks, and it stretches and layers of collected debris and calcification start to break open (this is your ego that encases your body), and it looks like the landscape is tearing apart and things are all going wrong; but actually, it turns out to be a living being that is coming back to life, and that being is you.
When you practice with a teacher who is afraid to push the limits of her students, or when you are undisciplined in your own practice, it is like tapping at this layer of barnacles and broken shells with a teaspoon, sort of hoping in an abstract kind of a way that it will open but really not having much intention to get at what is living underneath. Indeed, if you are practicing with someone you don’t trust or just by yourself to get the kinks out in the morning, the idea of breaking through (never mind the actual feeling of it) can be quite horrifying.
I have gotten to a point in my practice where I experience the pain of breaking through layers of emotional and mental sediment as positive; I look for it. Pain in a difficult pose doesn’t mean I am working harder than I think I should be, thereby a jab at my ego that I would experience as anger or self-pity; I am happy that I have found a movement that I need to work on and I experience it as an opportunity to fix something that is not as strong as it should be, like tuning up a bike.
There are other poses that are not just difficult for my muscles, but that I really don’t like doing and generally avoid in self-practice unless I am feeling particularly gallant or disciplined. These are the mounds that house dormant sea creatures. Under the guidance of someone like Nicky, I can move into these poses, break into the shells of anger and sadness and exhaustion that separate me from what I’m seeking, all the while knowing I am safe, knowing that even though my ego is being taken for a ride, I can ignore its complaining. I know that I am working properly and constructively, and the emotions I am experiencing are draining from me like water from a tap until I am rid of them; and once I am rid of the blockage, the pose will no longer pose a challenge to me—or, will pose a different kind of challenge, a muscle building challenge, not a mental challenge.
I have experienced this enough times in my own practice to know that the uncomfortable immersion into the sticky, crusty shells that we install between ourselves and certain movements or parts of the body is worth the trouble; and when I get through it, I will have discovered a new life form that I can move and breath and dig and build with.
Having gone through my Nicky initiation two years ago, it is interesting watching Sophie and Vannac receive theirs. The first day’s practice was gentle but deep, and they both strode home at lunch, energized and confident. Since then, Nicky has lowered her students steadily into their individual pits to fight it out with their blockages. Sophie is facing hers full on, wrestling her anxieties like a rodeo cowboy at a steer; and it is hard to tell with Vannac. The thing about Vannac is that there is so much going on at so many levels, he is in his pit 24 hours a day, not just the four hours of morning asana.
It would be great to be here all month and see how it unfolds for both of them, what happens when the shell starts to crack, how they get through it and what they learn. It will be very different journeys for each of them. But then again, it might be a good idea to get out of the path of the tornado, and sit tight in Cambodia until they get back and show us what they've hatched.