“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”
Faith has a bad rep in much of the western world. This is probably because for many people, the word faith conjures up images of blindly obedient followers of some charismatic leader/teacher figure. Often, these followers are so blindly faithful that they become oblivious to the excesses of the leader/teacher, and end up getting abused and exploited.
But I think that the practice teaches us that faith need not be blind. Rather, the eye of faith enables us to see the light of the dawn where reason sees only the absolute darkness that precedes it. And the really cool thing about the practice is that one doesn’t even have to really believe in it in order for it to work. All it asks is that we take the first step and put in the work, and the results will come, whether we believe it or not. And gradually, as we see results, we learn to trust the practice. Which leads us to put in more work. Which leads to even more results.
Over the last few months, as I developed my practice mostly by myself in this corner of the Midwest, I have become more and more convinced that the practice is first and foremost an ongoing exercise in faith: Faith in the practice, faith in its life-opening potential. Every morning, as I step onto the mat, I muster faith in the power of the practice. A big part of this faith pertains to things that are very immediate to me at the moment: Faith that the practice will deliver my half-conscious body from a place of sleepiness to a place of ever-awakening strength, power and suppleness; faith that with each successive vinyasa, I will become physically stronger, mentally more resilient, and spiritually more open and embracing; faith that the practice will heal my physical injuries and enable me to tap the strength to progressively challenge my inner demons.
But I feel that the greatest reward of the practice does not lie so much in particular results. I feel that a bigger reward of the practice lies in its life-opening effects: Through challenging our bodies on a physical level, we are able to tap into something bigger and deeper within ourselves, and discover that we are capable of much more than we think possible, if we don’t give up on ourselves along the way. In her latest article, Kino MacGregor describes her own experience of this process:
Until the day when I began to experience the connection between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual body I had no way to build a path towards the results that I wanted. One day the magic of the physical movement suddenly revealed a hidden inner realm of mental, emotional and spiritual strength. In essence my physical weakness was a kind of manifestation of the worldview that I held deeply within. I believed myself to be weak and so I was. I believed in my limitations, my feeling of “less than” and my doubt. Plagued by insecurity not only could I not lift my body weight off the ground but I could also not stand up for what I believed in. I had to learn true spiritual strength, self confidence at the deepest level and connection with my own inner divinity before the physical movement that I wanted within my practice would unfold. The first step was that I had to cultivate a belief in the possibility that I, with all my weakness, would someday be strong. I was so weak that I had accomplished teachers give up on.
One even told me that I would have to wait many lifetimes before performed some the arm balances that I do nearly every day now. Yet, I had to believe in my own dream and work towards it every day, even when I was the only one who left who had faith.” [You can read the whole article here.]
I have to confess that when I read this passage for the first time, I actually tried to picture Kino collapsing her shoulders in plank or falling from headstand; no image came up in my mind! I find it hard to even imagine Kino—she of the deep and powerful backbends, and totally effortless arm balances—not being able to do these postures. But there was indeed a time when she perceived these postures to be impossible, and it was faith in the practice, and in its ability to make the impossible possible, that made all the difference in her practice and life.
How does this faith work to change our practice and our lives in more concrete terms? Kino speaks of experiencing “the connection between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual body”, and of the physical practice revealing “a hidden inner realm of mental, emotional and spiritual strength.” I think those of us who have worked with arm balances can attest to the truth of this. In order to successfully execute an arm balance, one has to understand a little paradox: True strength does not come from muscling one’s way into a posture. Rather, the strength to lift oneself off the ground comes from finding the space to bring the hips and the lower extremities closer to the upper body.
In order to create this space, we need to engage the bandhas. When one engages uddhiyana bandha and draws in the space between the pelvic bones and the navel (see Kino’s recent video on forward bends for more details on this drawing-in movement), one creates space; space which we can then use to help draw the lower body closer to the upper body. Once we learn how to engage the bandhas in this way, we discover that having big arms has absolutely nothing to do with arm balancing. It’s really all about finding space and using it effectively. And the process involved in engaging the bandhas and creating this space is an intensely mindful process that involves paying close attention to how we mindfully direct our breath to create the space that we need in order to achieve the results that we want.
It is in this way that the practice progressively reveals to us the intimate connection between the physical, mental and spiritual layers of our being, and that deeply accessing one layer brings about powerful effects in the other layers. The connection may not be apparent to a casual observer, but once felt, its reality and immediacy cannot be denied. And once we feel and understand this connection, we can also apply this insight to our lives off the mat. We begin to see that living well and being effective in this world is not a matter of having huge amounts of time and money; rather, it is a matter of being able to devote the time and resources that we do have towards things that really matter. And the practice helps us to progressively develop the ability to see what these things are.