The German poet and philosopher, Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg) once said:
“To romanticize the world is to make us aware of the magic, mystery and wonder of the world; it is to educate the senses to see the ordinary as extraordinary, the familiar as strange, the mundane as sacred, the finite as infinite.”
I think of yoga in the same way.
After I started to study yoga as more than just asana, one of the things that drew me was the unification of opposites that I see in the philosophy of yoga (and then enacted in pranayama and asana): the emphasis that to be separate is to be unified; the idea that the positive requires the negative for existence; the grounding down to lift up; the pulling senses in to see that which is so much bigger than the self, and so on. One of the fascinating ways that this dialectic of opposition is revealed to me through yoga is in making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.
As we practice pranayama, breath control, we engage in this interplay between strange and familiar. In observing the natural breath, and noticing its qualities, we make something that we do 24 hours a day 7 days a week into a new specimen to study. When we learn new forms of breathing, such as ujjayi breath or dirga pranayama, they are strange to us, but over time they become something so familiar in a yoga practice that we are not surprised by their inclusion in a class. Yet they maintain that element of extraordinary. The very practice of pranayama makes the everyday nature of the breath something amazing.
In asana, as well, I can see this in operation. When I watch a student new to the practice confront poses that, at this point, are very normal to me, it reminds me of how the familiar the strange has become. As I learn a new pose, in which parts of the body are contorted in ways I didn’t see as possible, the ordinary of the body becomes extraordinary. Even very basic things about the body can take on the character of unknown in an asana practice. I have written before about how, when in an inversion, I lose the sense of where parts of my body are and how they exist in space. If the teacher asks me to flatten out my lower back or tuck my tailbone when I’m upside down, sometimes I have no idea how to make that happen. Body parts that are pretty definitely “mine” almost feel dissociated in some shapes. Last night, during a practice, I noticed this twice. Once, while in a twisted bound pigeon pose, I noticed that the toe I was holding didn’t really “feel like my toe.” Later, while doing prep work for urdvha danurasana, our teacher asked us to position the right arm for the pose, and then reach over with the left hand and take hold of the right elbow and upper arm and manipulate it. As I did so, I was astonished. The mental sense that I have of my arms, that normally goes unchallenged because it is so normal, was completely dislocated. I thought to myself “Is THAT what my arm feels like?” I actually found myself turning my head to look at my elbow and arm (did I think that someone had snuck a new one in there?) to double check that I was really holding it. In my head, I’m relatively big boned and sturdy. The elbow/arm that I had in my hand felt weirdly spindly and small. That minor preparatory movement for a pose literally made my body strange to me in that moment.
On the other hand (get it? it’s an arm joke), body positions that, not so long ago, would have seemed weird or impossible to me, are now completely familiar. Going through the flow from caturanga to urdvha mukha savasana to adho mukha savasana is as reasonable as walking from my desk to the door. Coming into headstand, which I initially thought was so unfamiliar as to be impossible, seems a perfectly reasonable – even enjoyable – option.
It’s a wonderful thing to see how the normal and extraordinary are one, and yoga helps me to do just that. Finding this in my practice encourages me to see it all around me. The web of a spider is amazing and everyday. The fact that my dog and cat have a relationship and communicate with one another is awe-some and common. The existence of a box that let’s me send this blog through the air to thousands of people around the world is miraculous and an accepted part of our world. The dialectic of the strange and familiar is both astonishing and utterly regular.