James McMullan contributed a beautiful article to NY Times, “The Chain of Energy,” detailing how to see and then draw the human body. That it’s an article meant for sketchers and budding artists doesn’t limit its wonderful applicability to yoga.
Recently I’ve found myself encouraging my students to consider the energy of an asana, the curve of the back or of the chest, and the dynamic relationship between limbs as they move through their practice. I especially found myself repeating this mantra to a room full of beginning students. This sense of being in a pose seems easily lost when we see yoga only through the eyes of media, replete with images of “perfect” postures. Do my feet need to be on the ground for Downward Facing Dog? Is my forward fold best expressed by getting my chest on my legs? Do I, to appear as though I’m “perfectly” back-bending in Upward Facing Dog, need to thrust my chin up to the heavens and drop deep into my lumbar spine? No. Heavens, no. What matters is the line of energy running through your body (emphasis on the “your” – yoga is such a highly-tailored and specific practice). How does your body – aches, strains, tightness and all – articulate itself?
This might mean that we learn to look at ourselves in a certain light. As James expresses it:
“Fortunately, the body, moving as it does in life, tells us a story that we can learn to read. Because the body is a cooperative totality — every part is engaged, to one degree or another, with any movement that is initiated — we can read this rhythmic dialogue that courses through from the feet to the head and out to the fingertips. It is a chain of energy. We learn to read it by looking at the figure in a more total and empathic way.”
Or, if that’s not specific enough, he further writes that “we see in each particular pose that the energy is being used and controlled in a way that is specific to that pose.” A rhythmic dialogue coursing through one’s body? Directing energy with purpose? Que bella! What is yoga if not this highly dynamic and immanent communion with one’s body such that we learn how to read ourselves and, by extension, others compassionately?
Perhaps its my love of artistry, but I find James’ way of perceiving the human form and its movement to be apt and helpful. Perceiving “rightly,” e.g. without illusions formed by our egos, is cultivated over time. And its cultivation relies on considering both the particulars of a moment – Are my shoulders rotating correctly to keep me safe? – and the overall format in which that detail exists – Where is the energy of this posture? – to bring out how they inform each other. We see patterns, we notice habits, and we observe effects. It helps us enliven our practice in ways that are true to who we are as individuals and how we express ourselves within a larger tradition, or community. In the process, we grow as empathic artists in the art of adaptation, constancy, and accuracy.