Have you ever considered your body’s limitations as ‘just how things are?’, only to discover that it’s not really true? It was never true; but it’s just what we thought of ourselves and our body. Yet, despite that realisation, we still give little consideration to our other limitations – of the body or mind.
And I’m not just talking about lack of flexibility in your hips (for example). I mean, things like… the physicality of ankles that seemingly do not touch when you’re seated in dandasana (feet straight out in front of you). How can that change when its about how your body is made? Or do you just *think* that’s how it is on a very deep level?
My body aches desperately from the very hard work asked of us. Even with movements I dread because I can’t quite do them properly and because they require much strength, I’m willing to try again and again. In this, I found that what I think I know about my body is shifting. And I realised it wasn’t my body being built a certain way that stopped me – it was just my thoughts that said so.
Right in the moment when I realise this, I leap ahead of where I thought I was at to discover the truth. My body wants to weep while it celebrates, too…
~Notes from an immersion, January 2010
Shadow Yoga was developed by Shandor (Zhander) Remete – he has a background in Iyengar Yoga and martial arts, but developed the Shadow Yoga practice and philosophy from reading early Hatha Yoga and Tantrik texts. All of these influences can be observed in the practice, but Shadow Yoga is something else again.
When first coming to the practice, everyone learns a series of “warm up” exercises, as shown in the video below. While some of these actions may appear simple and unimportant, they in fact establish patterns of movement that are important later in the practice.
Now, because Shadow Yoga is so complex, I’ve decided to use the format of a very traditional way of teaching Tantrik philosophy – with an outer, inner and secret meaning (where secret just means hidden or less obvious) – to describe what I know so far.
(This is just a way to help me organise my thoughts on various aspects of the practice a little better!)
Also, please note that the below observations are from my experiences – what I’ve been taught and what I’ve learned. I reserve the right to update this list at any time if what I learn changes over time :)
- Outer – Including: set forms of movement and asana; a focus on correct movement of joints and limbs; pre-asana asana (that help you do asana correctly and without injuring yourself); building physical strength; and learning to move without forcing yourself, because this is not a competition…
- Inner – Including: a strong focus on breath work and correct use of Uddiyana bandha, (Bandhas = locks, there are four of them and Uddiyana is the abdominal contraction) which is practiced every class and eventually there’s meant to be a 1:1 uddiyana contraction with each movement. Everything about the practice is designed to reduce excess apana vayu, which is the energy/chi responsible for processes of elimination in the body. This correlates to toning of the digestive system, increased agni (digestive fire) and increased flexibility of one’s joints (ankles, wrists, hips etc).
- Hidden – This is the hardest part to describe accurately, because it’s going to be different for everyone. But to summarise, I’d say it involves the deconstruction of physical, energetic and emotional limitations, resulting in all kinds of experiences that may or may not seem related at the time.
One class, I vomited part of the way through, but not because of anything I ate! Other times I’ve simply found tears rolling silently down my face. And I can’t count the number of classes I’ve walked out of at the end and found myself unsure of who or what I am. Or I realise part way through that my feet or the crown of my head are tingling wildly.
Note: as stand-alone experiences, none of what I described in the last paragraph is important. It’s not like I’m all whooo, I’ve just had a “mystical experience”, let’s burn some incense and talk about it… Not at all! Rather, I see them as indicators of internal activity that I sometimes barely understand the meaning of and try not to over-analyse…
These classes tend to bring on some very intense energetic, emotional and physical sensations for me. Not every single class, but a fair portion of them. And way more than any other type of yoga I’ve experienced to date. It might not be like this for other people, and some yogis may have similar experiences by doing another form of yoga all together. But for me and at least for now anyway, Shadow Yoga is the bomb.
The classes are investigative, in a way I’ve rarely come across. Sometimes we do a lot of asana and others it’s more like a workshop, a kind of question and answer session with asana in between. It’s not a class for those who wish to hide; you enter the studio to discover more about the practice each time. To break down the way you are moving and to observe others, too. A bit like a science lab instead of a competitive-who-has-the-best-asana environment.
Often I find myself thinking I won’t be able to do something we’re asked to do. It looks hard, and it is hard when each movement is being studied so intensely. But then I realise I can. Perhaps not as gracefully as I’d like at first. But eventually it comes and I am elated.
As both a yogini and a yoga teacher, my experience of Shadow Yoga is that it helps correct some long-held bad habits in my practice and invaluably, it deepens my knowledge of yoga and bodily movement. Oh yeah, and it helps me shift all kinds of suppressed energy, which can only contribute to better health (lately I get told that I’m “glowing” a lot!).
One example of this is my somewhat hyper-flexible knees. For years I simply thought I couldn’t hold prasarita padottanasana for long because it hurt my knees – a standing, deep forward bend can put a lot of pressure on them, especially those that hyper-extend. Now, whether it’s because I never really expressed my issue with this pose before or if it was just down to less than perfect instruction (and I’m sure when I start teaching, I will be guilty of this for a while!)… but for a person with crazy knees, it’s not a good idea to advise them to pull up through their hamstrings and quadriceps. That’s because the natural tendency of over-extending knees when doing so, is to lock, leading to eventual ruination!
However, one of the focuses in Shadow Yoga is releasing the body’s weight into the feet as much as possible for the entire practice. And so prasarita padottanasana transformed for me when I stopped focusing on what my leg muscles were doing (of course, they still need to work) and started focusing on my feet! Suddenly I didn’t feel like I was in a war with my knees any longer…
I consider myself to be at the beginning of some kind of very extended journey with this practice. It’s not separate from other yoga I do at all. But it is markedly different, and intense and exacting (not in an Iyengar-y kind of way) – more of a detailed under-the-microscope-study of where my body and mind are at on any given day.
And I am in awe of the power of this practice.