I never plan my summer holidays. In fact, I never plan much of my life, just a general direction of knowing where I am going. It’s worked remarkably well so far for me – living in London, time spent in New York and a change of career, all whilst blissfully being on a ‘working holiday’.
To this extent, my recent summer holiday was no different. Yet, it turned out to be definitely not what I envisaged my typical summer holiday to be….
The practice of yoga with animals has increased in popularity over the recent years. From time to time, on my social feeds, I am reminded of the craze of ‘goat yoga‘. Goat yoga started in Oregon in the US and now even has a practice in the UK. It is promoted in a therapeutic sense – of providing a welcome distraction from life’s everyday struggles – to the more serious and debilitating conditions such as anxiety and depression.
In the context of the philosophy of yoga, this practice seems odd – after all, the fifth limb of yoga “Pratyahara” is all about:
withdrawing from the senses.
To this extent, the welcome distraction that a goat meandering around the yoga room (or shall we call it barn or farm?) provides to its participants may seem “cute” or “fun”, but I question whether this is really yoga at all.
On the other hand, practicing yoga with creatures with no domestic instincts, but rather on a pure reptilian level, offers a whole new level of experience. That’s right – ‘turtle yoga’. At the hotel where we stayed was a local turtle sanctuary, who were only too happy to partake in the experiment.
What may seem like a lot of fun (which it initially turned out to be), was actually a unique opportunity to realise what yoga practice is really all about: going inward and becoming more aware.
The parallels with our own daily experience of living are obvious. In a normal, restless mind that the vast majority of us have, when we feel a scratch on our bodies, or feel something crawling on us, our natural instinct is to relieve that itch or brush the creature away. That is a response to the condition where the mind and body are fully aligned where perceptions of uncomfortableness, pain and suffering in the body draw an immediate response from the mind to remove that feeling.
This conditioned response is at the core of what mindfulness teaches us: to learn to label sensations in the body as mere ‘sensations’, and thoughts and feelings as simply a function of the transient state of human consciousness. In other words, we remove our attachment to whatever is bothering us and let it be (and eventually go).
To then practice yoga with a creature on our bodies in a completely safe and harmless environment, provides the perfect opportunity to detach ourselves from our bodies and go deeper.. mindfully.
The sensations I felt when I practiced yoga with a turtle on my body was one that allowed me just that. When I let go of this foreign being crawling around my stomach, I knew that rather than focussing on the physical body, I was focusing on something entirely different. That of course, was purely being in the moment and on the breath (which is the actual focus of any asana practice).
Whilst it is true that it is impossible to think of anything else if you are asked not to think of, say a pink elephant in a room, by consciously letting the turtle be, the expansion of my consciousness and hence yoga practice to a different level was entirely made possible by this experience.
The same happened when we practiced savasana (corpse pose). Our yoga class outside on grass meant that we were accompanied by the local ant population. This was another opportunity to practice being mindful in the present, albeit alas I must admit, even the ants got the best of me and I was distracted.
It is little wonder that the late great B.K.S. Iyengar described ‘savasana’ as the most difficult pose of all. For in such moments of stillness – to be truly present, forgetting about the past and the future – our anxieties & fears, our hopes & dreams – is not something that the human mind is trained to do. In this regard, practicing asana with turtles was a unique opportunity to remind me what the practice of yoga is really all about.