In Santa Fe, we had a three-legged cat named Truchas. We named her for the town, about forty miles northwest of Santa Fe, where we found her as a kitten (she had four legs then, but broke her hip too badly to fix several years later). Before we moved to Santa Fe, we went to the area frequently on vacation, and that time we had stayed a few days in a bed and breakfast out on the high mountain ridges. Truchas is notable for the fact that for a week or so after she lost her leg, every time she tried to walk, she went backwards. Something had gone with the mechanics. But she got control of the situation, and never looked back.
I loved that cat.
Anyway, whenever I would do a little yoga (this was a few years before I became a regular), she would come purring around. She loved it. My notion was that maybe she had been a yogi in a previous life.
And no doubt some of you have noticed what happens when you do ado mucha svanasana (downward-facing dog) around your dogs.
That asana is exactly the stretch that a cat does when rising from a nap, or a dog does when he or she wants to play—it is, to a dog, the play bow. When you do it, dogs recognize it. They think you want to play with them.
They recognize other asanas, too. To them, it’s sign language.
I once wrote a story called “The War on Drugs,” about a Vietnam vet who had learned to smoke marijuana to help him get through the Vietnam War, The character (who is not me, by the way—for one thing, I’m not a vet) has developed a sort of stretching and loosening technique that highly resembles yoga.
Even though the character is not me, I borrowed this behavior from my own. For years, before I began doing yoga regularly (three times a week, about an hour and forty-five minutes for each session, with spot sessions on many of the other days), I used to engage in such behaviors as rolling on my back, crouching like various animals, from frogs to lions to eagles, and other stretches.
It was, I see now, an intuitive approach to the disciplines of yoga. And when I say “disciplines,” I do not mean punishments.
There was a famous yogi who practiced and taught a sort of free-form yoga. He didn’t do prescribed asanas, but took his body through poses and situations that had the same effect. I’d tell you his name if I remembered it. I’ve looked everywhere, but so far have not seen a mention of the guy.
All of which I say to preface an observation I made long before I began my regular practice, and which I realize all over again when I do the asanas: They are, all of them, very similar to (if more advanced and conscious than) the movements and stretches made by animals and children. It has helped me a lot to realize that what I am doing is, essentially, returning my body to a state of innocence.
The animals don’t do yoga because somebody tells them they ought to. They do it because it makes them feel better.
Watch a young child at play. Watch the sheer unself-conscious movements and positions. Have you seen a child sitting in a sort of squat, his knees slapping his air-filled cheeks so that he emits a farting noise? Or doing cartwheels? Or arching her back in the grocery store while she leans over?
There’s a reason the “baby” asana is called the baby asana.
Start watching children at play, the wonderful, unsummable wilderness of their range of motion. I’ve become convinced that as we age, we become aware of unspoken prohibitions about “funny” movements. Watch just about any adult you want to, and compare his or her movements with the movements of children. You’ll see how restricted our motions become as we age. We won’t let ourselves move that way, and as a result, we lose the capacity.
There are hardly more than a dozen permitted movements for adults in this country. Try standing in a doorway with your arms out to the jambs, helping hold you up in a bent-knee position and flapping your knees first outward, then inward to meet and back outward and so on. Try it at work, and see what happens.
Self-consciousness is to blame. Nobody is more self-conscious than a teen-ager, even though I find myself almost never paying attention to one. That’s when we begin to learn how we are “supposed” to move and how we are not. I suppose the onset of puberty declares us budding adults, and so the unspoken rule but thoroughly absorbed rule is that from now on we must restrict our movements.
The best thing about yoga classes is they give you an excuse to move that way. It helps to have a name for it: “Oh, I’m just doing yoga.”
But think back to the way you moved as a child. Watch your animals.
And when you do asanas, it helps if you see that you are relearning how to move freely, youthfully. Like a child, like an animal.