I was an archaeology major in university. Following graduation I set off to dig in Europe and the Middle East. Among the most exciting finds of my very limited time as an amateur excavator were: an ancient camel tooth, the remains of a Neolithic dog cemetery and a Bronze age clothing pin.
Our first days on the site were about surveying the land, taking baseline elevation measurements, getting to know the soil composition and making a general plan for excavation based on what was known about the history of the location we were digging.
Once the area had been mapped and gridlines set up we cleared way the initial layers of earth with pick axes, shovels and wheelbarrows. Then, we set to digging with trowels and small shovels, going slower, more carefully. Dirt would go into buckets to be sifted through by the handful.
As we started finding bones and pottery fragments our instruments became more delicate. We began using toothbrushes, tweezers and dental picks, proceeding ever so cautiously to unearth the fragile findings without damaging them. Each ounce of dirt would be passed through a fine metal strainer to extract every last bit of bone and artefact, anything that could potentially be useful in later analysis.
Like the progression of an archaeological dig, our inner excavation in yoga moves from the gross to subtle and from the overt to the more hidden. At the beginning of practice, we may (and often do) have very little connection to what’s going on in our bodies and minds. Little by little, though, the practice starts to work on us.
Beloved Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Mary Dunn used to talk about how at first you learn the pose and then you learn yourself in the pose. Through skilled guidance and our own effort, we start to bring the mind into the body. At first it’s the awareness of how to get our bodies in and out of the shape of the poses safely. Then, we begin to understand more about our particular bodies in the shapes of the poses. We learn what comes easily to us, what’s more difficult, and how to work with and balance those tendencies. We come into relationship with our breath and our minds. In the quiet, reflective moments of the practice we learn to integrate all this new input into our beings.
An expanded capacity for self-awareness can sneak up on us without us even knowing. Our abilities to sense, feel and notice are sharpened just by plugging away. Over time, this inquiry deepens as the instruments of our senses become more sensitive and refined. We gain greater insight into ourselves, we take what we’ve learned through observation to reflect, adjust and go deeper. In this way, practice itself continually deepens practice.
As we gain greater skill in investigating the more subtle levels of our being we may make discoveries that require attention and special care to unearth. Layers of injury and trauma, some recent and some perhaps ancient, as well as the emotional and energetic residue these leave in the body-mind require careful handling and examination. Perhaps self-compassion, allowing, and radical self-acceptance are among the most powerful and important instruments we need in our toolkit.