Recently, during a therapeutic vinyasa practice at The Yoga Conference in Toronto, the class and I encountered a pivotal learning moment. As we reviewed the transition from Downward Dog into Lunge, a participant asked about speed. “Intuitively, I get that slow is good,” she said. “But how slow? And is it O.K., sometimes, to practice the old and fast flow?” Her question gave rise to a passionate dialogue about how we use momentum in yoga and in life, and what the consequences are of doing so.
Momentum refers to the building up of forward movement that takes us from one well-defined place to the next. It turns out that we use momentum in times of discomfort. We use it in transitions, for instance, when we’re caught between an old place or way of being and a new one. And we do so when the pressure to perform well lends emphasis to the outcome of a journey rather than the process of getting there. Momentum is an adaptive way of coping with discomfort. It works when we don’t want others to see us too clearly; if we zip along at a fast pace, no one will look too closely into where we hurt, how we might need help, or the ways in which we’re not integrated. And the fringe benefit of momentum: it’s also ideal when we ourselves don’t want an up-close and personal look at what’s happening inside.
We can use momentum in our professional lives: perhaps we stay in a line of work that’s unfulfilling, even when it does damage to our spirit by degrees, because it provides the illusion of security and progress. Or on a micro level, we might recycle a Powerpoint presentation for three different conferences because we’re too busy to re-engage with the material. Or we teach the same practice sequence in multiple yoga classes, regardless of each class’s needs, so we can “power through” a busy week.
We also ride the slipstream of emotional momentum. Perhaps we’re so swept up in the familiar trajectory of our anger, for instance, that we fail to connect with the sadness that lies beneath it. Or we sharpen the serrated edges of a warrior identity so we can escape a deeper, more vulnerable side of ourselves. Or we continue to mourn an old relationship rather than risk getting hurt in a new one.
Momentum can infiltrate our relationships in a powerful, shadow-based way. Sara, a yoga therapy client, met her boyfriend at a local vegan restaurant. They chatted over a falafel salad, and exchanged numbers; their fist phone conversation lasted five hours. Several signs cropped up to indicate that they might be less compatible than it seemed: She was a free spirit with many friends, while he was social reserved and needed one-on-one time together. In response to conflict, she preferred to brood in quiet, sometimes for days, while he favored immediate and direct communication. And she wanted children fairly soon, while he was a divorced Dad with no interest in becoming a parent again. Yet within two months, they’d moved in together and, riding the “high” of new relationship, got engaged. When she first came to see me, she’d been marinating in bitterness for over a year. Infidelity had occurred—on which side, it doesn’t matter—and neither felt safe enough to express true feelings of anger, sadness, or even desire. After one too many silent dinners at their favorite restaurant, they began to consider breaking up. Sara kept returning to the idea of momentum. “We’ve put in so much time,” she said. “I don’t want to start all over again with someone else!” Like Sara, we all use momentum: it’s a means by which we gain productivity and social approval. It also acts as an anesthetic, blunting the painful, or even joyful, experiences that intimidate us.
Momentum also sneaks into our yoga practice. Familiarity breeds momentum: When we’re accustomed to the postures and movements of yoga, we can ride the wave of momentum for an entire practice. I’ve heard practitioners refer to their favorite class as a “car wash,” celebrating the fact that they can tune out for 90 minutes and emerge feeling cleansed and detoxified.
The most common potholes for momentum, however, occur in the transitions between poses. And few transitions are more emblematic of momentum than the passage from Downward Dog into Lunge. Three elements make this transition vulnerable: First, it has a goal: to land in a “perfect” Lunge. Second, we have the means to get there: we can compensate in a number of ways so the leg arrives where it “should.” And third, this transition has an audience: our instructor, nearby practitioners, and even we ourselves can tell whether we’ve landed at the goal. This trifecta of conditions—the goal, the method of getting there, and the audience—makes the gravitational pull of momentum nearly impossible to resist.
Let’s take a closer look at this Lunge transition. For most of us, it begins mindfully. From Downward Dog, we draw one knee into the chest and breathe. We inhale and gather the bandhas for transition; we exhale, and engage them to take us into Lunge. About two-thirds of the way there things get interesting. I’ve prepared the class verbally, as well as visually, by modeling an “incomplete” transition. Yet it’s as though a switch flips; I can see a “primal negotiation” taking place in front of my eyes. The mind forces the body to disregard its inherent wisdom, and to sacrifice the inner awareness, learning, and investigation of the practice in favor of the “form,” or goal, of the transition. Landing in Lunge is the only thing that matters. Momentum is recruited to get us there. We compensate for a lack of openness (typically, in the hip flexors) and strength (most often, in our core). Here’s how we do it: one hand may lift to allow the foot to land at the hands. Or the leg may navigate a wide berth around the hand, swinging to the side and slipping into place (usually, externally rotated) under a shroud of secrecy. Or—and this is the most common method—about two thirds of the way, the leg makes us of our forward movement and accelerates suddenly into Lunge as though shot out of a cannon. And because we’ve let go of awareness to make these compensations, we’re momentarily asleep and unaware of the cost we’ve paid. Why is it that even my post advanced practitioners, with so many reminders of this momentum pothole, drive right through and land in the abyss of habitual movement?
The pressure to fall in line with expectations, and meet others’ standards, is so elemental, so archetypal, that it lures even seasoned practitioners out of embodied awareness. Yet if we took the opportunity to make our practice more therapeutic, we could ask the following questions: “What’s actually keeping my foot from landing in Lunge? Is it my hip flexors—and if so, which ones?” Or, “Is my iliopsoas weak, and if so, how can I strengthen it? We can even ask, “What’s pressuring me to land in Lunge—and is this same impetus affecting me in my life off the mat, as well?”
Momentum is the antithesis of direct experience: it draws us out of the present moment. It masks our inner sight, and keeps us from noticing where and how we need to soften, engage, or even let go. And it mutes active inner listening, preventing us from hearing where we really want to go, and how we’d like to get there. If we’re fortunate and paying attention, however, life gives us ample opportunity for becoming present. It presents us with novel experiences, trauma, or disappointment, and sometimes cuts our legs out from under us so we can’t sustain momentum any longer. This happened to me, quite literally, when I had hip surgery recently.
My experience of having surgery (my joints are hypermobile, so I’ve had a few) has always followed a similar formula: lightning-fast recovery, deep spiritual journey, and emergence into teaching and traveling with new tools for transformation. This time, recovery was much slower; instead of gliding right back into the pace of my life, I lost all forward movement. At first, I found this alarming: emails piled up, my students needed things, and requests for assistance went unanswered. Yet the slow and serpentine process of rehab has reminded me anew of the power of losing momentum. It’s given me the chance to come to a standstill, look inward, and ask some difficult questions: How often do I want to be teaching, and where? How can I limit my travel to studios and conferences that are truly committed to therapeutics? Where have I been on autopilot with family, friends, and even myself? And what are the pathways “in” to really listen to and receive my loved ones on a deeper level?
Is it possible, you might wonder, to work consciously with momentum, both on and off that mat? Absolutely, it’s possible—but it’s much more difficult than letting it go. What makes a “momentum practice” conscious is the degree of awareness we bring to it. On the mat, for example, we can choose to watch ourselves swing our leg wildly in the air from Downward Dog into Lunge, feelthe pressure to perform, and be fully aware as we’re doing so. We can observe our career trajectory, know we’re on auto-pilot, and perhaps negotiate a period of inner reflection with which to balance it. We can note our use of momentum with curiosity, and even with compassion, and consider what might happen if instead, we let our bodies and our minds evolve organically. Where are the places where youmost often use momentum? And what might happen if you slowed down enough to observe it?
When we press “fast forward,” we miss what’s happening in the in-between spaces. We get somewhere, but our new location may not align with the serpentine, indirect path of the soul. When it comes to momentum, we have two positive choices: use it or lose it. We can use momentum consciously, to discover what lies beneath it. Or we can lose it deliberately—and learn what good can come, what inner magic, from bringing our outer lives to a standstill.
This article is dedicated to the incredible yogis at The Yoga Conference in Toronto. March, 2013.