Embracing Formlessness in your Yoga Practice

Human beings are excellent rule makers. We envelop our lives in abstract rules that help us manage the complexity of urban life. In order to make something complex seem manageable, its necessary to develop a mental model of how that thing works and stick to that model until it no longer holds (spoiler alert: no model stays true forever!). We create a form on top of formlessness with rules and regulations pointing to moral and just behavior. The problem we run into with this strategy is that it places artificial limits on our understanding when we fail to move past the model!

Nowhere is this more accurate than in the way we practice yoga asana today. Most people are more comfortable being led by an instructor than to explore the formless and fluid shapes of their own body. They want someone to tell them where to place the foot, how to align the hip, when to breathe. They want to do it the right way! This is understandable because as soon as we are put into school, we are told there is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. And guess who knows best? The teacher!

Unfortunately, the story is not so simple. Yes, there are more effective ways to do things sometimes, but they are usually based on the context and reality of the situation at hand. These things happen when there is no instructor there to tell you how to respond to the situation. When we react to situations in life based on preconceived notions of right and wrong, we end up getting stuck and reacting to past situations as opposed to the unique situation presenting itself to you in the current moment.

The underlying truth of life is formlessness. When we go into deep dreamless sleep, we are not even conscious to the point where we can recognize that we are asleep. When we die, the self that has always been there merges back into the formless lack of existence from whence it came. Union with that deep ocean of non-being and non-doing. Formlessness is the ever-present backdrop on top of which Form performs its magical and intoxicating dance. Due to this reality, it is imperative that any dedicated Yogi learn to embrace the formless aspects of their nature. Eventually you will be enveloped in the formless aspect of reality. There is no escaping it. Its time to come to terms with it.

How can you embrace formlessness in your yoga practice?

The best way I have found to get in touch with movement that is unencumbered by form is to dance. Due to my chaotic and formless childhood, I desired the safety and comfort of relying on a yoga teacher to give my movement practice a form and structure, to tell me how to move. So when I approached Dance for the first time, I approached it in a similar way. I went to latin dance exercise classes, to Zumba, to any dance class that had an instructor who could show me how to dance. The most powerful method I learned for getting to a place where I could experiment with formless and unstructured dance, was something called Nia. The class is led by an instructor who mixes periods of structured dance, with periods of unstructured movement where you just listen to the music and do your thing.

Another great way to get in touch with your own distinct pattern of movement is to get on all fours. You can start with doing cat-cows and side bending. After a few of these matched with breath, start to literally ask your body what movement it wants to make. Here is an example of the thing you can actually say out loud: “Body, I know I haven’t listened to you in the past, but I want to develop a healthy relationship with you. What movement would nourish you at this moment?” The body does not speak in words, of course, and its answer is sometimes very subtle and quiet so you have to be really open and receptive to hear its call.

Lastly, a very effective way to get in touch with formlessness is to work with a teacher who has spent some time in the deep well-spring of creative formlessness and learn from them directly. If you have enjoyed reading this post, I am available to teach remotely or in person if you are in SF. If my style doesn’t match what you are looking for, I can also refer you to some of the very talented people that I have worked with in the past.