I had my first golf lesson. (If you know me you might need a minute to let that sink in …) In that one lesson, I found enough material to consider, integrate, and work with to keep me busy on my yoga mat for a year… at least. I’m not kidding. I cried in the car on the way home and I hardly slept that night with all the thoughts that were going through my body and head. Yoga and golf are really similar. Both ask you to develop your ability to focus the mind on one thing, and implicit in that is emptying the mind of all else. The big wonderful difference between yoga and golf is that in golf you have a golf ball.
A thing I love about my golf lesson numero uno is the immediate feedback that I got on my level of concentration, focus and relaxation. In yoga, there are times that I muscle through an asana practice, holding my poses with crazy amounts of tension in the shoulders, neck and face, while mulling over some annoying thing that happened to me that morning. I might not be aware of any of this at the time, because it’s just me being me, on my mat, tense and distracted. Golf, on the other hand, has something built into the game that let’s you know how focused and relaxed your body is. It’s the Samadhiorometer. You can’t fool yourself or anyone else about how focused, relaxed and attune you are when you swing the club because the ball reveals all. If the Samadhiorometer gets a bad reading, then the ball doesn’t move at all, it plunks itself one foot from you or it goes and hides itself in some scraggly bush far far away from the nicely groomed green part. When the Samadhiorometer reveals high levels of concentration, you have a swing that makes that sound (if you golf, you know it) and the ball flies in a beautiful arc toward that flag flying out in the distance. It’s quite a feeling.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe eight limbs of yoga. With good a good teacher and a steady practice maintained over time, we develop these eight limbs not in sequence, like rungs on a ladder, but as limbs grow on a tree. The first 4 limbs are Yamas and Niyamas, (ethical precepts) and Asana and Pranayama (posture and breath practice). The second four have to do, primarily, with focusing of the mind. These are the four that are so very relevant to golf. Number 5 –Pratyahara, is sometimes translated as sensory withdrawl, but that’s not really the way I think of it. It can’t be practiced, but you can notice the conditions that let you feel it happening. The senses aren’t shut down in pratyahara, but they aren’t distracting you by chasing all the sensory candy either. The senses are doing what they are supposed to do… they are tuning into whatever you choose to focus on. Pratyahara happens when you are rockin’ limbs 6 and 7. Number 6 is Dharana, the ability to maintain focus on a chosen object. You have to be able to get somewhere with dharana to have any chance at number 7. Number 7 –Dhyana, is a deeper concentration than Dharana. In Dhyana you come to know your object of focus really, really well. Then there’s Samadhi and I know I said that the limbs are limbs and not rungs on a ladder, but this one is a kind of top rung. We are going to talk about Samadhi and golf next week when I talk about the full swing. (Get excited.)
Today, our focus is the putt. For the putt, the ball is relatively close to the hole so the arc of the swing is small. The ball only requires a tap to make the ball go the distance and land in the hole. Sounds easy? It’s not. Putting posture is uncomfortable. You have to stick your butt out behind you and hover the eyes over the ball in a shallow utkatasana-like pose. There’s a lot of effort that comes with that but you don’t want to let that effort creep up too high in the body because the arms, shoulders and neck have to stay super-relaxed if you are going to have any chance at sinking the ball. Think of the perfect balance of sukha and sthira, ease and effort, in the body. The other big part of putting is the ability to stay focused on a chosen object. Remember dharana and dhyana? The object of focus in golf isn’t the ball or even the hole. (This surprised the heck out of me.) The object of focus is the swing. Now, this was explained to me and I tried to keep it in mind, but the ball is just so interesting. It is white and cute. It moves. It responds when hit with the club and you can watch it roll. If you are a lucky first-time golfer, you might even get the gleeful rush of excitement as the ball rattles around in the plastic hole. It is very hard not to focus on the ball. Despite the sensory delights that the ball offers, I was determined to be one with the swing. My determination worked for about half a second. Putter moves back behind the ball and I’m thinking about swing. Putter moves toward the ball, still thinking about swing. Then “Oh my gosh, there’s the ball and I’m about to hit it!” Excitement, anticipation and the desire to achieve something wonderful take over and my shoulders tense, my focus shifts and the ball launches away from the hole. It takes about 2 seconds for all of that to happen and after repeating that little sequence 30+ times, the ball isn’t nearly as cute.
My best golf swings happened after the exercise of closing my eyes, letting go of the goals and balls and holes so that I could simply swing the club head, feeling the weight of the club head move like a pendulum with my body responding to the swing. It wasn’t muscles and effort that allowed my body to synchronise and relax into the swing. It was a partial surrender and a soft focus on the task at hand. I felt the club in my hands. I noticed the shifting of weight from foot to foot. I wasn’t aligning or striving or aiming or hitting. I was just feeling the swing. My senses were tuned into the swing and that was all. That was my experience of dhyana with a side of pratyahara and I got a taste of it from golf. It was when I opened my eyes and could still feel that easy focus and concentration of simply swinging that I could tap the ball and sink it. I still have the memory of the pleasure of my body and mind coordinating like that. It is the feeling of allowing the body and mind to do what they are made to do. It’s a simply wonderful experience and I want more of that in my yoga practice. Golf just might help to get me there. Wow.