For the first few months of learning to throw on a potter’s wheel, you struggle to centre the clay. After that, the clay begins to centre you. The clay tells you when you’re losing focus. It teaches you to stay grounded and maintain concentration. Squeeze too tightly, and it will distort, rush the process and it will spin out of control. All there is in the moment is sensation under your fingers, breath in the belly and complete presence.
I’ve been practicing and then teaching yoga for over 10 years now and the alchemy of wheel throwing, with its effect of merging the body and mind, is remarkably analogous to my experiences on the mat.
Similar to synchronising breath and movement when flowing through vinyasa, working with clay for me is a meditation practice. I’m a very tactile person and hands have always been my avenue to enjoy the world – whether through yoga or massage, kneading bread dough with eyes closed, eating with my fingers or dipping my hand into a bag of uncooked rice… but arms covered elbow-deep in silken clay is the ultimate. Manipulating a raw piece of earth from solid to liquid state and watching it dance and come to life under your gentle but firm pressure is miraculous, and highly therapeutic.
All that being said, the mission is by no means easy from the outset. Particularly on the first attempts, more often than not the clay appears to be an uncontrollable organism with a mind of its own. As soon as the wheel starts to spin, the clay can buck and warp underneath your fingers, wobbling, deforming and not uncommonly flying off the wheel in revolt.
It requires practice, practice, practice, and a lot of patience, learning how to utilise one's whole body, along with one's mind, to centre the clay. It’s a challenging feat in concentration and multi-tasking, with one's foot on the pedal controlling the speed, strong core engagement providing stability, skilful effort applied with palms and dexterous fingers used as tools for shaping. All the while the breath needs to remain steady and the mind clear - the ultimate test in anchoring yourself in the moment.
Just like any balancing pose in yoga, ceramics provides the same feedback loop: exit your body and enter your thoughts, and you will likely teeter and fall. Or, in this case, try to combat the clay with urgency and force, rather than patience and sensitivity, and it is likely to turn into a misguided missile rather than a soup bowl.
Returning to the wheel more recently after a long hiatus (since university) I was fascinated to see these parallels play out. It became clear to me that both practices train its students towards equanimity, to sit with frustration and difficult emotions, to accept inevitable disappointment and most of all find peace when chaos is spinning around them.
Therefore improving these practices is not just a case of refining skills using the body, but potentially even more so in the mind. And the inverse applies too, as the body and the brain are trained towards what is essentially a state of meditation, one is rewarded with the ability to create more complex ceramic vessels and/or move towards deeper yoga variations.
And yet of all the lessons that I have learnt at the wheel, the greatest has been non-attachment and letting go. At the end of the day, it’s not up to us - it's the fire that has the final say. Placing the finished pieces in the kiln is an act of complete surrender to the heat and flames within. And when it’s finally time for the product to be revealed... the result can be glorious, but often very sobering. It may be your best piece of work, something you’ve been crafting for weeks, but you have to prepare yourself for the unknown. The fire may have turned it into one such masterpiece, but very possibly cracked it, warped it, melted it, and in some cases exploded it completely. The challenge is to pause, take a breath, and start over.
View some of Lara's ceramic works here and click below to play video: