The Whole She-Bang

Small kid time I learn to ride a bike. I effort heroically with flailing limbs. Coordinating the unfamiliar actions is tough. My poor mom runs alongside me while I tilt left and right, losing my balance. She encourages me. Good teachers are encouraging. With practice I shave off the unnecessary contortions. I not longer tense my face, my arms. I focus on my legs to ride the bike. Proficiency in an acquired skill requires less effort than being newly fresh. This is why so many people avoid learning things: they just hate being bad at the start. They have no patience for the pain, the shame, the lame-ass lame level of first learning.

Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. But I digress. My point is, the extra movements, the tensing of my abdominals? The spastic flailing of my arms or legs – does not help me ride a bike. Those additional movements inhibit my ability. They make me less capable. In my inability, in my fear I (for good reason) trust my body instinct less and my sight instinct more. This is natural. When body sensation seems unreliable most humans compensate by an increased use of the eyes. Don’t you look down to see your feet when you walk on uneven ground? Or glance around for the handrail when you descend steps?

I notice a lack of body-trust in elderly people who doubt their knees, hips or legs to carry them comfortably. The oldsters shuffle along, eyes trained down – trusting their sight more than their body sense. Many yoga students testing one-legged balance postures insist on watching their own feet. With head craned in downward-facing-human the entire alignment of the spine is jacked. It’s no wonder to me why their balance is off. I remind them, gently, “Your feet are in the last place you left them. Look forward to get your head in the same plane of movement as your back and legs.”

Yes, I teach people to re-member. To incorporate. To erase somatic amnesia. Sometimes all it takes is an articulation, a verbal command and feeling is restored in the offended limb. Trust that your foot is in the last place you left it, and voila, there it is. A scared frame is a rounded frame, the tailbone tucks like a sulky cur. The classic posture of a fearful person puts the center of gravity way behind where it ought to be, shoving the heavy head afore the torso creating needless stress. Which came first? Bad posture or bad balance? Bad balance or fear? At any rate, the only way to break the cycle is to venture out.

I don’t advocate a leap of faith. Get information. Do your due diligence. You’ll feel better. If you raise your head, for example, while your chest is still caved, the stress on the neck is actually more than if your head follows the gentle curve of iPhone posture. The body is a closed circuit. Fix everything at once, or I’ve fixed nothing at all – as new problems arise with these half-measure fixings. Or haven’t you ever had a side effect?

I remember taking a drug to dry up my nose only to start suffering poor eyesight. The drug was doing such a bang up job my whole face was drying out – my eye water as well! I stop taking the prescription medication, turning to a neti pot to soothe my poor nose. I end up healing myself for less cost. No side effect. I swear I don’t make this stuff up. Don’t confuse the map for the territory. I’m not advocating anyone give up on the AMA. I’d be jolly glad to have them on my side were I really ill.

What I am saying is you must think for your self and I must think for my self and we must all try seriously hard to understand what is going on in our own bodies and not expect other people to have all the answers. We must work with others and not at others. We must maintain a sense of humor about this stuff. Pay with the magic of honest curiosity, the dividends and interest will compound over time with practice. You’ll know you’re getting better when – when your yoga takes less effort, your movement is more skillful, less fluttery, less fussy, less filled with extraneous actions.

You move toward stillness.

Even my breath reins in, and I feel increasingly subtle changes in my physiology as my yoga practice deepens. For example the first time I ran through my back bend tonight I feel tired. Knowing myself as I do I come out of the back bend, moving into a counter pose. Unsatisfied, I try my backbend for a second extension. Common sense would say I should be more tired trying the second time, but I’m not. I’m decidedly more stimulated, more focused, more serious about what I am doing. I stay the second time not just for a longer duration but in a more poised position. Riding my breath, reining it in, feeling with credible awareness my belly, my chest, my pelvis rhythmically subtly tense in the right direction.

Time seems to stand still. I am no longer hearing the noise from outside. I’ve become absorbed in my work and my work absorbs me. My body digests the pose. My body is me. I embrace a preternatural calm. While the first time I tried I shivered, my muscles trembling, the second time has no such reaction. What’s the secret? No extras. No mind wandering. No facial tics. My entire back contracts from the soles of my feet to my forehead whilst my entire front elongates. If there’s a secret it’s no secret it’s all of me, at once, living the backbend. The awareness of my shoulderblades is not less than the awareness of my large intestine. I’m all in intact.

Sometimes when I spot people doing a cranky version of  urdhva dhanurasana I see the extra movements of outwardly opened hips or tightly held chests, shoulder blades frozen, faces grimacing, wrists collapsing. None of that is necessary. Don’t make the posture harder than it is. Start with a non-weight bearing version. Get good and strong at a lowly cobra. Strive to hold one, back muscles engaged, front body stretched for five minutes – you’ll know what I’m talking about. When that cobra roams from the toes to your forehead, no longer resting just in the chest you’ll have patterned the patterns, set up the neurological pathway. Nothing left but to flip that pose over onto your back – voila!

Or not. For those with weak wrists, why chance ’em? Yoga isn’t a competitive sport. It’s a meditation, right? Am I right? So if you can’t see straight, if you can’t see the forest for the trees, something’s missing from your yoga practice. I think it’s you. I know it’s me when I can’t find the right place. When I am there. I’m there, like Carlos Castaneda finding his place on the porch in “The teachings of Don Juan.” (If you haven’t read it lately, give it another go.) There’s something to be said for the student teacher relationship. If you haven’t got one with your teacher, come take classes from me. I have a preference for teaching people I can get to know. People who continue to take classes, ask questions, participate – take responsibility and ownership for their own education.

Don’t make education the only thing you’re willing to pay for and not get. There’s plenty to learn. No end in sight.

Now y’all play nice

Sat Nam

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