Behavior begins as an experiment. If you don’t believe me, hang out with babies. Real babies. Infants. Balancing on their tummies, babies stretch and reach lifting their thighs and arms like little airplanes. Why? They’re experimenting. Learning their bodies. Practicing co-ordination. Without words they are figuring. And so do you. Unless you have an unusual genetic mutation you probably began life struggling through dynamic tension to effect abilities. The ability to lift your head, look around, to sit, to squat and stand and to walk smoothly. But after an intense few years of experimentation most people lapse into habit.
I walk well as a four-year old. I walk without thinking. My brain is doing all sorts of tricks to coordinate my action but consciously? I’m not giving it a second though. Until I mess around with my first pair of high heels. I must re-learn how to walk. At first I’m pretty awkward. But I’m determined. By the time I’m in my early 20s I can not only walk in high heels, I can run. The heels get higher from my mid-20s to my 30s. Thus I pattern my feet into a grotesque little shapes that send me frightened, to a podiatrist.
Despite giving up cruel shoes by the age of 35 I still suffer the effect of that bad habit. I get a pain in my foot. I self-treat with an inexpensive bunion splint. That coaxes my big toe back into line. Unfortunately years of bad habit are not undone in a few months. Years of good habit are necessary to re-set the bone, to reaffirm the musculature. I need to pattern my feet, leg and hip muscles for healthy walking. I seem to have somatic amnesia on that score. I continue to load way too much weight on the small bones of my toes, not enough in the thick heel bone as I practice yoga because no yoga teacher guides me differently. oops.
Yup. Ultimately I’m on my own to figure out this universal truth: bad habits are experiments gone awry. The high heels’ habit leads to back pain, chronic and persistent pain. Slouching forward to drive, or read, creates neck, shoulder and back tension. And then? Tension headaches, collapsed chest cavities, deceased lung capacity, depression. Yes, depression. Depression can be physiological. When we feel small we are small. That posture of defeat crowds the chest. Compromised space means less effective breathing, heart rate, less effective blood distribution – unclear thinking. Poor judgement. Don’t get me wrong, this is a subtle bit of information, often taken wrong.
What I mean to say is if you are depressed because your sister died you may sit with your head in your hands and cry. This is good. Feeling sad when you are sad is cathartic. Is healthy, organic and wise. After all, sitting up straight won’t bring your sister back. Habitually being sad however, is habitually compromising health. A sad person sees the world sad. Looks on the dark side. Pessimism births learned helplessness. Sitting up straighter, standing up, boldly, has an invigorating effect. When we breathe easier we handle difficultly better. Increased stamina doesn’t dissolve problems, stamina strengthens our resolve; we can then endure problems. But I digress.
My point is and I do have one:
Habits that took years to perfect don’t disappear in an hour, or a day or even a month. Issues in the tissue take years to establish and years to erase. I often say “You probably didn’t become inflexible overnight.” Unless you did. If you, like me, suffer a traumatic injury then you might lose your flexibility overnight. Rebuilding, however, still takes time. No matter what. Well I don’t make the rules I just make dispassionate observations on the human condition. If you want to get better you have to work diligently. The older you are the more you need to ramp up. Taking it easy because you are getting old is a route to total disintegration.
Here’s the one percent theory of yoga: habits change postures and postures change structure and structure weaves the whole fabric of your life. If your life is about sitting, i.e. sitting in a car commuting to a day job, 8 hours in a chair. Sitting in front of a TV or a computer or a tablet. If sitting is the locus of your life, chances are high, very high, your posture is rounded. Forward-head? My former husband who walks with his head a full three inches in front of his chest, suffers from more than one headache a week. The chiropractor sets him. The medical doctor dopes him.
Knowing what’s good for you is a highly personal decision. Drugs alleviate pain immediately. Restructuring takes time. The chiropractor wasn’t a bad guy. The doctor repeatedly told Howard to drink water, quit smoking, and stand straighter. The doctor encouraged, cajoled, advised – to no avail. Howard had the learned helplessness of someone born to controlling parents. Juvenile brushes with the law led to a stint in the army. A pattern of ceding self-care was established young and never challenged. What’s best for you?
New postures? Yogic asana aren’t ordinary. New shapes re-pattern muscles. Load bearing stress points shift. Extensions increase. Breathing eases. When you do it right. Ever so many changes happen at once that new students are tempted to stop with asana. I hope you don’t. Being an athlete isn’t the shortcut to enlightenment. (If it was we’d all be worshipping at the temple of Circe du Soleil.) Don’t stop with asana. Find all eight limbs of yoga, an Ashtanga practice that includes healthy eating, ethics, observances, meditation, reading, study, the whole she-bang.
About seven years ago I experiment with the Ashtanga primary series. So soon after my hip injury I can’t do a sun salute without persistent pain. I wisely back off. I build up strength with alternate yoga practices. Kundalini yoga in particular has many seated postures that nonetheless create upper body strength. Kundalini also includes quite a lot of pranayama. This helps immeasurably. I tackle my sun salutes cautiously. Ten of them in a row? Takes about five years to perfect to my liking. Yoga works like water, i.e. slowly, dissolving even the hardest substances.
Slowly? Sorry. If you’re impatient there’s no help for that. Yoga is 99 per cent action. You have to do it. You have to repeat, memorize the movement, calibrate and recalibrate. Get out of your head and into your body and then?? Then back into your head again with resolve. You have to stop bifurcating your existence into a mind/body split in order experience the wisdom of your body, i.e. you. Your hip (and her apparent inflexibility) is not what’s holding you back. Your hip IS you. Once you incorporate your yoga practice you can understand what mechanically, fluidly, actually, literally must needs be done in order to get into a pose. And then? Then you have to cognitively decide if it’s worth doing.
Only you know what’s best for you.
Now y’all play nice