Right around my 35th birthday a few months back, I had a kind of epiphany on my mat. (This happens pretty frequently. Sometimes during my physical practice, I can get out of my own way, and the solution to a problem will lift up like a lotus flower sprouting out of the mud of my mind.) This time it was
Santosha (Purists, please forgive the spelling absent diacritical marks, haven't quite figured that out here) is one of the niyamas the five internal restraints that are the second of the eight limbs of yoga. Wait, what? You mean yoga has eight limbs, and not just the four that are attached to my body, you're thinking. Ah, jeeze, I guess I haven't talked enough about that. For the long explanation, any translation of the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali will give you plenty to think on. For quick internet resources, this one is pretty good; if you want the easy, breeze, 30-second snapshot, see the YJ explanation here.
Anyway, santosha, I decided is the word of my 35th year. I imagined Pee Wee's Playhouse, and all the friends around me screaming and rolling their big googly eyes and waving their stuffed arms every time I said it. It means contentment; acceptance: making due and being okay with what is.
This kind of practice is a big deal, and a challenge for me. Part of what dawns on me right now is that I want so MUCH. I want so OFTEN. This leads to a lot of anger and ultimately a lot of suffering in me. When I let the reins out on my own wanting, I can get crazy with it. Turning 35, part of me sometimes thinks I should have been somewhere else by now. I should have traveled more places, I should have better relationships, I should have accomplished more, gotten further in my professional ambitions. That part talks to the part that compares me to other people, other standards. I'm not as fabulous as some rich superstar or as accomplished as my colleagues.
I liked to imagine that I was content with my body, but when I turned 35 that fantasy went right out the window. My metabolism is slowing down, my ability to recover seems to take longer, and I find myself almost exponentially more critical of myself than I've ever been before: of my practice, my (in)ability to still my mind, of how long it takes me to learn a new skill; of how I look and feel in my clothes, even.
I'm not sure if it's possible to grow up a black woman in America and not have a complicated, even adversarial relationship with your body. I mean, any sister, yes; I'm not saying you have to be black to struggle with eating disorder/body shame/dysmorphia. I'm just saying you don't have to look very hard or far to see how little the black female existence (cis and trans) is (de)valued in our country and culture. We're smart and we learn fast.
So issues, embarrassment, shame, that's nothing new. What's new is shame about aging.
I keep trying to remember that my body is not me. Our bodies move through our world with a lot of import. Your body is your home; your playground, your pleasure chest; your social significator, your lens, your vessel, your vehicle; it is and does so many things.
But my body is not me, right? It's just a flesh-consciousness suit. This idea isn't just in yoga philosophy. I remember an illustration from a kids' bible that I used to have, showing what would happen when Jesus returned and called his followers back to him. There were people-shaped ghosts and spirits rising out of their graves in the earth to be in heaven. Even in the afterlife, we can't get away from this flesh-suit paradigm. We're stuck with the body as the shape and form of our consciousness. Our bodies aren't our beings--we're energy passing time in flesh suits, suits that degrade and break down, and will one day stop animating.
This is the first year I considered lying about my age. Up until this point, it was no big deal, but now, this year, I get it. Who wants to be 35?
Earlier this year, I resented time as a thing I had no control over. ( I know, can you imagine? Ego!) It required that I do things when it said so, not when I said so. Since my birthday, I resent time for passing. I resent my body for time's passing showing up on it, almost as if I'm a tree big enough and old enough to have rings now.
I think I feel shame about my body, shame at the fact that it's aging. I feel like my body has tricked me, and now I'm looking at myself and thinking wait! Time can pass, but I should stay the same.
I read this, and think I must sound so... naive. Ridiculous. Maybe both.
Our bodies move through time in a kind of straight line. Uterine bodies, I suppose, can move in both a line and a circle--the phases of the moon, the building and releasing of the menstrual cycle--this is a circle, not a line, but even as our time is defined by revolution around the sun, June 22 this year is not June 22 last year. Each one has 364 days between it that makes it different.
If I believe that I'm not my body, then what do I care if time passes, and the passing of time shows up on my body? Is this resentment just borne out of an overblown connection or identification with my body?
But the body's important. It's not something to be ignored. Ask anyone who's ever received unwanted touch, anyone who's ever been injured. Ask anyone who feels their body is a traitor for responding when they don't want it to. Ask anyone who feels unsafe in their body; ask anyone who has criminalized for existing while black how unimportant the body is.
I don't know how this will go down, will it be easy or maddening to pursue contentment with my body, with my 35th year. I feel like maybe I should write Santosha on Post-Its and put the on the mirrors in my house, in my closet, my bookcases, in my wallet, even in my underwear drawer. Maybe I will--whatever I can do to remind myself that contentment is a skill that will lead to detachment, which will ultimately ease my suffering.