The Breaking of the Shell

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On weekends I prepare for a work day. I rise early, I try to sit quietly, when there’s enough time, I eat a breakfast—usually liquid, so I don’t run the risk of it backing up on me during inversions or uddiyana kriya—that will sustain me through the morning, and I get dressed and walk the half-mile from my home to the yoga studio where I practice and teach. I plan what sequence I’ll be providing, I scribble a couple of fast notes, and then I practice. I almost always take class. It’s hard sometimes for folks, even my partner, to conceive that a yoga class is a part of my work day, but on this day it is. This is one of few days where my schedule permits me to study with my teacher before I have to teach, and I can think of few things better as a means of preparation for teaching. Joining his class allows me to practice without having to think so hard, to hold my own space: I get to surrender myself to his sequence and his energy, and contribute to, and ride, the wave of prana that I’m creating with others in the room. I get a chance to get my mind right, and to relax the clinching or desire of being able to do a pose well enough. When something pressing comes up, like a day-job meeting or a family obligation, I’ll sacrifice that early class, but I hate doing so. Not practicing before I teach changes the class I’m able to provide on that day.

One Saturday morning, I arrived early. The studio is often a popular place on weekends, buzzing with laughter and gossip from folks who have the time to come out and socialize before and after their practice. I found a friend in a quiet corner, and sat down beside him. As we started talking, I began to take my jacket off, and noticed, quite out of the blue, that my neck was tingling, just this side of an ache. It was as if I’d somehow gotten whiplash in the ten seconds it had taken me to unzip my burgundy hoodie: in 360 degrees, my neck was buzzing. It wasn’t quite pain, but it wasn’t pleasant, as if it was trying to decide if it wanted to hurt.

As surprising as it was, I kept chatting with my friend for a while, and then prepared for class. As we began, the tingling began to change, to deepen and sharpen. My muscles began to tighten, and during class my range of motion became smaller and smaller.

During the practice, my teacher coached us as we moved from chaturanga dandāsana to urdva mukha śvanāsana, “Press the tops of the feet down, open the heart, let the head drop back so you’re upward facing…” I tried it, and my body, clear as a bell, responded, nah girl, we ain’t doin’ that shit. My neck gripped, my traps clenched, and I couldn't move. The voice of my body was so clear, I looked around the room,  sure someone else had heard it. But the rest of the room continued onward, tucking toes under, lifting hips up, and lengthening spines into adhō mukha śvanāsana.

I suppose I should count myself lucky that my body sometimes communicates so clearly. But on this day it just felt obstinate. The next time we did a sun salutation, I attempted to jump back, and as safely and as lightly as I landed, I felt a tremor run up my spine and my neck spasmed. Okay, no more jumping today, I said to myself with a frown. I tried to shake my head gently and release tension, but even that was painful. By the end of class, the pain was real. I could barely turn my neck to look over one shoulder, lift my eyes to the ceiling, or let my chin drop toward my chest. Everything had seized up. I was angry. I really wanted a strong practice, wanted to enjoy the wide range of movements I move my body through, even when in my teacher’s class, I often find myself banging into my own limitations. I really wanted to feel like I was doing something! But the pain in my body restricted that range of motion to quite a narrow path.  When my teacher put us in śavasana, I stepped out of the room and took a quick dose of Arnica Montana. I returned to the classroom and rolled up a blanket behind my neck, hoping that the extra height would give my neck a place to loosen and relax a little gripping. No dice. I taught the next class class that way, unable to swivel my head in any direction, feeling tense, tight, achy, and struggling to breathe deeply.

This is an old pain, a pain I’m familiar with, that I’ve struggled with on and off for close to 20 years. I’m not sure when it began. I wish I could chalk it up to something, like a car accident, or a traumatic injury, but nothing I’ve experienced is so profound that it would make sense. I have noticed that when I feel overheated, or when find myself in situations of conflict, when I feel my buttons of abandonment or overwhelm being pressed, that it tends to flare up. I used to wish for healing, to be free forever of this pain. It makes it difficult for me to practice headstand and feel safe. I’m not so worried about whether or not I can balance; instead I’m worried about taking too much weight on my head and doing myself significant, permanent damage. My relationship to this pain is enduring, for better or for worse.

I’d love to be able to tell you that the practice of yoga teaches you to work with your body as an ally, a partner in your life and how you move through the world, and not as a resource to be mined, or an object of oppression, or an obstacle to manipulate into submission, to overcome. I’d love to tell you that, but I'm not sure it's true. When I look closely around the classrooms I practice in, I see some bodies that are longing, that are striving, working as hard as possible. Some of us come to yoga seeking healing from pain, looking to build strength and grow our capacity. For some of us, the physical practice of yoga is another place where we push push push, go go go, demand 110%. There is no ease in this kind of practice, there is only effort.

Pain has been a big part of my practice. I don’t have any complex diagnoses, I don’t have an autoimmune disorder. But I also have been taught to demand excellence from my body. I have learned that with enough effort, stringency, demand, and the sheer, brutal power of my will, I can make my body what I want it to be. This doesn’t feel like an accurate context for knowing my body. My body doesn’t like it when I demand from it; it tends to rebel. I’ve tried to demand postures from my body, like Urdvha Dhanurāsana or Pincha Mayurāsana, I wind up with injury that causes me to back off and rest. But this demand from the body is what our world teaches us: our body is under our control, and is an object to be controlled, rather than a partner in our existence. As a woman, my body is not a temple, nor a manifestation of the divine that I can explore and enjoy for all the things it can do, all the ways it can change, not a gift for me to enjoy and share as I deem right. It is a tool for attracting attention--usually from men, whether or not I’m attracted to them, or even heterosexual—and it’s a tool I have limited ownership over; it's an incubator for breeding the next generation, and if I can't breed, then what use am I? How I adorn my body dictates how others treat me, and if they treat me like shit it must be because I did something that indicated that I wanted to be treated like shit, that I thought I deserved to be treated like shit. This can include walking, smiling, not smiling, drinking in public, drinking in private, laughing, being alone, being with friends, wearing short skirts, long skirts, being covered from head to toe, being single, being married, being young or old, being poor, being wealthy, being friendly, being nice, being mean, being quiet, basically just being.

Marginalized bodies, bodies living with or recovering from trauma, bodies dealing with disease, sometimes these aren't the safest, easiest bodies to live in. But when we are able to bring our bodies to the mat, without judgment, with observation, with one eye on discipline and one eye on compassion, we can learn and grow to love ourselves more deeply and completely, and to care for ourselves in a way that serves us continuously.

I want to move my body with delight and safety and ease through the world, but sometimes it's hard to; sometimes the threat to my ease and safety feels outside my body, and sometimes it feels inside. Wrestling my mind away from judgment and self-loathing can be just as challenging as being brave enough to feel free to walk down the street. (Because, this is not an exaggeration, some days, it really does feel threatening as a woman of color, to walk down the street. I resent it, and I demand the right to be free in my country, in my city, in my neighborhood; and I also feel, at times, at risk.) Resisting the external demand I feel on my body, and working with the pain that I feel, sometimes my practice changes shape. I can't always count on being able to unroll my mat and throw down: sometimes I come to practice hurting, and I don't want to push through the pain. I want to work with it, because it may be temporary, but so is ease. 

If your practice is anything like mine, sometimes you have trouble staying present in it. Sometimes you get distracted thinking about what else you have to do today, or (my personal fave) what you're going to eat when this is over, or maybe how that last pose went for you, or what pose is coming next. Pain brings you immediately to the present moment. it won't let you move away, it won't let the balloon of your mind drift away from the steady grasp of your hands into the sky or down the road. It holds you present, it Keeps You Here. 

I tell students not to practice to the point of pain, not to push through pain, and I mean it. When something hurts me, I don't want to do it, and I believe that if we blind ourselves to the messages of our body (I'm hungry, I have to pee, Ouch!), that we position ourselves for greater and more lasting discomfort, dysfunction, and potentially, disease. Practicing with pain is something different. In a monograph of guidelines and practices written by the Ashtanga Vinyasa Ann Arbor community, led in some part by Angela Jamison, she writes, "It's a practice, not a performance. Modify for pain or fatigue if they actually arise. You might be surprised: they may have just been in your head."  

(Just as a sidenote, I need to take a moment here and totally fangirl over Angela Jamison. Though I'm familiar with Primary Series (and respect it deeply) I'm not an Ashtangi, but if I were and if she'd have me, I'd make an annual pilgrimage to Ann Arbor to practice with her. I have learned so much from her about practice, about paying close attention and what we do and why, and I LOVE the way she writes about the intersections of yoga, economy and society. Her work consistently asks me to step up my game. Deep, deep bow.)

She continues, "....For what it is worth to you, here is my personal practice. When I have been injured or ill, I still roll out the mat. I sit, lie or gently move, focus on the breathing, remain calm, and feel the energy in my body. This (1) maintains the practice habit. It also (2) focuses attention on perceiving energetic and physical experience, teasing this apart for emotional reactions, and thus significantly alleviating my suffering. (Shinzen Young says Suffering = Pain x Resistance.) This practice of coming to the mat even when there is great difficulty is (3) often fascinating, and sets a new baseline for future gratitude for my body. I sense that (4) doing this helps me recuperate faster. Studying pain with curiosity and care, not pushing to try to make it disappear: this is what I mean when I saw that it is OK to practice during injury or illness."

This is the energy I try to bring to my practice when I'm hurting, and though it complicates my life, I'm grateful for pain because it has lessons to teach me: about how to rest, how to practice, and how to listen closely. When I'm not hurting, I take ease in my body for granted and pay less attention and push more. 

(I've been talking pretty exclusively about physical pain in this context, and it's important to acknowledge that emotional, mental, and psychic/spiritual pain is as real--and as prevalent--as achy knees and shoulders. They're often connected to one another. I highlight physical pain in this post because it's what's been taking my attention most clearly. I think perhaps the same kind of discipline, compassion and curiosity could yield meaningful results when dealing with pain located in the mind, heart, or soul. It often has for me. )

All this to say that the body is not a traitor, even when it behaves in ways we wish it wouldn't. Your illness or injury is a meaningful teacher just like mine is for me. So don't be mad that your body won't do what you wish it would. Marvel at what it will do. Be grateful for what it has to say, and listen closely. Work together. Work cooperatively. Be patient. Release attachment to results and for gawd's sakes who cares if you can do dwi pada sirsasana. Can you spend a week with your family without wanting to kill them your yourself; can you acknowledge your privilege and use it for someone else's good; can you say you're sorry; can you forgive? When these practices come with more ease and less effort, we'll know the yoga is doing something.

 

And a woman spoke, saying, "Tell us of Pain.

And he said:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. 
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. 
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; 
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. 
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief. 
Much of your pain is self-chosen. 
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. 
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity: 
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, 
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears. 

Kahlil Gibran, "On Pain"