On Binding, Commitment, and the Teacher that Is Struggle

Baddha Parsvakonasa because I had some things to work out in my spine and side bodies, in my heart and mind. Also, Go Warriors.

Baddha Parsvakonasa because I had some things to work out in my spine and side bodies, in my heart and mind. Also, Go Warriors.

I tell my students that our practice of yoga is seldom about all the fancy and interesting shapes we can but out body into; but instead is about putting our body into shapes, and then practicing being present there. Sometimes the shapes are striking, or lovely, or impressive, at least on the outside. Sometimes they're easy; sometimes they're quite complicated. 

This morning I found myself craving practices that would require a bit more effort, would on appearance, confine and prevent expansion, but would have an effect of creating more space, more energy, more movement and expansion and rest. So I found myself in the shape above and some others: twisting, binding, contortions that are (for me) challenging. There isn't any great, cool epiphany that I experience in bound side angle pose; I practice expanding into integrity in this shape, I make sure the bind isn't inhibiting my alignment; I enjoy breathing into the shape, and trying to make sure that I'm dwelling with my breath, listening to it, and staying present in the posture and sensation. 

This kind of practice is important to me because of how often it mirrors day-to-day. Professional challenges, relationships, desires, even attempts at personal growth, can all be fraught with struggle and obstacle. This week I celebrated my seventh wedding anniversary with my husband. I sometimes want to use the word struggle, along with words like laughter, joy, affection, intimacy, connection, to describe the last seven (to ten) years. They haven't been consistently easy: we've fought, and sometimes quite ugly; each of us has experienced personal struggle that has required a lot of the other. I believe deeply in the personal, admirable, and brave choice to commit one's life to another person, because there's a lot in our current world that seeks to supersede, compromise, or even destroy that commitment. I think we're still married not because we're scared of being apart from the other, or because we're lazy, or because we won't let the bastards get our marriage. I think we're still here because each day, with all of its snares and vines, we'd still rather do life together than apart.

So, in marriage, like at work, like in yoga practice, like when I'm faced with fear or a journey that feels so uphill as to seem perfectly vertical, I put myself in the shape, and I take it one breath at a time. This isn't really a post about marriage; commitment to another, like any yoga posture, is just an opportunity to look closely at yourself in a particular shape, and see where we are gripping or holding, where we're working too hard, where we might need a bit more integrity or discipline, or where an adjustment from a pair of loving hands might be in order. The challenge of the posture, like the challenge of relationship--work, platonic, romantic, and individual--serves us as a mirror to show us our tendencies, our blind or weak spots, our successes and growths, and allows us to continue to seek openness, non judgment and equanimity, one breath at a time. 

I won't say anything quite so hackneyed as, embrace the struggle. (It's in the yoga teacher handbook, but I want to roll my eyes at that one.) But I will say sometimes a shape you find yourself in is hard, and that struggle has something to teach you. It can't teach us if we're too busy complaining about how hard it is, or if we're trying to force it, or backing off it because we're scared. All we can do is find the deepest shape we have access to, breathe and witness.

Do you feel me?

A few of my favorite images of the moon, according to the Tarot.  

A few of my favorite images of the moon, according to the Tarot.  

After taking a few of my favorite Restorative Yoga classes with a truly gifted and sensitive teacher a some time ago, I picked up a book he'd read from, and also borrowed his deeply moving habit of reading to students occasionally in the Restorative class that I teach. I was reading recently from Fire of Love, by Aadil Palkhivala, and shared this from his chapter on Feeling:

Feeling is the essence of life. Without feeling, we are not quite human. The real value of our asana practice is that, as we do pose after pose with awareness, we are inviting more sensitivity into our bodies and our lives. We are learning to tune in and feel. So we not only feel better, but we feel better. 

It makes a lot of sense to me, but I'd be lying if I said that there aren't times when I wish I didn't feel quite so much. Truth is, I'm a big, ol' feeler: whether it's joy, terror, anger, confusion sadness, or anything else or in between, when I feel a feeling it's almost always an 11 on a scale of one to ten. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm more than a little expressive about my feelings, too. I sometimes wish that I moved through the world with more equanimity: I think it would spare me a lot of lost energy and heartache; but I just don't. What I feel, I feel deeply.

For better or for worse, yoga--and by this, I mean not just asana, but the eight-limbed practice of yoga, the gritty, tearful moments of svadhyaya, the struggle to soften into ahimsa when I'm frightened and irritable, the fleeting moments of pratyahara that I pursue even as my monkey mind is crying out for more Netflix--this practice has taught me to feel more. Practicing yoga is what clued me into the fact that I feel lousy when I eat meat; it's what has given me the bravery to end toxic relationships; it's what has shown me how much it matters to me to offer what I study, what I practice, to others. 

But sometimes I really hate The Feels.

You can never un-know a thing, can you? Even if you choose to feign ignorance about how that chicken thigh made its way under the mushroom sauce on your plate, or what your uncle did to your little sister, or that you just aren't in love with them anymore, that feeling will find a way out. It'll manifest as a nagging pain in your neck, or as acid stomach, or nightmares. The truth will out. The truth doesn't really have a feeling. If your hamstrings are too short and your hips too tight today for you to put your feet behind your head, well, that isn't great and it isn't terrible; it just is. Likewise, if that person doesn't love you the way you want them to, that isn't inherently bad or good; it's just a fact of the nature of your relationship with them. If you try to do dwi pada sirsasana in light of the truth about your hips and hamstrings, I promise you, you will have a feeling. If you try to make someone love you when you know they can't, oh Honey, take it from me, you'll get a boatload of feelings as a result of that ill-advised action.

The feeling comes in our reactivity. This retrograde/eclipse season is really revealing to me some things that were hidden. The waxing and waning light of the moon has a way of doing that: at night, the shadows are long and exaggerated, and we're not sure what it is we see. Things can look scarier than they are; sometimes people we thought were there, aren't there at all (which could be good for us, or bad, depending on how we feel about who we thought was there in the first place). Sometimes relationships we counted on are revealed to be shallow, and we're faced with the choice of investing or cutting our losses. 

Feelings seldom feel like a choice, though. I don't know about you, but I often give my feelings such privilege that it's tough to remember that they're fleeting, that--like the shadows of the moonlight--they may not be an accurate reflection of the truth. I don't believe feelings are a choice. I've heard that before, I just don't buy it. But I am learning (often quite painfully, as the princess of The Feels) that feelings don't have to be in charge. My anger, my pain, my disappointment, my loneliness, my lust, my resentment, my yearning: none of these need to be in charge of the decisions I make. They have useful information to offer, but they may not be there when the sun comes up. So even though my feelings aren't a choice, how I hold my feelings, and how I act in dialogue with them is a choice.

Damn, it's beginning to sound a little Multiple Personality up in here. 

Feelings come up a lot in my physical practice. I've never been the yogini who laughed, or cried, in ekapadarajakapotasana, but I have been the yogi furious with the teacher for asking us to do another balancing pose, or furious with her flat feet for not supporting her in said balancing pose; I am currently the yogini walking a tightrope of encouraging myself to be brave in dialogue with postures where I've hurt myself before (bravery, excitement), and not being so caught up in my ego and in grasping for postures that I hurt myself. Again. (fear, discouragement, laziness?)

The practice never lies. Never. How we react to it, our ego, (source of The Feels) lies all the time. What I discover about yoga, in the subtle practices of pranayama, pratyahara and dharana, is that these practices lift up The Feels. There's no vinyasa to rinse them away like sorbet between sequences, there's no second side to try it again and see what happens this time; there's only me and my breath and the feeling, and the floor beneath me, and sometimes I forget that last part. And so I sit with the feeling, I hold it and interrogate it, and I don't try to make it go away. On a good day, this is a wordless experience, and then maybe some clarity lifts up within me, and usually that is language-based. On most days, my cognitive mind takes the reins and acts like some kind of ethnographer, and I have to keep telling myself to shut up. On a bad day, the feeling wins and there is no clarity, there is only the glaring feeling itself, and I have to work not to step off the mat in a totally triggered state, I have to remember to leave my practice behind.

Being a grown-up is not easy. When you're six months old and you have a feeling you don't know what to do with, you wail about it until someone puts something in your mouth, or cleans you off, or puts you to bed, and you feel better. Something similar happens when you're three or six. But when you're fourteen, twenty-two, thirty-six, fifty-seven, it isn't as simple anymore. The feeling itself may be as "uncomplicated" as fear, fatigue, hunger, loneliness, but man, how it manifests in our world of relentless cell phones and mortgages and climate change and Black Lives Matter and guarding borders is a giant snare, and how adults deal with their feelings has huge consequence on one another's lives. 

And so I unroll my mat and I practice. I move my body through space, and I try to examine my feelings without attaching too much to them, even when I'd rather just put something in my mouth and clean myself off and go to bed. I sit beside myself. I imagine myself sitting beside me, laying my head on my own shoulder in a gesture of compassion and generosity that I want to show someone else, that I want to receive from someone else. I say to myself, it's okay, Jess. You're here, you're safe, and I love you. Sometimes that makes it better, sometimes it feels like it will be hard forever. But I'm in it. I don't run away from the feeling because I know it won't last, and I know that beneath it there's a truth I need to know.