I have always known at least intellectually that there was as profound connection between our bodies and our emotions. I have 'known' (again intellectually at least) that our fight or flight response is intricately connected to our psoas group and our breath. I have 'known' that we hold tension in our bellies, our hips, our shoulders. And superficially, I had experienced things like a tension headache, or obvious macro-tension in my upper traps. But overall, I had for the most part always felt mobile and fluid in my body. Until a number of years ago, when I came to know in an intimate way how our bodies hold trauma, how our bodies are always whispering, until they're screaming for lack of attention, of the ways in which we lack integration....and I'm thankful because it has shifted and is shifting how I think about movement, how I interact with my body, how I interact with student's bodies.
I was fluid in my body, but I was not. I was a ballet dancer. I was taught discipline, contraction, control, lines. And like all habitual tendency I brought this into my yoga. It was natural for me....."Chinese Torture" as it was known--side splits against the wall. Forcing my arches to give, my 'turn out', my bleeding feet....And I took some measure of satisfaction in it. In the discipline, the routine, the willingness to feel and endure the pain of it. No pain no gain as they say....I was flexible, and yet, I was so contracted.
As a young woman, I brought that same tenacity and vigor to my yoga practice. I threw myself into my asana practice. And while I 'heard' the message of finding receptivity, openness, and steadiness, I wanted to will my body and my interior state to shift and on some level I believed I could make that happen from the outside in...but that is not how surrender works, nor transformation.
I was extremely critical of myself. When I missed a day of practice, if my practice wasn't strong, if I fell. And to be brutally honest, I punished myself for my failures. Extra push-ups the next day, 30 extra minutes of core, a longer meditation (I know how ridiculous that last part sounds....).
As I grew in my practice and spent time with phenomenal teachers, much of that changed. By my mid 20s I was less resistant. That is the benefit of the iteration of the practice. What Douglas Brooks calls "everyday virtuosity". It is in the repetition, the fire of the practice that we churn up, burn off, purify...But still, patterns held, and even as my emotional state and approach to yoga and asana shifted, I continued to really move from my outer body, my primary movers, to fight against myself, to push when I felt like I wasn't strong enough, or practicing enough, or working hard enough.
I softened, but there was still so much contraction....
And then I got sick....One night, with zero warning my stomach began to bloat painful and hard. By 2:30 am I looked like I was 6 months pregnant. The pain was unbearable and by 5 am I was on the floor in a fetal position with uncontrollable tears soaking my shirt. I was taken to the hospital, and subsequently rushed to another hospital 45 minutes away for emergency surgery. I was dying. My colon had spun on itself (that's a different tale) and was the size of a football. The blood supply to my organs had been cut off for hours. They fed a tube down my nose into my stomach that would stay there for over a week. I was essentially gutted and put back together...
When I woke up, in a strange city, I was in excruciating pain. They had cut through all of my abdominal tissue, removed a substantial portion of my intestines and proceeded to stuff my intestines back into my body. The surgeon described it as cramming a garden hose back into a box and said it would "take some time for things to settle and not cause pain anymore" because "you have a really small abdominal cavity" but that there was a "clean cut"...whatever that meant.
I lost 20 pounds in 2 weeks. And after that I was not able to eat solid food for 12 weeks. I continued to drop weight, and all of my strength, so carefully cultivated, withered. I continued to decline even as I healed from the surgery. I was no longer absorbing nutrients correctly. I had staples in my abdomen that were forming keloid scars. Painful, raised, purple scars that altered the landscape of my belly. My navel completely unfamiliar to me now.
For months my belly was a giant purple, yellow, and green, bruised, bleeding thing. And I was miserable. Every act that was once natural, drinking water, eating, breathing, elimination, all of it was painful. All of it filled with anxiety and fear, anticipating the pain that was becoming such a regular part of my day. I was ill for 2 years. The wrong vegetable and I was vomiting for hours. Things that are conventionally considered healthy would set my system into a tail spin. Sharp pains in my abdomen were common. And adrenals were completely shot. It was a slow path to healing.
The aggressive, disciplined asana practice I had developed was completely out of the question. A walk to the end of the driveway (required twice a day to keep blood moving in my organs) was painful. I felt weak, immobile, and became keenly aware of how much my 20 something self had my worthiness tied up in my ability to practice asana (also perhaps another story for another time)....
As my body began to heal and I was cleared to start gently exercising, I was horrified to discover I could not raise my arms over my head. The scar tissue and facial networks in my abdomen had formed a vice grip that kept me from this simple movement without searing pain. I remember vividly one day wanting to get into pigeon pose so badly, as my hips ached from being couch and bed ridden. And as I began to ease into the pose I found that what was once a simple act was now totally unattainable.
I sat on the floor in my parent's living room and wept as what I can only describe as a hot searing, tearing sensation ripped through my belly from attempting the pose. And I was not crying for the pain, I was mourning because I did not know how to be in the world without that physicality of my practice....I'm a kinesthetic learner, I don't know how to interact with the world without my body being central to that interaction.
I sent an email to one of my teachers complaining about not being able to practice, and received a very prompt reply basically saying, "sitting is yoga, act with consciousness, the rest is secondary." Not precisely the answer I wanted, but most definitely the answer I needed...And so I sat....And the early days of sitting were not easy....that also is another story for another time....
Eventually, after a great deal of unpleasant, manual tissue work, and continuing to ease my way back into movement, I regained a great deal of my mobility. I remember pressing up into dhanurasana (wheel) and feeling tissue separating, tearing in my belly. Late nights at a physical therapy friend's house getting my belly kneaded until the skin was red and angry and I could not handle anymore. The adhesions in my belly eventually the resulted in diastis recti, meaning my 6-pack muscles are split right down the middle around my navel. This new body was unrecognizable to me. The scars, my navel, the way it moved, or refused to move.
My practice during this time changed completely. In the beginning, I was angry. It wasn't fair. I was young, I wanted my body back. But luckily, I have mentors in my life that have no problem telling me in the most gentle way possible when to die quietly to myself and do the work.
I became inquisitive, I stopped pushing against myself, I moved slow. I quit caring about the postures or the shapes I was making. I gave up all so called "advanced asana" all together. I took to heart the words of Jason Crandell that "an advanced practitioner is not someone doing "advanced" asana, but is a practitioner deriving the greatest benefit from the simplest of movements".
I began to use my asana practice for what it was always intended for, to move energy in my body, to connect, to listen, to integrate. I found compassion for myself and started to hold myself and consequently others more gently. Forgiveness. Grace. I let go of blame, and I stopped asking "why". I learned that "why" is rarely the right question. The better, more interesting question is "how can I relate to it?"
I did less, a lot less. The starting point shifted. I was no longer imposing practices on my body. I stopped treating my body as a machine, as something outside of the 'self' to be willed into submission. I stopped doing poses. I don't mean that I stopped making asana shapes, but the pose was no longer the point. The point was integration, dissolving, feeling it all without being oppressed by it. Being willing to see where I was not integrated, where I was suffering, struggling, and getting inquisitive about it.
This path is for me is so far from over. Without belaboring the point, during these years I experienced a tragic loss, and similar to the surgical trauma, the emotional trauma impacted my body in ways I did not expect. Three years after that loss, I'm still finding places where tension and contraction that protected me during both my surgery and the trauma have not let go. I'm continuing to lovingly inquire into those spaces and am so thankful for the support I have in that from friends I cherish.
I'm continuing to find and explore new ways of moving. Of coming up against my edges and seeing where I can soften. The inquiry has changed and it is profoundly more interesting. And interestingly, in my softness, I am so much stronger than I ever was when I was pushing so hard...
As a teacher of asana, I find myself in a conundrum of sorts. I love asana, I love the the dance-like nature of flow, I love the sweat, and at this point in my healing, I very much enjoy standing and playing on my hands, because it is that, play. I enjoy teaching a sweaty, strong, playful class. But I also don't want to teach poses anymore. And as the exploration in my own body is still so young, I'm not sure how that translates to my student's bodies. I want them to find their own inquiry. To stop making shapes, and to start learning to move from the inside out. To surrender and find how they can move the whole body together, not an arm, not the placement of a leg or a foot.
Modern asana practice has for many become divorced from the broader system of yoga. And as practitioners, with our Western ideals of fitness, health, and control, our approach to asana is mechanistic. Cartesian. Body, non-body. This is deeply regretful. I believe that this inquiry into the body and our habitual tendencies is key to so much more than skillful, conscious movement. It is a place to awaken to both our habits and our vast potential. And that inquiry is not just an inquiry into the body, but to our emotional and energetic selves...excuse the cliche but it is all connected. And the moment we divorce the three, the moment we treat parts of the body as just that "parts", we enter a struggle against ourselves that we cannot win. Instead, what is so sweet is loving, gentle, inquisitive attention.
I wrote this piece 5 years ago in the midst of my healing journey. Last week I found myself under the knife once again. Once again I woke up from surgery feeling torn apart.
This time I woke up in a strange country. The melodic drone of Thai being spoken around me. I could not remember where I was. My body was trembling uncontrollably and I could not find my voice to speak.
The past week I have slowly worked my way out of the drug-induced fog and moved with as much grace as I can muster through the pain and the uncertainty.
I am on my third belly button.
I no longer remember what the belly of my landscape looked like before all this began.
Once again I have to love this body into healing. Once again I have to learn to hold myself gently.
It is challenging in this Instagram world where there is so much pressure on teachers to wear the right clothes, to have the right body, to be able to do the right poses to accept this current state in my body and the inevitable scars.
It is challenging not to attach worth to "likes" in a society obsessed with aesthetics as the highest realm of worth.
So there is this pressure to make this imperfect body perfect. To have it move in ways that I cannot. At least for now...maybe not ever.
I am aching after just a week to move my body
Once again I am reminded that an advanced practitioner of yoga is someone that is stable.
You can measure a yogi or yoginis advancement not by their postures but by how steady they are in their life. Their psycho-emotional stability. You can be a total asshole and be able to put your feet on your head.
All that nonsense is just gymnastics. Fun nonsense. But it is not the heart of yoga. While asana can be a discipline in itself it's not the point. Me connecting with my heart, getting still, getting steady, moving towards Highest possibility, Neutral mind is moving into yoga.
Asana is a tool for healing our house so that we can enter into the higher path of yoga.
Yoga asana was never intended to be exercise. While its not "bad" or "wrong" to want results from yoga when it becomes goal oriented in that way we are further objectifying ourselves and connecting with this false mind-body identity which is contrary to yoga's teaching. If we put that on our yoga it can really serve to strip away its purpose and strip away its healing modality and benefits to us.
Yoga is internal process not external performance.
What is your relationship with asana? How is it serving your connection with your Highest Self?