Sunday, January 8, 2017
Another Yoga Lesson
In yoga recently the teacher compared the 90 minute class with the 90 years of a human lifetime. The first 50 minutes, he said, like the first 50 years of your life, are preparation for the most challenging part which comes after. Bikram yoga starts with a series of standing postures that focus on balance, strength and discipline. The standing series feels much harder than the 40 minutes of postures done on the floor.
Balancing on one foot and then the other, posture after posture. I stagger, regroup, tip over, breathe, and find a center from which to be still. Suck in your stomach, tighten up your thighs, glutes, knees. Use your bulldog determination. Breathe, always breathe. If you can't breathe you need to back off a bit. Listen to your body. Go beyond your limits, but not too far. Sweat rolls and pools and drips. Muscles hold and then tremble and then hold again. Breath catches somewhere in my chest and I have to go inward to bring it out. But often there is no time. Forward movement leaves little room for catching up.
I'm aware of people around me going to the floor at times during the standing series. Doing only one of the two repetitions of each posture. Or none. Triangle, also called the master's pose, referred to as the top of the mountain, never fails to bring at least one person to their knees. Already exhausted, but also as flexible as we're going to get, doing triangle requires complete focus and an ability to shut out the voice that says you don't have to do this. I think now and again about only doing one, and always talk myself out of it. Better to do the posture in less than full expression than to go to the floor and maybe not want to get back up again.
The standing series feels like hard work, and the work often hurts. In those 50 minutes we resist the pull of gravity, as much as we resist the urge to inertia. That time is about building muscle and endurance. We're directed to focus outside of ourselves on our reflections in the mirror, not for judgement, but to check for alignment and form. That judgment inevitably happens then becomes part of the work.
The last of the standing postures is the Bikram version of tree or toe stand. Balanced on one leg, hands in namaskar, focused on one spot, breathing evenly, standing strong and proud like an oak tree. This is one of my favorite postures. In part because the floor is only seconds away. In part because I have seen much improvement in the months I've been practicing. The best part though, is the green energy field I can see radiating from my body when my focus is clean.
As we settle into savasana (dead body pose) at the beginning of the floor series, the teacher will often say the standing series was the warm up for what comes next. There's always a bit of a chuckle at this, because really what could possibly be harder than what we've just done. We're pretending to be dead bodies, with nothing expected of us in that moment but stillness. And breathing. How hard can that be?
It turns out that it's a completely different breed of hard.
No longer struggling against gravity, we are encouraged to let the earth hold us as we lie on the floor. The strength required for this is more mental than physical. The mirrors are no longer available for feedback, so it's even more important to go inward. To listen to the body voice and the heart voice. We don't always appreciate what those voices are saying, but there's no way to escape beyond the spectacle of fleeing the room.
Rest is built in, savasana done after every posture. Done, we're told, to allow the body to absorb what it's just been through. A time of focusing entirely on breathing. None of the distractions easily available when standing; no twitching or wiping sweat off or drinking water or pulling at your yoga pants so you look thinner.
The most challenging posture of the floor series is camel. Meant to strengthen and stretch the spine, it also opens up the heart. The result is often a flood of emotion, or nausea, or dizziness. The teachers often say we might feel euphoria here, but I think that's a fantasy thrown into the dialogue to trick us into not giving the nausea too much credit. Feelings are pushed to the surface through the opening up of the front of the body. Not for the faint of heart for sure. As the analogy goes, I see this pose as a chance later in the process for a final cleansing and releasing of long-held pain. It also involves a release of control. There's no real way to know what might find its way to the surface.
After the standing series, there is no energy left for anything but essential movement. Monkey mind is quieter. Energy is conserved. Focus is on small adjustments, which bring small improvements. There is also less inclination for comparison with fellow yogis because it's much harder to see others from the floor. A feeling of camaraderie replaces the pull of competition so hard to resist when we can see each other in the standing series. We've all gone through this thing together, a family of sorts. The privilege of being human becomes a gift to be cherished in those clear clear moments. The gift of breath. The peace of exhaustion and attention paid to every part of being human in 90 minutes. The space created around the troubles and worries brought into the room makes life outside the room easier and brighter.
When I was younger, I looked at retired people, if I considered them at all, with envy. Old people had it easy. No responsibilities. No worries. Sure there could be physical issues, and losses, but mostly it looked like a cake walk. I looked forward to being one of those people. From the hubris of unlimited energy, endless possibilities for starting over, and reliable mental resources, I neglected to understand I would be one of those people but in an older body with an older mind. Not retired with the energy and perspective of my middle age as I expected.
I'm discovering that being in the life version of the floor series is indeed more challenging than it might look from the outside. The resting in between postures is essential. Everything moves more slowly and requires more concentration. Instead of pushing myself harder, it's much more effective to be still and relax into whatever is being asked. Resistance no longer serves. Acceptance and listening and breathing into the stretches has replaced muscling through. Asking my body, not demanding.
Just as I feel lying on the floor in class, in many ways this time of life seems easier despite the challenges. It's really just me and my own inner voice. Outer voices only carry whatever weight I'm inclined to give them. The struggle is less physical and more everything else. It's harder to get away from unpleasantness, cradled in the arms of the earth. Running (or resisting) requires more energy and intention than simply staying put. On the other hand, staying with the discomfort turns out to be not as terrible as I used to believe.
I find myself in a time where it would be easy to forget my grounding and the lessons of breathing to expand and clarify and cleanse. Like so many, I'm still grieving the election. Winter, and this harsh winter in particular, and the literal darkness that comes with this time of year, always challenge my healing and my equanimity. Freedom of movement is curtailed by ice and snow. Electricity has been lost to winds with the power to uproot giant fir trees and to split my favorite oak tree in half. A younger brother is caught in the whirlpool decline of dementia. Family members are in pain and struggling, and sometimes their struggles create pain for me. There is a clarity that powering through is no longer an option. This groundedness is really my only choice, even when it doesn't feel like enough, and too slow and with no illusion of control for comfort.
But there is a fluidity to the ground. Change is embedded in everything. Each in-breath brings in new air, new life. Each out-breath takes away what no longer serves. Even in stillness there is movement. In death, life. In darkness the memory of light that burns through, that promises to return. Living to 90 feels less important than living to 90 fully alive. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Live.