Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My Mountain Story

As part of my yoga therapy training, we were asked to write about a time when our body had a story to tell. The following is my response, and I think it gives some sense of the great potential for change contained in the Phoenix Rising process:

Reflecting on my somatic history - from an early head-first fall that led to my front teeth being pulled out, to my rise from awkward dork to blackbelt, and then my discovery of yoga and meditation - I realize that it's only in the past few years that I've been listening closely enough to hear what my body is trying to teach me. Since beginning martial arts and theater classes in sixth grade, I grew up very comfortable and confident in my body. I developed discipline, strength, balance and breath awareness through Tae Kwon Do practice. Years of theater games taught me to move spontaneously, how posture is connected to thought and emotion, how to communicate nonverbally. But despite these physical efforts, I was far more comfortable living in my head most of the time.

I had a strong intellect from an early age, and excelled in school. I dismissed athletes as hopelessly attached to their physical appearance and ability. I was sometimes bullied in middle school, and comforted myself with the thought that my intelligence would grant me a powerful job and great wealth, and my ignorant tormentors would be end up serving me at McDonalds. Even as I progressed towards a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, I mainly identified with my mind as who I "really was". My body was my vehicle, my machine that I operated with great skill.

This attitude came with me into my first years of yoga - in the body but not of the body. I was especially attracted to the transcendent teachings of yoga (astral projection was also appealing). I was drawn to the idea of "mastery" - gaining perfect control of body and even mind (though always confounded by exactly "who" would be the master of the mind...) So I approached asana through this lens, determined to do each pose "perfectly". I had a natural talent for yoga, given my background and genetic flexibility, and quickly advanced in my postures. Yet the one posture that frustrated me the most, that I could never get quite right, was Mountain.

Tadasana, which seemed like it should be one of the easiest poses for such an "accomplished yogi" as myself, was always maddeningly uncomfortable. When I turned my feet so they were exactly parallel, exactly even beneath me, my legs and pelvis almost always felt misaligned. My response was usually to try to work harder, to "do it better", through ever more subtle adjustments to thigh rotation, tail bone tuck, foot effort, knee lift, etc. I could reach what felt like perfect balance briefly, but then as soon as my attention moved elsewhere my body would adjust to put my left foot slightly forward of my right foot, and turned out a bit from straight. My left foot would take more weight than my right foot. The base of my right big toe felt ungrounded.

It was deeply disturbing to me that my body refused to stand evenly. It brought up a deep fear that I was somehow inherently flawed, fundamentally uneven, and thus (irrationally) unable to even fully "master" yoga. St. Peter would turn me back from the gates of Heaven because I couldn't do Mountain pose correctly. I'm certain that my teacher gave many cues to "let the pose happen just as it is" and "there's no such thing as a perfect posture", but I didn't hear him. Practicing on my own, I'd fly through Mountain on the way to other poses, to avoid my discomfort. When I became a teacher, I felt like a bit of a fraud because I was still having trouble with such a basic pose.

I suspected that my leg imbalance might have roots in some past trauma, but I didn't really know how figure out what that was. Sometime in Mountain I'd try to ask my body about the source of imbalance, but my inner voice had an edge of demand and fear of what the answer might be. I never got an answer.

It has only been through work with Phoenix Rising that I've started to learn to listen to my body without expectation, and to hear its nonverbal reply. In my Level Two training, I received a session from a skilled practitioner-in-training named Melanie. Already in the training I had been working with my inclination to control the body, and my irrational fear of what might happen if I did let go of control. In my session with Melanie, she took me into Body Scan standing. She lead my awareness to my feet. I coached myself to let go, to make no changes, to accept everything in its imperfection. My feet became more grounded and even on the floor than ever before, and my legs started quaking beneath me. Melanie deftly followed my cues by bringing her hands to my feet, and then my knees, then my hips, on up my body.

I let go into the experience, giving my body permission to do whatever it needed to do. It responded with a flood of emotions: elation, joy, relief, and grief. Waves of sadness arose from my legs, built up from a lifetime of forcing them to do what my mind wanted, rather than listening to what they wanted. I felt layers of force and control melting from my low back and inner thighs, heavy burdens falling away. Huge surges of prana travelled up my spine, cresting ecstatically in my chest and head. I made animal sounds. Fleeting worries about what others would think were quickly carried away in the current of present moment experience. My mind was incapable of pulling me away - analytic thoughts about what was happening, anxious thoughts that I might ruin the experience by thinking, arose and fell away.

I saw very clearly that my mind is not an enemy of spiritual/ecstatic/somatic experience. When I gave my body's impulses validity, my thoughts had less power to pull me away from the moment. The other big lesson was how sad my body becomes when I try to make it fit some conceptual model of how it "should be". My abstract notion of "perfect balance" caused me to reject my body's natural expression of Mountain Pose. I had turned away from nature, and suffered as a result.

Since the session, I have explored Mountain Pose further, with a curious, accepting mind. Sometime I have a similar ecstatic upwelling. Through other explorations, I have found that engaging my inner thighs, especially my right inner thigh, awakens my second chakra. Fully grounding in my right foot through the base of the big toe awakens the inner thigh line. I find that my right leg is connected to my sexuality, and my masculine nature. I am exploring what it means that my tendency is to stand with less connection through my right inner leg line. Throughout my life, I have tended to be more drawn to feminine energies than masculine, and I wonder if that imbalance is at the root of how my Mountain Pose shows up. When I consciously engage through my right leg now, suddenly my pose feels more muscular, more linear, more Heroic. I am working to accept and understand my masculine nature, and Mountain is a useful mirror for the work. A good stage for watching the dance of control and surrender.

I am thrilled by what my body has shown me, and eager to listen further, learn more. It feels amazing to live as my body, not exclusively my mind. It's a tremendous relief to drop the demand for "perfection" in my asanas, and instead focus on what's happening now. I hope I can help my yoga students taste the freedom and joy of approaching yoga from a place of radical acceptance.

a haiku, to close:

the mountain becomes
sweetly held sand
pouring through our hands

1 comment:

  1. The mind which plunges into Surrealism, relives with burning excitement the best part of childhood.