Spoonies are masters of disguise. I sure know that with years of diligent practice I’ve developed the art of camouflaging how I feel: I only go out on good days, and the bad days spent curled up at home are invisible to everyone but my nearest and dearest. I sometimes don’t even offer my friends the courtesy of honesty. All this hiding has allowed me to get on with big life-stuff reasonably well, though inevitably there are compromises — and some broken relationships. One big compromise that I’m only just recognising to any degree is that it’s hard to be honest with yourself if you’re habitually not honest with others. I’m starting to explore some of this denial and yoga provides a very fertile environment for that. Sometimes too fertile — the growth potential is so huge!
Last night I ventured to yoga class; my attendance has been really reduced these last 2 to 3 weeks since I’ve not been feeling at all well. I’ve still been practicing at home, but the physical aspect of that has been a low level maintenance kind of thing, rather than anything physically fancy. Just enough to keep at bay the aches that come from inactivity (seriously, my lower back never feels as sore as it does after a week in bed!).
My teacher knows a little of how I am, but even so I’m sure I was offering him a spectacularly mixed message last night: “No, I’m still not feeling very well, but I thought I’d come to this really energetic strong class anyway and just see how it goes”. A practice of acceptance for him too then in meeting me with this strange intention! He was attentive enough to check in with me during class when I pulled out of a back bend to just sit for a while. Physically the backbend was fine. I mean I wasn’t hurt and I wasn’t causing myself pain through movement. And I hadn’t pushed to the point of quivering exhaustion as I used to do routinely. Now the challenges are more subtle (more internal maybe?) as my practice becomes stronger. But in this backbend (call it a ‘heart-opener’ if you prefer!) I’d come suddenly to an edge that I wanted (needed?) to retreat from.
Practicing when I don’t feel well is very much about ‘playing the edge’ — the edge of what mind and body are comfortable with. Am I strong enough to walk this edge? Can I bear to look down without fear of falling headlong? And importantly am I still enjoying the view from up here? The metaphor isn’t mine (I think it’s Joel Kramer’s, with a nod to the Katha Upanishad) but it’s a neat way of describing the balancing act that’s inherent in any yoga practice, when you’re really exploring your inner landscape, plotting the boundaries in that and wondering which of them could be re-negotiated to give you more space.
The view from the edge last night was not so great in detail. It’s frustrating practicing with a body that has obvious frailty and stiffness. It’s also very humbling. I feel overwhelmingly grateful that my body is currently on an upward trajectory (aging aside!) where I do mostly feel better month on month, year on year. But practicing on bad days brings me right up close to what I’ve been avoiding feeling and thinking about for my entire adult life. My natural reaction to sickness or pain is to tense up and ideally back away. Great survival instincts. But now my work is in exploring whether these instincts are the right action. In yoga speak “do they serve me?”, or another way, can I square this with ahimsa (compassion/non-violence) even before we get to satya (truth)?
On the mat I’m now choosing to confront the habitual denial and camouflage and the fear that underlies it. I’m practicing staring the fear down, and getting on with doing what I need to do anyway. And (here comes the really hard bit) embracing and loving it all, accepting the physical discomforts, accepting the uncertainty, the deep-held anger, guilt, resentment and all the rest of the emotional hangers-on. I am quite literally practicing leaning into all this, but trying to find a way of doing so with softness as much as strength. Each foward fold is an embrace, each backbend opens my vulnerable heart, each standing posture conjures up some inner strength to stand firm, and closing twists and folds wring all the accumulated tension out of me, letting it seep away for a while a least in savasana. Surrendering. What my ego wants, what my head tells me I should do, where habitual reactions quietly tempt me… I surrender all of this to another way, a more honest way, of being in my body.
At the moment this is all a very deliberate choice that I must consciously make in each asana and in each transition to overwrite my natural reactions.
But it’s hard.
And it’s sometimes horrible.
And every so often the instinct to back out takes over, as it did in my bhujangasana last night.
As we talked after class, he tried hard to avoid the cliché of ‘pain as a teacher’, but — incredibly annoying phrase though it is — there’s something in it. It’s not much of a silver lining, but on some days when the clouds aren’t gathering too densely and the physical discomforts hover slightly at a distance, there is some strange beauty in this fragility. I dare to hope that one day I will realise that the gritty reality of inhabiting my body has produced something more lustrous.
I am full of wonder at the possibilities.
tasmai shri gurave namaha