Homework from my teacher this month has been to think about proprioception: how my body feels in space and how it makes me feel. I’ve just written him some rather convoluted reflections based on observations in recent practices. Such a range of feelings in my mind and my body, impossible to summarise. I’m sure he was expecting something more succinct. But what? I wonder what the ‘normal’ experience might be? Most people I speak to casually around class eagerly avow that they just loooove yoga and so I assume their perception is that they make beautiful shapes throughout their practice and these shapes make them feel good.
My own experience is more varied and nuanced, and rarely unequivocally enjoyable. The agony and the ecstacy of yoga. It’s what makes stepping onto the mat feel such a rollercoaster ride, such a trial of faith and of my ability to practice equanimity. Because I never know which body or mind I’m going to experience. Sometimes a focus and a flow that transports me; other times a horror of awkward limbs, constricted breath, and tormented thoughts running wild.
So I like to tie myself in mental knots wondering about the mythical ‘normal’ experience and wanting to measure myself against that, charting my progress towards some happy, affirming day when I will coincide in experience with everyone else in the room. Except that I know this won’t happen. I know everyone’s experiences are unique and ‘normal’ doesn’t really exist. And I know that wanting my experiences to be other than they are isn’t really what yoga is all about. I’m supposed to observe, not criticise.
Nevertheless currently I’m feeling frustrated by my apparent lack of proprioception. Thinking about how my body feels in space naturally provokes me to try to perceive more fundamentally where it is in space. Not so much trying to complete my homework (!) but wondering why I can’t always perceive the shape I’m making, why I can’t move in such a way that I can keep track of my extremities, wondering why some days feel sublime and others torturous.
My thoughts are set racing by my current reading: Oliver Sacks writing about breaking a leg and having to learn to walk all over again, learning to perform with agonising conscious care actions which were once so natural and taken for granted. I’m sure for him as a neurologist it was as much fascinating as frustrating. Would that I could have scientific detachment!
But if I can’t (or shouldn’t!) compare myself to others, I’ve been thinking about my current experiences and understanding in comparison to my own past, to how I used to experience my body. One of the reasons I came to yoga was a realisation when asked to practice ‘body scan’ meditation was that I had very little feeling in most of my body. I’d spent so long trying to ignore how bad I felt with unpleasant feelings of sickness and discomfort that I effectively stopped asking my body for any messages. I didn’t want to hear what it was telling me, better to ignore it with all its frightening symptoms and confusing signals.
So I should be grateful now that I have too much to say about my bodily experiences! If my teacher had asked me this question when I started yoga, I would have struggled to give him more than a sentence! The question would have been meaningless. Now, on the other hand, it’s just provoking more and more questions. About what alignment is, about where different movement patterns arise from in the body, about the kinetic chain of muscles and the mysterious flow of energy in the subtle body, about the value of self-adjustment vs a teacher’s assists, the mind-body connection, and how the same movements with the same muscle memory can feel different each time they’re performed…
Just as well I’ve already given in my homework, or I’d be heading towards a small epic by now. The war and peace of proprioception!