Sunday, July 20, 2008

Standing On My Head, Seeing God, Death, and Eternity

Once again, Yoga has proven to me that the soul and body cannot be separated.

Some background. I have been doing Yoga for over ten years now. I have not been an entirely faithful Yoga practitioner, and so my practice has not advanced very far. I still attend level 1-2 classes (there are 3 levels in the tradition I study). My slow advancement is not because I lack discipline or inherently don't like to exercise. Those of you who know me know that the only times in seven years that I have missed Pilates lessons is when I have had pneumonia. I used to run almost five miles every morning before work until I got tired of my hair freezing in winter weather and bought an elliptical machine, which I do every morning before work. I really, really like physical activity. More than physical activity, I like the results of physical activity. I like that I am in my late thirties and I am strong and flexible. I like that I don't have chronic injuries that have been brought about by inactivity. I like that I don't view my body as a burden, and that I look at the years to come with dread because I know that there is a correlation between movement and quality of life.

My practice is slow to develop because Yoga scares me. I first started doing Yoga because I understood it to be a gentle form of exercise that I could do safely when I was 80. I understood it to be just another form of exercise, one that would relax me and increase my flexibility. My first class showed me that it was something else entirely. I practice in the Iyengar tradition, which means that, at the low levels at least, there is really no discussion of what the guru, B.K.S. Iyengar calls the rest of the "tree of yoga," the spiritual path to enlightenment in which the positions are only a small part. In other words, there was no Yoga evangelism, only an earnest desire on the part of my teacher for us to understand that Yoga was more than gentle flexibility, but instead required a great deal of attention to parts of our bodies we had previously no awareness of. I learned that Yoga was a lot harder than it looked.

In that first set of classes, I also came to an understanding of what Yoga promises. After learning some of the poses and then reading a few books about the poses, I began to understand the Kama Sutra. It isn't that I became expert at The Congress of the Crow, this certainly wasn't the case. Instead, it means that I began to understand that the asanas of Yoga and the erotic positions in the Kama Sutra were all about the flow of spiritual energy through the body. That such positions, whether performed alone as in Yoga, or together with a partner in bed, were about an engagement with the Cosmos that other things that we do in life don't necessarily encourage.

After my first initial course, I went to class whenever I could afford it. In these years I was afraid of the positions themselves. I was suspicious of any inversion. Head Stand and Shoulder Stand would surely lead me to break my neck, a fate that my mother was sure to befall any one who participated in activities that were even partially dangerous, from walking down stairs to wearing high heels. I didn't want to advance because that meant that I'd have to spend an increasing amount of class upside down.

It was about two or three years into practice when I had my second realization about Yoga. We were doing Camel, and as I bent back and exposed my chest to the world, I felt fear sweep through me in wave after wave. It was the most intense fear I had ever experienced. Worse, it was totally unexplainable. It was attached to nothing -- no memory, no situation. Because it was so detached, I couldn't even talk about it. I was in therapy at the time because I was bulimic, and both my therapist and I struggled to understand it. We never got it. I didn't go back to Yoga for years.

When I went back it was because I had made friends with an incredible human being who happened to teach Yoga. She started doing a workshop for teachers at our school, and I felt safe with her. Earlier in the year, she had given me my third insight into Yoga. I had recently had treatment for Graves Disease and one day woke up to notice that I'd put on weight and so I couldn't get my jeans zipped. This threw me into a panic, and I expressed my anxiety to my friend. She already understood what I had come to realize that morning. In awe I told her, "We are shape shifters and we don't even know it."

Yoga still wasn't easy, but not because it hurt or was difficult to perform. I was really liking standing on my head. Instead, it was difficult to deal with the spiritual energy that I now realized my body was conducting when I went in to the asanas. I went to class for a while, but then I dropped out.

When I met my boyfriend, Calderoj, and we began a relationship that had a spiritual component, I suggested that we go to Yoga class together. As with all aspects of my life, I am a Yoga snob. I insisted that we study Iyengar. We found a good school run by a husband and wife.

Perhaps that was too much background for you. However, it was necessary to explain my revelation of Saturday morning. The class I attended was great. We did several standing poses and a lot of Downward Dog. I stood on my head for what was a long time for me. For those of you who don't know much about Yoga practice, at the end of each session you do Shivasana, literally Corpse Pose. In Shivasana the practitioner lies on her back, muscles relaxed, eyes closed, mind in a meditative state. The idea behind the pose is that it is like death, and that because they practice it often, yogis are prepared when they meet death.

The teacher had us starting off in another pose where we were lightly touching the wall with our feet. Then, when we moved into Shivasana, he told us to push ourselves away from the wall. I was struck by the affect of pushing away from the wall. Suddenly, other than the fact that I was lying on the floor, I was touching nothing. I had the sensation of floating in space. I thought, "This must be one aspect of death. The dead have no relationship with any object." It was an epiphany. Moreover, I greeted this forth understanding about Yoga with curiosity.

In the end, the class had released happiness in me in the same way that the camel class had released fear years ago. I made a fifth realization, as well. Because advancing in Yoga is about developing your soul as well as your body you have to be an adult on an emotional level to advance. You have to realize that fear and anger happen, just in the same way that happiness happens. An adult doesn't run from these feelings. An adult confronts them.

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