I started to write this entry before the attacks on Paris and Beirut (and Iraq and ongoing in Syria, and, and, and...) so I paused my work and turned my attention toward what felt like more pressing issues for my colleagues and students and friends and anyone who might happen to read this blog. And then came my travel to the states in November, the holidays came and went, and here we are facing a new year, and my perspective on this work has changed yet again. Perhaps the New Year (as we head into full-on election season in the U.S. and Europe faces its own set of new challenges with influx of refugees and all the opinions and rhetoric that surround these unfolding events) is a good time to address what it means to face and feel and tend to our rough edges.
I had a lot of time while on honeymoon this past October to contemplate just what I am trying to understand or access in my asana and seated practice/s. A yoga practice can be, I suppose, just posture and breath. It can be, perhaps, as nuanced or as general as one might wish and it could focus purely on the physical realm. I never wish to dictate to anyone what a practice should feel or look like, and after recently reading D.G. White's The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali; A Biography, I find it incredibly elusive to ascertain exactly what a practice should be according to the collective "masters" of yoga throughout history, since the research indicates that there is no clear "lineage" in our current physically dominated asana system that ties directly back to Patanjali (for more on this, I highly recommend White's heady but enlightening book).
While I have always been drawn to the physicality of the asana practice as a lifelong mover and dancer, In the last four or five years I have found that my personal practice has become less and less about the physical forms I am inhabiting but in HOW I inhabit those forms and how they shape my psychology, sense of self, and world view and vice-versa.
In the past year or so, I have been feeling the rough edges, so to speak, of myself, my past, and how I am reacting to massive changes in my current life - both on and off the mat; these include the devastating loss of my dearest lifelong friend to cancer, my new marriage, our move as newlyweds across the ocean to an all new culture/language/environment, a reboot or restart of my career in many respects, and now as I am establishing my own family I find a lot coming up around what is important to me as a wife, a mother-to-be, a caregiver and a life companion. These "edges" reside in my physical body but also very much on the mental and spiritual planes, and as I bring them into awareness, their texture ranges from uncomfortable or numb, to incredibly painful. As I work, I can sense that some of these irregular places travel quite deep and will take a lot of patience and love to work with.
Right now, it feels that the most important work I can do on my mat or cushion is to stay present with the rougher and more tender and uneven places and to try to soften rather than push toward some physical or mental ideal. My curiosity and enjoyment for physical asana is still present, but within that is a deeper allowance of whatever arises to simply be without needing to change it. I feel myself connecting to this experience also with my students - less a desire to bring individuals swiftly to their own clarity than a slower process of mutual discovery.
And yet, still there is struggle; struggle to achieve a victory or prove something or to "overcome" somehow or some way - this pattern many of us may relate to of building pedestals or walls, separating ourselves from what feels unfamiliar or uncomfortable, and trying to define what we are and are not through whatever medium in which we are working. (i.e. I will work tirelessly until I achieve this particular asana or personal goal, even at the cost of my own inner voice or safety... I will shout my opinion louder and more forcefully than you, even at the expense of our ability to communicate... I will not face the stark, often shocking reality of others' pain, simply because it is too much to bear or somehow threatens my own comfort or personal standing... etc., etc.)
Embarking in this direction of exclusion or separation may feel safe on the surface, but is ultimately exhausting and depleting. It is much like an old treasured puzzle piece that just won't fit the new puzzle. We push our ideals and values and self-image onto a template that can't bear to take in such a narrow stance, and yet we press away wondering why our left hip won't quit hurting as we further force ourselves into postures, why we keep overreacting to the same nuisance on our commute to work, or why we feel so much animosity when we see a person or ideal that threatens our own position in the world.
And what pain this causes! We push so hard sometimes and forget to listen to any other voice but our own seemingly "best" self, discounting the realms of intuition and inclusion and the possibility for dialogue (with ourselves, with other opinions or voices, or even with other possibilities of reality. This manifests on a much larger scale in whole groups of society that cannot see or communicate with one another to the point of violence, war and genocide).
If we allow ourselves to soften and go toward the rough edges, it is uncomfortable for sure. It is laced with nuance and tender vulnerability and a lot of patience. This is truly a dance of the heart and the mind, and if we can relax just enough to act and feel with less rigidity, it can offer many new insights and connections, not possible in moments of black-and-white thinking.
Here's my experience - maybe yours is different.
On a physical plane in asana and self-conducted bodywork (using asana but also massage balls and other tools to access places of tension or holding patterns), this dance has its own rhythm and synchronicity. Holding a posture or resting on a pressure point, I can feel my physical body react and then beyond it, the mind and finally, the heart. Sometimes, if I am patient enough, the struggles I feel drop away for a moment and I am left with the raw experience of myself in space; myself within my perceptions and desires and memories. Breath comes and sometimes tears. Joy, grief and space accompany the wetness on my face or the awkward solitude of crying alone. The pain of old injuries and tender memories awaken my senses as I travel through layers of muscle tension and even scar tissue. Sometimes it is too much and I stop and give myself space and rest after a posture or series of postures. Sometimes things let go and the space surrounds me like an embrace. At no point am I pushing myself and self-aggression is always on my radar.
On the mental or emotional planes, these rough edges can feel just as tender or painful - sometimes more so. Practices like meditation offer us pathways into staying with the uncertainty of dropping our own story line and listening or feeling for possibility in the rough spaces of our minds and hearts. This, to me, is the whole premise of buddhist meditation and psychology. It is not an easy path but it affords us a much wider view of our world and of our own self. When students ask me about what we are trying to “achieve” in meditation, my answer is always the same. “We want to learn how to relax with whatever comes up, whatever our experience is.” This can sound vague or perhaps not exciting enough for those looking for a high or certain experience with sitting practice, but ultimately this is what we have to work with: our own mind and not some idealized state we have read about or think we have to get to. After all, isn’t “no thinking/quiet mind” or “higher consciousness” just another goal that we set up for ourselves in order to try to surpass our own rough edges? What about all the moments when our mind isn’t quiet or when we don’t feel bliss? These are where the real work happens!
Ultimately, perhaps these rough edges are the very things that propel us beyond the plateau of being too comfortable or numb or blind in the work we do on the mat or the cushion. If we feel along the surface of our experience, we have many sharp edges and grooves and even rips and tears in the layers of our awareness. These seeming “imperfections”, when held with love, can lead us to discover how we might actually hold space for or care for our own pain, and ultimately the pain of others. The places that feel sharp can give us insight into what exactly is needed to soften or bend or relent in the face of discomfort so that we can see possibility beyond pain, beyond difference, beyond right and wrong.
Through patience and love, through familiarizing ourselves with our rough or irregular edges, perhaps we can learn to carve our own puzzle piece; one that fits perfectly with each of our perceived imperfections. Perhaps we can learn to be so malleable as to make room for witnessing and opening to the irregularities of others: our loved ones, our circles of friends and acquaintances, and ultimately those that seem to have other worldviews or opinions or experiences. I truly believe this is where we begin dialogue. From the innermost self to the outermost world, let us embrace the rough edges with great care. Let us be patient and kind enough to allow space for many experiences to be possible.