I never want to write those posts that say “I’m sorry for my long hiatus in the blog.” Yet here I am a month out from my last post. I want to make excuses even less, but here are some extenuating circumstances. First, this post and the next were kind of stuck in my brain. I knew I wanted to write them, and in this order, but had a little writer’s block. I’d written some of the words below, but they seemed a little gangly. Second, a new semester had to be prepared for and begun. Thirdly, I’ve been corresponding and journaling a lot, so doing some more private writing. Lastly, and most importantly, and the journaling is related to this, I have completed my the first module of my Anusara immersion with Sara Davidson Flanders. More on that in the next post.
I think in my last post on the New York Times article on yoga injury, I was trying to be safe, nice and proper. There are many such responses, focusing on the propriety of the style or the preparedness of the teacher. In this one I want to be a little bit more bold, and “play with the edge.” It’s not that I want to be contrary. I am, after all, I suppose, a recovering contrarian. It’s just that so many good things may come out of playing with the edge, or from dis-ease, when circumstances in our life put us in a tough spot, and we have to find a high path out.
Consider Marjorie Nass’s experience.
As life long New Yorker, born to two parents who are life long New Yorkers, I began reading the New York Times in elementary school. The New York Times article entitled how Yoga Can Wreck your body” is so sensationalistic, it will discourage individuals who’d greatly benefit from yoga, and this would be a big loss. Along with the physical risks inherent in moving ones body, yoga can save lives. It saved mine.
I had just begun practicing yoga in 1998 when I suffered a serious life threatening major depression requiring hospitalization. My first time back on the mat was a few months later when a dear friend from college came by and urged me to practice a few poses along with her. An essential element for depressed patients who have been largely physically immobile is movement. When the body remains sedentary, the mind goes to the same thoughts again and again, and can get stuck in some seriously dark places. Yoga began to open up sensation and reveal light in my body so I could get out of the darkness of my mind.
These are not trivial concerns. Might there be risks in being dissuaded from yoga?
More importantly and boldly, I would like to propose that injury and disease can be paths to the highest. This began to crystallize for me when I heard a more complete story of John Friend’s first encounter with Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. He had been traveling in India, had become ill, and been recommended to go to her ashram. He arrived on that doorstep even more ill and had been nursed back to health. This encounter was to profoundly affect Friend’s philosophical view, which was to be come embodied in Anusara yoga. I have also heard many stories, and some recently, of students and teachers who had become injured in other styles, who had seriously contemplated giving up yoga, and who had found healing and strength in Anusara’s “attitude, alignment and action.” This caused me to reflect on my own injuries, which have occurred mostly tangentially to my practice, but which might have curtailed it had I considered them simply as “contraindications,” and did not play with my edge.
When I had come to Anusara, I had been practicing yoga for a few years. I had developed an umbilical hernia, I believe from carrying a cast iron radiator (for steam heat) down a flight of stairs, and back up again. At that time I had been practicing a style of yoga that put a lot of demand on my core, or more precisely, my lower abs. I think I wandered into the Anusara class out of curiosity. It was this time of year, three years ago. I didn’t subscribe to Yoga Journal at the time, and used to borrow from my public library the previous year’s issue from the same month. Betsy Downing was on the cover, and many of the articles were about love and opening one’s heart. For many reasons, it was a good season to begin what I understood as a heart–focused style.
What I found in Anusara was a fierce, strenuous class that sorely challenged and strengthened me. Particularly in its frequent emphasis on utthita parsvakonasana, “extended side angle pose.” I began to find that the practice strengthened the core around my injury, particularly in the obliques. The modification that worked for me was to not go crazy in Bhujangasana, cobra pose. Despite the fact that I was challenged, and puzzled, I kept coming back. There were certain alignments that characterized the style that I found forgiving, for instance, the placement of the back foot in standing poses is parallel to the back edge of the mat. This affords space in the pose. I was already used to a teacher giving a little dharma talk at the beginning of class and centering. This particular teacher refined that to an art, and the talks were about everyday things. I didn’t understand it then, but I was swept up in her embodiment of the positive philosophy of Anusara, which doesn’t say “don’t” but “try.”
My engagement with Anusara has been, as should be clear in these pages, transformative. I have a different outlook on life. I am more confident effective in my everyday life. I am both sweeter and more firm and fierce. I have lost over thirty pounds and everyone notices. I am more me, in the direction I have always sought. Needless to say, my physical practice has grown more in the last three years than in the first four of my pursuit of yoga, and in a lifetime of pursuit of the highest.
I practiced Anusara right up until my hernia surgery, which I had scheduled for Spring Break. I was back on my mat within ten weeks of that. I was champing at the bit. The joke I refer to in the previous post went thus. I was waiting for the opportunity to ask the surgeon when I could do yoga. He replied, “I don’t know anything about yoga. I know about yogurt.” I had to educate him on the demands of my physical practice. Well, I knew more about it than he did, it turns out. “Listen to your body,” he concluded. Friends, it is likely you will need to do the same at some point. I argue also, were it not for Anusara’s focus on the inner teacher, its insistence on the Guru within and beyond, (it’s right in the opening invocation, folks), then I would not have been so firm in this position. Of course, hearing the inner teacher rightly requires cultivation and that is what we continually “practice” doing.
It was the first time that I took responsibility of my own health care, in partnership with the medical professional, of course.
This is not to say that I think surrender is unimportant. A few years before this, I had a car accident. Crossing a dangerous intersection, in November rain, a car driven too fast by an older driver struck me in the rear, spinning me 90°. When I felt blood trickling down my head (I hit the “Oh Sh*t” handle), I decided to stay put rather than get out and remonstrate with the driver, who was trying to engage me. Before long, I heard an EMT in the back seat saying “I’m going to put this cervical collar on you, just as a precaution.” I realized that I was going to go one way, and my car another. It was time to let go of everything, including my belongings in the trunk.
I think the emergency personnel were confused by my composure. They kept asking me questions, like those designed to see if I were drinking or high, and one later said. “We were confused, because you were very calm, but lucid.” I had been practicing yoga at the time, and decided it was a very opportune time to practice. Later, when I had a some traumatic stress from the incident, I learned it was important and necessary to take some time for myself and not rush things.
When we are injured or ill, it is the worst thing ever and we wish it to be over, to be back to our normal lives. It can be like that when we have an unhealthy alignment with other things in our lives as well. Somewhere in this still point of effort and surrender that yoga teaches so well, that Anusara embodies so eloquently in its Universal Principles of Alignment, is a path to the highest. The lesson of injury is not to say “No” to yoga, but to say “Yes,” and then to see against what limits that response takes us. When on this path we invariably push beyond these limits we will be surprised and delighted.
May our courageous engagement with the difficulties of life ultimately leave us surprised and delighted.