Opening to Dharma

I went to a series of yoga workshops this past weekend at my favorite yoga studio in Austin, Dharma Yoga.  It’s an amazing place with amazing people.  This time, they were hosting Katchie Ananda, an Anusara yoga practitioner and apparently a highly influential yoga teacher around the world.  Anusara is a highly codified system of alignment involving invisible loops and spirals in the body that is extremely revealing in the tiny ways that we hold our bodies in both good and bad ways.  I’d had limited experience with it at other studios but really enjoyed the way it was so organized.  I love a good system that has very clear ways of defining things, and this definitely fit the bill, as did the particular focus of each workshop.

The first day we spent working on how to keep our back body open.  It’s very common to collapse the back when leaning backwards or when doing backbends.  Even the word “backbend” can lead one to think that’s what’s called for when it’s really not.  Camel pose doesn’t come from the back, it comes from the front.  Crunching the back muscles in an effort to bend actually negates the positive benefits of a pose.  One of the reasons for that is the placement of the kidneys and the adrenal glands, which rest atop the kidneys.  The adrenals are responsible for helping us run away when we’re in danger.  In a more modern context, they are what help make us aggressive or angry when in a confrontation.  They’re also what make people often feel angry after doing backbends (raises hand), because the adrenals are literally being squeezed by the action of the pose.  Staying open in the back and doing all of the work from the front helps prevent that.

More metaphysically speaking, the back body represents everything that is not the ego, which manifests itself in the front.  That made a lot of sense to me.  Egotistically, we pay attention to what’s right in front of us, and the stereotypical image of someone very ego-filled is someone strutting with their chest poking out in self-importance.  If we crunch the back in an effort to bend backwards, we’re paradoxically ignoring the more universal side of things while emphasizing the ego, which is what yoga tries to diminish.

So we spent three hours talking about how to simultaneously bend backwards while keeping the back open to a more universal energy flow, rather than crunching it down and making it all about ourselves and how far we can bend, so on and so forth.  It was wonderful.  We worked on many poses, such as the warrior poses, that usually made me feel uptight and angry afterwards because I had been crunching my back.  Now I can do those without the crunching, and they’re much more satisfying, less painful, and more beneficial to the parts of my body they’re designed to help.  That seems to be the special magic of Anusara yoga: to change a single muscle group, even a small one, and notice how it affects the entire body.

The second day, we talked about dharma.  Dharma is your path, the place in life that you are supposed to go, or the journey you’re supposed to take.  Most Westerners have heard the term karma, but not dharma.  In fact, most Westerners have the concept of karma all wrong.  There is no good or bad karma.  Karma just IS, and it’s whatever is keeping you from your dharma.  She spoke of one’s dharma as being a combination of the things that you love and the things in life that have wounded your core.  It was hard not to cry in front of everyone as she spoke of these things.  Put into that very clear context of love and wounding, my own dharma was suddenly much clearer to me and I was flooded with a combination of relief and satisfaction that indeed, I am largely headed in the right direction.  I think I’ll start calling myself “the weeping yogini”, because every time I hear things like that that resonate with me, I begin to cry.  In fact, I cry at nearly every yoga class I go to.  I never know why, but the third day’s session would help me understand that better.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

She also spoke that day about metta, or “loving-kindness”, and how to apply that to our lives as well as our yoga practice.  Metta is pretty much the opposite of the internal judgment that I often feel not only in yoga but the rest of life as well.  The metta meditation basically started with the self and then went outwards.  We were to fill ourselves with compassion for ourselves, and then for the people closest to us, and then for the more peripheral people in our lives, and then for everyone, everywhere.  I wish I could remember the exact mantra she had us say, but there is no shortage of metta meditations on the internet.  What it meant for me was to remind me that I cannot fulfill my dharma without a hefty dose of metta, particularly towards myself.  I’m very good at having metta for everyone else in the world, but terrible at having it for myself.  There’s something amiss with that.  Backwards.  Upside down.

Enter the third day.  I began the day very tired, despite having slept extremely late that morning.  I was already somewhat depleted by the previous two days of workshops, which involved doing a lot of downward facing dog pose (basically turning your body into the shape of the letter ‘A’: hands and feet on the floor, butt in the air).  Apparently this is a “resting” pose in Anusara, and if my upper back were not the weakest part of my body, it would have also been so for me.  As it is, though, a lifetime of hunching over keyboards and hunching to hide my body from others left me with tight pectoral muscles and very loose, weak traps, rhomboids, and lats: basically my entire upper back.  Which means that downward facing dog is actually the pose I should do the most of, because those are the muscles that it strengthens.

My triceps were very tired, though.  They had been taking up the slack of my upper back, and while the triceps are certainly an important part of that pose, they had done more than their fair share that weekend and they really let me know.  I spent a lot more time in child’s pose the third day than the previous two.  I also spent a lot more time judging myself because of that than I should have, further indication that I really need to work on that whole metta thing.  The third day’s lesson was about the elements: air, earth, fire, water, and space (not the same as air).  She spoke about how each of the elements can manifest in our lives and our practices, and also about how each person tends to favor a particular element.

Space manifests in yoga practice as a kind of distance or separation from the people you’re practicing with, or from your actual yoga practice.  I know sometimes I’ve gone to do yoga and it’s like I’m really not present: that’s ‘space’ manifesting in my practice.  Fire manifests as anger, aggression, or competition.  I know all about fire on the mat: it makes me scrunch up my face and judge myself with a terrible harshness.  No sir, I don’t like it.  Water often manifests on the mat as weeping, and I know all about that one.  I try to keep myself in the corner so my crying doesn’t upset anyone else in the room.  I’ve come to accept that it will likely be some time before I am no longer a “weeping yogini”, and that I may always be.  I am a Scorpio after all: Fixed Water.  Earth manifests in yoga as a heaviness, an unwillingness to exert the effort.  I’ve certainly had my days where I feel like I’m made of lead and everything feels like it takes way more effort than usual.  Air is apparently the most desirous of the elements on the mat.  It’s the one that allows us to hold a paradox in acceptance, such as being able to bend backwards without collapsing the back, or turn to the right by engaging the left side.  When you hear it, you’re like, “Huh?”  But if you can hold the paradox without judgment and just try it, that’s air.

Regardless of the element, sometimes a yogini just has to dwell in that element as it’s happening.  Just look at it, say hello, and let it just be.  I think I experienced all five elements on the mat yesterday.  I started as earth, sitting there waiting for the workshop to start, feeling very heavy, like I just wanted to lay in savasana the whole time.  Then I moved to space, feeling distant and separated from everyone else in the room.  Then I moved to fire as I began to judge myself for my earthiness and spaciness and inability to stay in the poses as long as I wanted to or had been able to the previous two days.  Fire gave way to water as I became saddened by my perceived lack of strength and succumbing to the judgment I have been trying so hard to escape.  Blowing through the other four was air.  Even as I dwelled in the other elements, I could still stay outside of myself a little bit and hold all of those opposing thoughts and feelings in the same space and just let them orbit around me like protons.

Then we moved on to handstands.  O_O  I had never done a handstand.  As a woman who has weighed over 200 pounds for the better part of the last decade, I have an automatic tendency to reject things like handstands as a possibility since I doubt my body’s ability to hold all that weight up while upside down.  It’s just a lie my ego tells me, and I tried to let the automatic anxiety I was beginning to feel just roll away.  I really wanted to try this, and I was fairly sure that I could do it.  I’m much, much stronger than I was the last time I dove into the yoga pool seriously back in 2007.  I have a year of Seido karate under my belt and a much firmer core.

She started us off in preparatory poses.  First, face away from the wall, fold forward, and place the feet against the baseboards, much like a down dog but with the hips still over the feet.  Then put the feet on the wall and walk up until your body is bent 90 degrees, hands on the floor, feet on the wall.  I could not do this, and the fire flared in my heart.  The others encouraged me, telling me to really push my heels into the wall, which always slid back to the floor.  After trying this three times, I realized it wasn’t my legs that were the problem: it was my upper back, which was not strong enough to push in the opposite direction to counteract my feet.  I narrowly avoided bursting into tears in front of everyone and let my partner try.

The next preparatory pose was better.  Facing the wall this time, we did a similar folding, only this time, a foot was placed in the belly of our partner, who braced against us as we lifted the other leg up into the air.  I did it! I was mostly doing my first handstand and it was really elating.  I had a big smile on my face and I laughed joyfully.  My partner congratulated me and then asked if I could do it again, this time with my shoulders planted a little more directly over my hands.  Unfortunately, as with the first preparatory exercise, my upper back couldn’t handle it and almost completely collapsed.  If I hadn’t been paying attention, I might have really hurt myself, but I half expected it to happen so I was ready.  I came back down, somewhat discouraged, but still happy that I had been able to do it at least partially, if not completely correctly.  I was ignoring a deep sadness bubbling away in my belly, though: water again.

It was the end of the workshop, and I happily engaged in the end of class meditation and chanting.  I gathered up my stuff and got in the car to head home.  I was hungry because I hadn’t eaten enough beforehand (not purposefully: it was just one of those lessons I had to learn about how much to put into my body before exerting that much energy), I was very tired from that day’s and the previous days’ workshops, and I was slowly becoming filled with a combination of fire, water, and earth that was turning into a burning emotional mud.  By the time I got home, I was in a terrible mood, and I couldn’t figure out why.  I tried to do what I was supposed to do and just sit there and be with my feelings, while my husband went out and got us some food.  I had a massive craving for protein.

I had a good long cry, then I ate my fajitas, then I took a really long, hot shower and cried some more.  Then I looked up the emotional effects of yoga on the body.  This was all very normal.  Not only had I spent the entire weekend essentially reversing my normal protective modes by working hard to keep my chest open and my shoulders back, I had done my first serious total inversion.  I had literally turned my world upside down after a weekend of making myself be more open to the world.  It was like trying to turn a purse inside out and upside down while expecting nothing to fall out.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  I had stood in the hot shower sobbing, looking at my “baggage” laying on the floor.  I had wanted to finish that handstand so badly, and I couldn’t do it, and I struggled mightily with my mind’s desire to blame me for it, to say I wasn’t good enough or strong enough or skinny enough while ignoring what a major accomplishment it was to have trusted another human being enough to help me get as far as I did, which was pretty far.  Like, 90% there.  A month of downward facing dogs for five minutes a day and I’ll be there.

Today I feel raw and naked, like my skin is missing.  I suppose it would be more accurate to say I’m like a pecan that has had its outer green shell taken off.  I’m still here and nothing’s wrong, but I’m missing a protective mechanism that I’ve had for a long time and my ego is screaming for it to come back.  It can’t have it, though: it’s bad for me.  And I’m not going to let it put all that baggage back into my “purse” either.  Maybe part of why it’s upset is because of all that exposed baggage sitting there on the floor.  It’s impossible to ignore its ugliness, even though it was useful from time to time.  Kind of like leeches.  I just have to acknowledge it all, give it some metta, and let it know it’s not needed anymore while thanking it for its service.  Job well done.  I have other uses for you now.

As difficult as this weekend was, both internally and externally, I needed that.  In fact, I need a lot more of it if I have any hope of really fulfilling my own dharma, which I have a much better bead on now (I would hope so, having been at Dharma Yoga all weekend!).  My mind needed it, and my body needed it.  I know exactly and precisely where my shoulder problems come from and how to fix them, and it has more to do with what’s upstairs than it does with my body.  Everything is connected, and if I want my body to behave in certain ways, I must tame my mind, or at least give it better direction.  Even right now, I can feel the difference after only three days of realigning myself.  When I walk, I feel ‘crooked’ but only because ‘straight’ feels odd to me after so long being actually ‘crooked’.

I’m sure I will be processing this weekend much more as time goes on, but so far, that’s what I got out of it.  No wonder I’m still tired.  *thud*

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