The yogic literature is rich with metaphor, poetry, and dancing. Even in our classes, with teachers speaking from the hip, the words they use connote emotions and values, wedding those things to the movements of the body. There are rhythms in our body, pulse and breath; there are rhythms in the universe, subatomic, tidal, diurnal; rhythm is music, and music is a way of the dance. Bodies are both passionate and pathetic.
There is a power here, a little truth, that can tell us much about ourselves if we are willing to listen.
We are fairly schizophrenic when it comes to the body. On the one hand, we idealize it. We spend billions of dollars perfecting and tweaking it. Advertising, for soap and for soup, makes use of the human form. At the same time we are a culture of shame and of judgement. It is hard for most people to think of the ‘physical’ without immediately thinking of the ‘sexual’. The body is politic. Women’s bodies are covered in chadors, undergo cliterodectemy, covered too much or too little. Men’s bodies are used as machines, and sent to war. (Of course, both of those things are shifting to universal machines and sex toys). Body, especially the truth of the body, naked or sick or aging, is a very vulnerable thing. We wince at the doctors office. We dress without looking.
I once heard a religious woman speak of the importance of praying while standing naked before a full length mirror. Christ, she said, trusted and revered human flesh enough to use it as his own. God does not love my spiritual life only,she said, but my flesh and my bones. “The body is a gift”, said the Buddha, “it is a path to enlightenment”.
I practiced today, with resistance and irritability. I noticed, throughout practice, moving from warriors to chatarangas, that my mind kept slipping to work I should be doing. I’ve learned, in meditation, not only to watch what kind of thoughts I’m having – I should be working, I will this, I must that – but that I can go further: see where the thoughts take place in my body, how the thoughts feel. It can be a revelation to realize how much time we spend with certain thoughts, “subconsciously”, and even more revelatory to realize how physically entrenched the thoughts become. Thoughts release hormones, chemicals, cortisol or endorphins. The body clenches, hangs on, resents or worries.
But I continued to practice. The strength of my arms constricted and weary, crackling with popped knuckles and wrists. My skin warming. Pinking. Sweat, soft and sheened on my joints, the peak of my forehead, the small of my back. Then, the teacher’s voice, closing a surya, said something about peace, and center, and gratitude. How good, she said, to be alive.
To realize the body as a garment of the soul, the miracle that carries these lovely brains around, is only half the mystery. To realize my thoughts and the way they grid across my nerves and joints, is not really the point. The point is that the body itself, that dancing, is good. It is so good, it beats those stress thoughts and fears and petty little brain things into quiet gratitude. Body is not a stage on which the human drama is placed. It is that human drama. Not reaction, but the creative action. Do yoga, find joy. Walk, sing, play, and be changed. Give birth, and touch the divine. Fall ill, and flirt with mortality.
Yoga is the practice of mindful movement. We feel how powerful it is, but articulating the power or realizing the huge implications isn’t something we normally do. The mindful practice of particular physical movements combines mind and body into a unified experience. Take one part away, however – for example, full attention – and the overall experience changes significantly. The yoga practitioner becomes increasingly aware of the vital role that both mind and body play in any action. First, we grow more and more aware. Eventually, we become capable of changing and influencing the experiences of our lives.
Drama and dance are as old as the human community, and have often been used in liturgy, worship, and sacred moments. This is no small thing. To move the body in a particular way, to em-body, elicits both physical and emotional change.
Aristotle called it catharsis. When I was in high school, I wanted to take part in a play. My english teacher, who was one of very few adults I trusted at that point, forbade me. No, she said. You already know how to pretend too much. To become an actor, she meant, would be changing the facts of who I was. Perhaps she could have said it differently. Perhaps, with the right mentorship, I could have used drama to affect positive change. But I think she was right to say what she did. She knew how powerful acting could be, and those were powers I could not, at the time, handle.
But I have continued to be drawn to the actor, the play. It’s not a form I know well, because it seems too real to me. A human being, embodying an experience, typically elicits the physical and emotional response in me that literally doing the thing would. When we move our bodies, when we ‘act’, our brains release those hormones, our hearts fire up the bloody rhythm, and we are changed.
Once, I saw a woman who had recently lost a child “playing” with her surviving daughter. She crawled, she made faces, she pushed little trucks around. Eventually, her daughter brought her a doll and made motions, insisting, that the woman cradle the doll in her arms. The woman’s face tensed. But she obeyed.
She took the plastic, wall-eyed baby doll in both of her arms, and her head tipped down into a gesture of tenderness, looking, for all the world, as if she were looking into a child’s eyes. Holding the doll in her left arm, she tucked at the blanket with the fingers of her right hand. I don’t think she knew it, but she began to rhythmically rock. Slow, and steady, and heavy. I don’t know what she felt, but I saw her whole composition change. My own face was wet, until her daughter rushed me and brought me over to play with her toy kitchen and stuffed turtle, whose eye hung by a thread.
I have practiced yoga through many different things in my life, and the lives of people around me. It hasn’t always been easy, or necessarily joyful. Sometimes, it almost seems dull. But at some point in the practice, or in feeling the practice in my body throughout the day, the verdict is fairly standard. This is my body.
It is good to be alive.