Today, I waited at the end of my mat with my hands crossed over my heart. This is the second day since Saraswathi walked by and said “Tomorrow you are dropping back,” taking me completely by surprise.
Me? With the notoriously weak back bend?
I have the back bend that every teacher looks at and says, “Oh.” Over the years, I’ve let a story grow in my mind about how my back bending practice exposes me as a fraud, shows my age, about the fact that my degenerating disc in my low back will never allow me to go anywhere, really in my practice.
I have a story that says that when a teacher looks at my back bend, they walk away mentally, I have a story that says I need help with every back bend, and that really pushing up, really opening, really being a backbend will be an arduous ten year process of proving them wrong. And during that time, I will likely either hurt myself proving them right, or never get there. I wonder if the lesson isn’t letting go of wanting to back bend, accepting my age. I think about all that yoga has given me and wonder if I’m not greedy.
Which is, of course, an awful lot of story. And anyone who studies yoga will tell you that “proving them wrong” is not a very yogic path through any asana. And that rumination won’t help anything. And that kria yoga, just doing it, will teach my body some things. And that I also need to let go of wanting it. But not let go of practicing with sincere effort. It is sometimes a tricky place to live, between desire and acceptance.
Before coming to Mysore, India to study at the feet of the daughter of the founder of Ashtanga Yoga on a sweaty rug thrown over a hard marble floor at an ungodly hour in the morning with a hundred other people right next to me, I did about fifteen minutes of back bending prep before I ever dared to push up into Urdva Danurasana. And then another half an hour or so of prop and teacher assisted practice.
My shoulders are still weak from the paralysis that followed breaking my neck in 2008. My arm muscles don’t fire properly, they don’t recruit all the way, there are tears that never repaired, there’s pain, there’s sporadic and unpredictable weakness as I try to haul my body, which has suddenly fallen into a gravity well and weighs a hundred times more than it did a minute ago, off the floor and onto the palms of my hands. I don’t really believe that I can do it. And then I do it, and then I don’t believe I can stay there, and then I do it and then I don’t believe I can straighten my arms, and then I do it and then I give in to the story and lower back down and lay there dreading the next two back bends to come.
After all the prep, I’d move to the wall and begin to slowly press up against the it, trying to make my sternum kiss the wall like those very bendy people. I want to move my body this way, I want to feel the sensation of open and upside down.
In my desire to teach my back to bend, I’d gasp and catch my breath and hold it as I attempted to relax my butt and use my useless arms. (more story, more story… but the story is true, but the story is just a story…). I’d be gripped with fear that my arms would fail and I’d land on my head, hurting my neck, I’d worry that someone would come over and take away my practice and tell me I was too old, too stiff, too injured to try this. I’d hope they would come over and say it. I’d struggle on the floor, trapped between desire and complacency, looking for the heart of purpose in the asana, and stuck in my physical body and the need to motivate it without attaching to outcome, but still needing to know where I was going. It was exhausting.
I’d look frantically for Arielle, who would come over and speak to me in the reassuring language of anatomy, and tell me muscle by muscle, over riding story, my fear suspended and held in her depth of knowledge, it wont hurt this time because Arielle knows… she knows how to do it and how to tell me piece by piece, exhale, bandah, tail bone, feet, breathe, space… and the pain would go and suddenly one day I was up, I was open, and I was crying realizing I could, I could do it, I could bend without pain. And then I tried the next day and was crushed with the realization that I could do it… but only if she was there.
I’d look frantically for Amy, who would come over and tell me in her most nurturing voice, to calm down, to lay down, not to try so hard. She’d hold me and ask me where my bandah was and why I was trying so hard and why it was important. I’d look at her and think, I only know how to do this the hard way. I’d wonder if I should let go of wanting it, if it mattered at all. And through this the story would quiet and I’d feel shame for having attached, and I’d watch the other story go marching through, my practice is just vehicle maintenance, it doesn’t matter where I am on the continuum as long as I’m healing and opening and practicing with sincerity.
And I hear that I’m 43 years old now, and that this is a practice that was designed for young boys, and that I don’t need to get anywhere, and I know all of this… and I fight against it wanting to say, yes, I know, but allowing this lets me teeter on the edge of complacency… and I want my body to grow like my heart grows, i want to encourage it because when I do it feels better, and I feel better, I don’t want to acquiesce, I want to unlatch but there is a difference between unattached observance of my physical practice, which is full of effort and sincerity and casual apathy, the equivalent of a physical spiritual bypass. Eventually we don’t need asana. But I am an infant in an ancient and broken body, and I need it. I need to keep opening now.
And after that necessary journey and a bit of compassion has crept into my practice and the fear is down and the rest is allowed, I look for Summer, who says, “Kate stop all the stories and just do it. Again.” She holds my feet to the fire, like a person who doesn’t know pain, who doesn’t know what its like to be in a broken, old, healing body, who was born with the ability to put her feet behind her head. I look at her and she doesn’t know that I can’t do it, and so I do.
I walk down the wall, I walk up the wall, I walk down the wall, I walk up the wall. I don’t think I can, but she thinks I can, or rather, she doesn’t know that I can’t and so I do. And around the circle I go again, I can only if they are there.
And then I go to Laos and spend two weeks practicing with my friend in the hotel room, laughing through a sincere practice, just easy, the door is open, the bell is ringing, the monks are collecting food on the way to the monastery and we are sweaty and upside down and twisting and binding. The curiosity goes up, the need to accomplish goes down. Doron tells me to move my feet further away, to make it easier, and sudenly, I'm up, on my own, and its good, its blissful. “Now that looks like a backbend. That is beautiful.” he says.
And the story of fraud is exploded into a million pieces. I can make a backbend. A beautiful backbend. One that looks like a backbend. I savor these early mornings, just the two of us, drinking coffee on the balcony wrung out and happy, each of us having improved. We make a very good team. I never want it to end. This has been my favorite practice, in any place, ever.
And it ends. And I miss it, but I’m changed by it. There is a quiet ness that is some sort of a combination of what Amy was trying to tell me and what Summer can make me do. And in my body is the wisdom of Arielle. And Doron mixed them all together and made everything quiet.
And then I came to Mysore. And here, you can not do anything that is not in the series. So there is no prep. And there are no ropes, or blocks, or wall walking. Or Arielle or Amy or Summer. There is just the rug and the Indian lady walking around and yelling, “How much you know? What you did?”.
For the first week, I really wasn’t sure why I was here, why I had wanted to come to Mysore for so long, what it meant to be here, and what I had done to my practice by being here. Had I doomed myself to a slowly unraveling discipline? Would my backbends, built so slowly and carefully on the scaffolding of my support system, go away completely?
I knew before I came that it was a possibility. And Amy and Arielle helped me with that, suggesting that I go back to doing just half of the series, resting my body, removing expectation, and just finding work in seeking the bandah and the river of breath.
Over the first week, I began to get to know Saraswathi through my boys, who both started practicing. We chatted about her life as a girl, her journey as a mother and a teacher, and and female Indian teacher. I admire this beauty, this fierce independent woman, and I’m often overwhelmed with the huge desire to hug her. And I can’t, so instead I touch her feet. But Bodhi does, he leaps without fear into her arms, and gets kissed on the head as she calls him a good boy. Ethan is somewhere in between, touching her feet and then staining up and taking her into his long arms, he’s taller than she is already.
And we speak, briefly, about my neck, and the big metal plate on my spine, and that its okay to do headstand, but not to do chakrassana, and about why I don’t always do all the chataranga as my shoulders fail occasionally, but I’m working on it.
I get this amazing feeling from her, she has no expectation other than that the practice will heal my body over time. She seems to understand paralysis well, she has grace and patience for the weakness that develops and tells me to take it easy on days when the muscle isn’t working well, and to do all on days that it is.
I spend the first week finding my way, mostly on my own, somewhere in between alone with my breath and pulled on by my kid’s sudden presence in the shala.
One day, Bodhi is next to me and Ethan is in front of me and on the other side is the wall. Ethan is sleeping in Chataranga and Bodhi is standing at the front of his mat, confused. I am confused myself with my need to be supportive of the boys new and growing practice and my own need to dive back into my own practice. I miss Doron. I miss my growth. I miss Laos, and I don’t know why I’m here.
I spend the second week surprised as Saraswati tells me to do the next posture, and then the next. And on Friday she says, “Next week, Monday, do all.”
And I do, and it feels good, and I’m strong enough. But I miss my back bending practice and I worry that it is gone forever and the rest of me is opening and changing but that isn’t. I’m clinging to what was, and wondering what could have been. People from Aspen are calling me and asking me if I’m ever coming home, and I’m quiet in the middle of not knowing much about anything.
Ethan and Bodhi and I sit on the porch one morning and talk about the fact that practice is meditation and that “Hey mom?” isn’t working for me in the shala. Ethan suggests that I don’t practice near them. Bodhi has a tough day the next day. And the day after, they set up together, and I set up in front of Ganesh and go deep inside, letting go of what might have been, taking the gifts from Samahita and Laos with gratitude, and, like a paper lantern into the sky, I let my heart breathe and all things other than the gifts float away and there is only the breath, and there is my bandah.
And my arms wrap around my body suddenly in ways they haven’t before, catching in postures, binding, holding, balancing. And today, I find myself standing at the end of my mat, waiting to drop back.
David comes, and takes my hips and tells me to go back. The stories flashes through my head in fast motion, each piece of it having a hook I could grab, like a rope full of barbs, each barb a viable excuse. But I know I’m not going to touch the floor today, so its okay, I don’t have to worry. And then he says, “Okay, next one, hands on the ground.”
And I don’t have time to worry about it or think about it, I breathe, I rise, I go back, I see the ground, and there is Arielle in my practice and my back relaxes and I remember releasing and crying from joy that I didn’t have to have fear and crying from the sudden feeling of letting go of all my fear, and there is Amy telling me it doesn’t really matter anyway, its all okay, and then there’s Summer when my hands hit the mat and she tells me to stay there, she pins my hands to the ground, and then there’s my friend Doron telling me it’s beautiful, its a beautiful back bend. And I stand back up and smile at David, holding me in this very gentle space.
I can do it. Everything else is just a story. And as I stand, I think about asana and I go through it’s purpose. And I realize, again, that the reason we want the next posture can be because we are curious about the gifts the practice is giving to our bodies, and we wonder, from an observational place, what is possible. And when the mind wraps around the staff of the practice, all else is still.
And then the only reason we couldn’t is because we didn’t know we could. And its neither good nor bad, nor important, or unimportant, it is only the work, and within the work there is freedom.