Saturday, February 5, 2011

Everything has another side

Me, as seen from the back
In truth, it matters less what we do in practice than how we do it and why we do it. The same posture, the same sequence, the same meditation with a different intention takes on an entirely new meaning and will have entirely different outcomes 
~ Donna Farhi

In October, I took a workshop at the Ojai Yoga Crib with Laura Tyree. First of all, if you can get to the Crib, go. It has changed my life and continues to do so every year that I attend. (I think it's been six years now.) For that matter, if you get a chance to practice with Laura, do. Her wisdom and compassion (not to mention her beautiful voice!) will take you somewhere deep inside yourself - and wherever that place is, it is where you need to be.

In the workshop I took last October, Laura talked about how issues with her heart led her to explore her downward facing dog and consider how achieving a backbend in that pose was putting pressure on the heart. In many of the popular hatha yoga styles here, we do a lot of downward dogs, so this is a much repeated problem for many practitioners. As we get more flexible, this causes us to sway our backs in the pose, creating this backbend. She showed us how she was exploring a lift through the back between the shoulder blades. We practiced with a partner, having the partner place her hand on our backs so we could feel where the lift was happening.

When my partner put her hand on my back, I knew that I would always be able to find the right place to lift because it was in the exact location where I've had chronic back pain for years - upper mid-back, right between the shoulder blades. In that moment, I realized I had better pay more attention to my down dogs. Over the past few months, that realization has broadened into another: I had forgotten about my back entirely!

I love bhakti yoga and huge back bends and opening my heart to the sky with absolute abandon. However, I have very tight hamstrings from years of running and I do not love forward bends quite so much. I'm not tortured by them as much as I used to be, but when I do them, I'm usually focused on what my front body is doing. (And probably trying to make the pain in my back body go away by ignoring it. In case you didn't know, this doesn't work.) Now, I am reminded that there are at least two sides to every issue - even me!

I've started focusing on my back body all the time, not just in downward facing dog. I've been doing chakra meditation on the back body instead of the front. (So often teachers neglect to describe the chakra locations in terms of the back body, so I suspect I'm not the only one who has this problem.) I've discovered that pain relief often comes from directing my breath there. I've discovered that I can breathe into my kidneys as well as my belly, and into the space between my shoulder blades as well as my chest. I've discovered that this adds support, both in seated meditation and asana, and sometimes results in shifts in postures that feel really good and even relieve pain. I'm starting to feel how my lumbar spine (lower back) is overextending to compensate for the way I'm drawing my thoracic spine inward to get that exalted open-hearted feeling. Opening my heart center forward is killing my back - who knew?

Yesterday, I was looking for something entirely different in Judith Lasater's Yoga Body book, and I came across the following passage:
"One of the unfortunate actions that sometimes happens in asana practice is an over-flattening of the natural kyphosis [normal curvature of the spine]. Students are sometimes taught to lift the sternum with the intention of opening the chest, and they do so by bringing their thoracic spine into the body, thus flattening the curve. After years of practice, the spine loses some of its natural curve."
Bingo - that's me. The book suggests standing on a yoga mat near a doorway and holding onto the doorway with your arms at chest level and hands crossed at the wrist. Then you walk backward slowly and round the thoracic spine upward while moving the shoulder blades apart and dropping your head between your arms, allowing some of the muscle tension in this area to be stretched and loosened. I will certainly be trying this in the future, and paying a lot more attention to how I support backbends with the breath from the back side of the body - not to mention focusing on how I may be collapsing here in forward bends and all sorts of other issues I've never considered before.

If I wanted to get philosophical here, I could explore the idea that the back represents my past, or talk about the side of anything that lies in shadow... but for once, I want to stay on the mat with this one. When I'm on the mat, I'm on the mat - both the front and the back sides of me. The more I practice asana, the more I realize there's always something I've forgotten to be present with in the pose; there's always a part of the body I've given preference to and another that's been lost from my conscious awareness. But the body has its own intelligence and if we know how to listen, it will let us know what has been forgotten. One thing is for sure: in the future, I'll be thinking a lot more about what those chronic achy bits are trying to tell me.

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