My first experience with Iyengar yoga was in a restorative class in Kathmandu. The city, with its constant rush and swirl of activity, calls for a restorative class from time to time.
The teacher instructed us to move into child’s pose, balasana. It was a moment of complete relaxation, a chance to let my shoulders roll blissfully forward, stretching out my back and neck from any of the tension that had built up there. My stomach was gently compressed and I could feel the breath in my back in a gentle releasing massage. I could have slept quite happily there, rolling peacefully in the waves of my breath. I moved further into the sensation, my mind slowly waking up to my body.
At the teacher’s instruction I came out slowly… and a little reluctantly. I wan’t alone in my reluctance. I noticed my friend directly opposite was still in the posture, his body completely released. Instead of the traditional balasana he was in a modified pose. Modified to the extent that instead of being on the floor he was using two chairs, sitting on one and resting his head on the seat of the other. His chest was on his thighs and his shoulders utterly released and because of the modifications he was truly in this pose and happy to stay there.
My friend is an athletic Australian guy who recently had knee surgery. To kneel in a traditional balasana would require a willingness to do his body damage whilst foregoing any of the benefits of the pose. Thanks to the Iyengar tradition of using props (chairs, bricks, bolsters) to get into a pose he doesn’t have to. He is able to work within the current boundaries of his body whilst gradually expanding what is possible for him. As a restorative yoga class the focus was firmly on feeling and appreciating where we were. Despite knees that barely bent he was clearly appreciating where he was.
There’s something humbling and heart warming about this, especially in a society that tends to value outward appearance over inner experience: better to force youself into an uncomfortable position than risk looking stupid. But in our effort to look right we often don’t feel right.
This was brought home to me recently whilst reading Matthew Sanford’s autobiography. Matthew Sanford first had a ‘balasana experience’ when he was 13 and in a body cast after a car accident that killed his father and sister and left him paralysed from the chest down.
The cast gives me boundaries, borders around the pain. The result is a calming compression, a feeling of safety that allows me to let go. In retrospect I realize how profoundly this feeling of boundary imprinted me. It is an insight that I will carry through my lifetime. Years later, a calming compression is what I experience when I practice yoga. (I now recognize it as the feeling of embodiment)
Matthew’s insights into the mind-body connection are deep and hard won. After the accident he was told to forget about the rest of his body, to focus on building up strong arms, that he could still be ‘a man’ that way. He didn’t buy in to this worldview.
Seeking begins when the options presented are unacceptable. The path before me included a troubled mind-body relationship and dwindling prospects of health. At thirteen, these truths were not obstacles to confront. They were part of the air that I was breathing. If I was going to live, I needed to live the mind-body relationship my life had dealt me. My arm strength didn’t have to overcome it. Unfortunately this would take years for me to realise.
He realised that even though he couldn’t feel his body, it was still connected to him. He felt that there was still a body-mind connection intact, albeit at a much subtler level than most people would ever dream of perceiving.
Despite the pressure to do otherwise, instead of spending hours in the gym mindlessly bulking up his arms, he put his efforts and resolve onto a less visible plane. His mindset brought him to yoga.
With the help of his first teacher, he moved and experienced his body in any way he was able – even manouevring his lifeless legs with his hands and the help of his teacher. He discovered a rich world of experience, insight and healing.
Just on the most physical level he felt the benefit that came from stretching muscles he couldn’t even feel in parts of his body that he could. He was in dialogue with his body again.
Of course most of us don’t come to yoga with such an extreme set of circumstances, but Matthew inspires me, reminding me that almost anyone who wants to experience yoga, can. Whether they are paraplegic or they’ve just had knee surgery or they simply feel out of shape and awkward in front of a room full of experienced ‘yogis’, yoga can still be experienced.
Even if it involves chairs or a full body cast, the beauty of a simple posture is there and it is so much more than the outward expression of the pose – we just need to open to it.