My very first email address was spacecowgirl. I wasn’t a big Jamiroquai fan so I think my reason for picking the name was actually more to do with liking the idea of being a cowgirl, in space, because I was 12 and, why the hell not?
History backs this up because I did go on to be a cowgirl, spending three months in outback Australia when I was 18. It was hard and dirty work but I was living my dream and I loved it. I was working with horses, in space.
The space wasn’t the interplanetary kind but it might as well have been for the effect it had on me. In that barren and empty place everything felt more intensely alive. My senses hummed with life at the wild wonder of this strange land.
People commonly experience the outback as ‘nothingness’, boring, devoid of life. They sleep their way through it on a flight or bus to the towns and cities of the coast – nothing to see here. I would have been inclined to join them but my love of horses and desire to work with them easily trumped my desire to live by the beach in Sydney.
I was surprised by how much I loved the outback. My memory of it is full of sensory impressions: the heady, sweet smell of the earth that induced in me a kind of spontaneous pranayama; the vibrant orange of richly baked land and deep reds of powdery sand tracks; the warmth of the land as we snuck siestas in the shade of wizened trees; the insistent thud of hoofbeats as we galloped towards the horizon… and a silence that seemed to hold more than it was letting on.
The horses were spirited athletes with the grace of dancers, able to play and leap and turn in improbably small circles. My lead horse erupted into spontaneous dressage when he worked with cattle and when he galloped we flew. It was an experience of pure rhythm, primal power and rushing space that made me feel weightless, boundless and just a teensy bit giddy.
Looking back on it now, I realise that this was my first significant experience of encountering space. I loved the boundless outback because it made me feel boundless. I drank it in with all my senses, becoming expanded and more alive to everything – less allowed me to feel more.
Years later, in my late twenties, I experienced some more space exploration – this time through yoga.
In the beginning I experienced space as the release of tightly wound muscles and stiff joints. It was the undeniably satisfying feeling of a good stretch, of fibres coming alive with sensation, the muscles humming and buzzing as they lengthened and I invited more space into my framework.
I quickly grew to love the satisfaction of creating more space to breath. Opening my chest felt especially good as the air rushed into my body, filling out the spaces between my ribs and expanding my whole torso.
Through yogic breathing I learned to tease air into my abdomen, my belly expanding; then the side, front and back ribs; then my chest and back and then the sternum right up to the collarbones. It was a slow and steady wave of breath, rolling through my body, reclaiming space from previously locked and forgotten territories. My body started to awaken, as if from an outback slumber, drinking in the space all around.
Under the instruction of my teachers, I found myself breathing life into tight spots. My nemesis was pigeon pose. My hips were tight and closed and the instinct was to squeeze tighter and squirm away from the strong sensation whilst holding my breath and freaking out. Not helpful.
I found a better way by directing the breath into my hip, even imagining it was the hip itself that was breathing, I gained more space to move in, to release and rotate, and I felt the cathartic power of unlocking this, literally and metaphorically, pivotal part of my body.
I slowly caught on to the joy of space in the spine, undoing the heaviness of compression, correcting misalignment. How much more freedom I felt when my spine had more freedom to move. I felt lighter and more energetic and more capable as I grew taller in space.
After a few years of practice, ardha mukha svanasana (aka downward facing dog) became my favourite pose. No longer a pose of shaking and tight shoulders and obsessing over hamstrings, I lengthened and straightened, feeling like the vertebrae were evenly spread, front to back and side to side. I felt like I was being blown clean through by a breeze.
Then in some practices, on days where things just aligned (excuse the yoga pun), poses like trikonasana started to feel good, as in, really good, and I started to get suspicious. What was this yoga thing? I’m not sure why but it took a while for it to really click. I realised that I was starting to experience integrity – creating space without stealing it from elsewhere.
When I first started to practice yoga I’d often inadvertently compress one area in order to open another. As well as inviting injury, I was cheating myself the experience of pure space, it being muted by the heavy dullness of stolen territory. The body gives good lessons in integrity.
As I progressed, I worked hard to make sure I didn’t do this, then at certain times, in certain poses, the work became integrated and I wasn’t having to make such conscious effort. No longer working so hard at the physical level left me free to fully experience the effects of space and form in harmony. Turns out that feels pretty good.
And of course it is not always like this. Naturally the mind wants to focus on the obvious; naturally we try to take shortcuts to get to where we want to be; naturally we focus on the external form over the inner space – but because of all this we can fail to experience the power of a subtler, deeper, more integrated approach.
Recently I attended a workshop with Matthew Sanford, which really got me thinking about space. It was a whole weekend of exploring space, boundaries and the inner experience. One of the classes was on reaching beyond the asana and we spent three hours exploring the effects of extending into space both physically and mentally, creating strong boundaries in order to expand beyond them.
The cumulative effect of such a practice was that in warrior 3 (another nemesis pose for me) I felt for the first time an incredible ease. My body was resting vertically in space, balanced on my single horizontal leg as if it were the most natural thing. I felt supported by the space within and around me. The only struggle was to suppress the ‘woohooooo’ shriek of a human who’d just learned to fly.
That it’s possible to have these experiences with just a human body – without the need for a galloping horse or the boundless outback or a rocket to the moon – makes them even more special. Our presence, awareness and attention wield far more power than we could ever know.
On the surface there’s not much there, nothing remarkable, but like that silence in the outback, space holds far more than it’s letting on.