September 28, 2010

Notes on a Teacher Training: The Body.

Let’s talk about the body.

Most of us in the Laughing Lotus Love Skool arrived at yoga through asana practice. Some of us used videos or DVDs or books to get started. Many of us stumbled into a class by accident, or took on yoga as a complement to more high-impact calisthenics and athletics. It’s been utilized as a healing tool, a vessel towards serenity, and as a way to unwind after the daily winding-up that is work, school, life.

We arrive at yoga through asana because the physical body is the most tangible. There are subtle bodies within this body (anamaya), but it takes much time, patience, and good faith to access an awareness of those other bodies.
But we start with this body right here – with feet, hands, arms, legs, hips, belly, pelvis, shoulders, back, neck. Organs, tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, muscle, fluids, blood. We come to stand in tadasana with history, and lots of it. Emotional, psychological, physical history. Through the practice of yoga, it is possible to access parts of us that have remained hidden, disguised, or sublimated.

I feel compelled to write about this because for the past several weeks of Love Skool, I have been confronted again and again with the reality of my relationship to my own body. I’ve been musing over why this process of revealing is so insistent at this particular moment in my life, when I am at my most comfortable. Perhaps it is because the changes I have undergone since beginning my yoga practice are more apparent now than ever before. It is as though my insecurities become more glaring as my confidence and sense of self-worth increase.

I say let’s talk about the body, but the only body I’m prepared to talk about it is my own. I began practicing yoga when I was sixteen. I felt uncomfortable in my body, and thought that being active would make me feel better. Within a few months, I had stopped eating meat and had cut down significantly on the amount of sugar and fast food I consumed. I took steps towards vegetarianism and cut out junk food because I wanted to be healthier, but the many other dietary restrictions I imposed upon myself were fueled by the desire to be thin.

From an early age, my experience was as the heavier girl, with a full face and early breasts and hips. I had a raging sweet tooth and a real grudge against exercise. When I discovered yoga, I earnestly believed it would help me accept myself. As my body began to change with the gradual shedding of old habits and the acquisition of new ones, my approach to yoga shifted. Whereas once it had helped me settle in and relax, now it was another instrument for my ego. My mat became a space for vanity and self-critique, both of which spiraled into bouts of self-loathing. I also took up running, and I ate less and less. I became totally fixated on numbers: the three digits on the scale, calories, grams of fat, grams of protein, grams of carbohydrates. Miles run, minutes practiced. My life was broken down and cataloged, and on days where I ate three substantial meals, I practiced with guilt and determination. I wanted to sweat, burn and eliminate.

I won’t blame the media or high school cliques. I won’t blame locker room chatter or plastic surgeons or the women in my life who pinch, prod and bemoan their own flesh. All of these things are symptoms of greater cultural issues, and we all suffer. But this is why it is also up to us to recognize self-destructive tendencies in ourselves and in others, and to uplift one another. I notice that when I have a negative thought about someone else’s body, it is absolutely rooted in a painful history of rejecting my own body. The more I embrace myself, the more I can perceive the truth and beauty in others.

For the past seven years, my weight has fluctuated and my body has changed. When I dropped to an unhealthily low weight around age seventeen, it didn’t last. Without even changing my eating habits or exercise regimen, I began gaining weight. Yes, I panicked. Yes, I attempted to limit and push myself even more. But my body, in its wisdom, took care of itself. Eventually I found some semblance of balance. I stopped weighing myself and I stopped aiming for a certain pants size. I disregarded the cult of dieting and began to be mindful of nourishment. Instead of eating the food with the least calories, I began eating the most wholesome, nourishing, revitalizing food I could get my hands on. My practice of vegetarianism evolved into an ethical practice as opposed to a reaction to “should” and “should-not”. I concentrated on being in this body. I focused on its capabilities, its range of motion, its strength, flexibility, rhythms, lines, curves and edges. And not to mention its changes and transformations – thank goodness for transformation! Thank goodness I have this ever-changing body to travel in. It is through this chest, this belly, these hips, these legs and arms, feet and hands, that I can feel the earth, the seasons, illness and health, living and dying. It is through my organs of perception that I can find nourishment, humor, music, love, beauty, and joy. Whereas I once used yoga as a way to fetishize and degrade my body, I am now grounded in my mind and spirit enough to feel asana practice as a direct, delicious experience of my own divine nature, and it is this experience that breeds self-acceptance like no other.

I actually decided to become a student at the Love Skool because of a workshop I took with Dana Flynn in April of 2010, in Portland, Oregon. The thread of the workshop was the belly – feeling the belly, seeing the belly, harnessing its fullness and its power, its creative force. I remember Dana saying, We are taught to hate our bellies, but this is where it all starts. Every single one of us came from a belly. Some of us have given or will give life from the belly. How can we be ashamed of something so potent? I was completely blown away by this encounter with what felt like a startling, brilliant truth, and I feel tremendous gratitude and love for the teacher who guided me to that sweet revelation.

Of course, there are days when I forget to be thankful. There are days when I am sixteen all over again, panicked and anxious. I have had a few of these days during Love Skool, believe it or not. Standing in front of the class still isn’t easy for me, and I know it will continue to be a challenge when I get the opportunity to teach. The fear still nags – they are looking at me, they are looking at my body, how does my body look, how do they see me, how should I feel? I imagine I am not alone in this. We are all carrying the weight of our minds and hearts, aside from the weight of our bodies. We live in a culture that, unfortunately, maintains some very narrow and distorted ideas about bodies. I feel blessed to have found this yoga practice, and to now be a part of the Love Skool, where the true emphasis is on moving like yourself, as Dana says.

How can you move like yourself if you don’t want to?, you may wonder. Well, a big part of the journey is getting into the groove where you want to move like yourself. I spent years wanting to move like someone else, wanting straight lines and symmetry and narrowness. To be in a space in which you are moving and being moved, and being held in the light of acceptance and love – that’s a rare blessing. Ultimately, we have to cultivate that space for ourselves, apart from a studio or a classroom or a teacher. This, I suspect, is the whole point of our daily sadhana assignment.
Laughing Lotus teaches an ecstatic, flavorful style of practice. At the Love Skool, we are encouraged to take what’s been hidden in the dark and to expose it to the light, as it is only when one teaches from one’s own practice that one is capable of transmitting some of that light, some of that shakti.

I know my fellow yogis and yoginis are moving through similar questions and struggles, even if we haven’t discussed it outright. But what we have discussed are these expectations we have of ourselves, our practice, and our participation in this teacher training. Where do these expectations arise from? Where do they go? Where do they make homes in our bodies and hearts? What feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy do they reinforce? At the same time, how can these expectations propel us forth on our respective paths?

The challenge is in locating places of resistance and recesses of pain, uncertainty, and anger, and taking them into the conversation you have with yourself, every moment of everyday, regarding who you are and who you want to become. It’s a tightrope act, balancing between self-love and aspiring to be more wholly, fully, lovingly human. The Lotus teaches that it isn’t about self-improvement, because there is nothing essentially wrong with who you are and what you’re working with. More than anything it is about coming to know who you are and learning to love what you’re working with – in body, in mind, and in spirit.

So begin in the body. Begin at your feet. These feet take you places. Look at your hands. These hands touch the world. Breathe. This breath is all you have. Then open your eyes, all three of them, and praise.

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