March 18, 2014

In Pain & Grateful. ~ Susan McCulley

weird, smile

“It’s good to be alive.”

~ Sara, Susan’s yoga teacher

Lying on my sweaty yoga mat, my heart is pounding. I’m literally pulsing from face to feet. I’m breathing as deeply and as slowly as I can since I know we’re going to do camel pose (ustrasana) again. An intense back bending pose, the whole front body is lengthened and extended in a dynamic pose of strength, flexibility… and vulnerability.

“Come to the front of your mat,” says Sara, my beloved yoga instructor. “Standing on your knees, six inches between knees and feet.” As I sit up and move into position, I can feel some anxiety and dread. Every time I do this pose, I come face-to-face with its intensity and the concentration I need to keep breathing in it.

I do my best: arching back so I’m looking at the back wall, taking hold of my heels and then reaching my thighs and hips forward so it is only my grasp on my heels that keeps me from flinging forward. On Sara’s instruction, I slowly come out and then lie down again in (my pounding-heart version of) corpse pose (savasana).

Sara walks serenely among our mats and says, “It’s good to be alive.” As I sense my whole body pulsing and do my best to calm my breathing, I break into a wide smile.

It’s easy enough to say, “It’s good to be alive” while swinging in a hammock by the ocean with a cool drink and a good book (or wherever you love to be). But what about when my shoulder or my heart aches? What about when I’m angry or disappointed? What about when I am achingly tired or my heart is racing in fear? What about when it’s time to do camel pose again? It is in those moments that I am grateful for practices that help me to embrace aliveness even then (not that I manage to do it all the time!).

Life is, by its very nature, messy and full of everything:  joy, tragedy, pain, frustration, elation, pleasure…everything and all of it. Our culture encourages us to avoid anything uncomfortable (and gives us the illusion that this is possible!). The truth is, we can’t say, “I’d like just the easy and pleasurable, please.” Being alive means we get it all. Body-mind practices like Nia, yoga, and mindfulness allow me to practice being with the whole amazing experience of being alive. Sara’s words, at the end of a difficult pose, remind me that not only is it possible to be present for the challenges, it is enlivening.

Venerable meditation teacher, Joanna Macy, teaches that “all sensations are signs of life.”

To these wise words I would add that it is our awareness of those sensations that bring us into aliveness. I have a limited amount of time to spend in this body, on this planet, and I want to be here for all of it. When things get intense, one of the best things I can do is simply be aware of what I’m sensing and observe it. Practicing camel pose gives me a chance to practice being with (even appreciating) intense or uncomfortable sensations as well as the pleasurable and happy.

What does aliveness feel like for you? When do you feel that “it’s good to be alive” and when do you wish things were otherwise? When are you aware and when do you tune out? What would it take for you to feel the goodness and aliveness in all sensations?

These days, I do my best to have no expectations of what camel pose will feel like. I practice it and then let it go. But every time I do it, I am reminded that it is good to be alive.


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Editorial Assistant: Jennifer Moore/ Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant media archives

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Susan McCulley