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When my yoga teacher instructed us to place a strap around our lower ribs, I was a bit suspicious.
While I’d used a strap hundreds of times over the years to stretch my hamstrings and open my shoulders, I’d never wrapped a strap around my lower ribs. Wasn’t this like tightening a belt in the wrong place?
As I breathed into the strap in various poses, I began to sense its possibilities as a teacher.
Yearning for Mastery, Yielding to Mystery
The strap’s potential as a teacher seemed especially clear in back-bending poses, like Cobra. Starting from a lying-face-down position on my mat, I lengthened forward, raised my chest, rolled my shoulders up and back, and lifted the crown of my head.
In this posture, I knew to draw my breath up from my lower belly through my torso, as I curled my chest over my heart. I enjoyed the expansive reaching, rising, and heart-opening of this pose. And I longed to master the action of arching my back with the kind of supple curve that it often displayed in photos.
But what the strap showed me was that I was so determined to breathe length and lift into the front of my body, that I could barely feel any breath filling the strap on my back.
At the purely physical level, the looseness in the back of my strap signaled to me that I ran the risk of straining my lower back, which I had done in similar poses in the early years of yoga. The strap’s looseness in the back meant I was letting the curve in my spine above my butt become too curvy. Soon enough, my previous experience told me, the roundness in my low back would feel more kinked than curved.
At a more energetic and symbolic level, when my front lower ribs poked sharply forward into the strap, I felt one-sided in my experience of myself. The side I felt was the reaching and rising self, the side that looked up and ahead and strove to get somewhere. What awaited me in my back body, the quiet mystery that I didn’t and couldn’t see, was nowhere in my awareness.
To find more balance and fullness in the pose, I began to breathe into my back lower ribs as well as the front. When I did this, my breath softly touched the back of the strap.
As I held Cobra and kept my gaze forward, I paused for a moment to see if I could stay with my awakening awareness of the space behind.
What I sensed was our couch. I had never paid any attention to the couch before when doing yoga.
At first, the couch was hazy in my mind’s eye. But as I settled into the couch’s presence, its warm colors—tangerine, turquoise, and soft-banana—drifted over to me. And I dimly perceived the rounded mounds of the base pillows, which seemed to hold out the promise of a hug.
I held the sensations of the couch softly. Yielding meant letting the colors and shapes meander in and wind their way out.
As I yielded to the mystery of the space behind, I didn’t give up the front body’s desire for mastery. While a part of me happily surrendered to sensations from the couch, another part was actively reaching, rising, and expanding. The pose was not a choice between yearning and yielding; it was an exploration of their interplay.
Off the Mat, Into Life
I took with me into daily activities my new experience of Cobra and my musings about the couch. As I worked at my desk, drove to the grocery store, walked around the pond near our home, and planned an outing with family members, two things struck me.
The first was not surprising: I lived my life much more from my front body than my back. I looked ahead, reached forward, rose to the day’s challenges, and yes, yearned for a kind of mastery of myself and my world. Not for the first time, I sensed that I was more oriented to doing than being.
The second insight was not so familiar. When I decided to pay more attention to my back body and to the yielding, letting go, and allowing energy that I associated with it, I realized that I was doing so much more with my inhalation than my exhalation.
When I thought back to Cobra, I could tell that I had consciously inhaled into the back of my strap to fill the loose space there but hadn’t really thought much about where the exhalation went. It was as if in inhaling, I declared my intentions, while the exhalation served merely as a rest stop along the way.
So, I began to pay more attention to my out-breath. As I write this piece, for example, I’m not just breathing into my back body and escorting the energy up through my back ribs, behind my heart, and onto the wings of my shoulder blades. I’m holding the space that my inhalation creates and feeling my exhalation filling that space with quieting ripples. The exhalation becomes just as important as the inhalation. It’s what allows me to savor the being side of life while accomplishing what I need to accomplish with the doing side.
I sense further that the back body is more the source of intuition and imagination than the front. It was the breath in my back body that opened my awareness of the couch behind me in Cobra. I could see its colors and shape even when they were not literally visible to me.
The play of opposites—a hallmark of yoga practice—finds expression in the dance between yearning and yielding, the front and back body, and the inhale and the exhale. Finding center in the playful embodiment of these opposites is a sweet feeling. It’s a gift of yoga for which I’m deeply grateful.