All Together Now

All Together Now

Growing up as a dancer, I always wondered what masochistic individual decided to put battements at the end of the ballet barre sequence. After fatiguing all of my leg muscles through endless pliés and tendus and other warm-up exercises, now you wanted me to kick as high as I could, as fast as I could, while maintaining perfect posture? So when I started practicing yoga, where the end of class was punctuated by forward bends and savasana, I regained my faith in the universe: yogis were clearly the opposite of ballet masters—benevolent and compassionate, rewarding tired bodies with rest instead of harder and harder activities.

Whether it was from my dance training or my DNA (or some combination of the two), flexibility has never been a problem for me. My open hips, long hamstrings, and supple (or “weak,” depending on who you ask) ankles have allowed me to excel in dance and in my early years as a yoga student, where I could easily follow the teacher’s instructions to go “deeper” into poses by increasing my range of motion in deep stretches like paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), upavistha konasana (wide legged forward bend), and the infamous hanumanasana (splits). I was literal putty in my teachers’ hands, who loved practicing their hands-on adjustments by “guiding” me further into my range of motion. For the longest time, I was baffled as to why we spent so much time “preparing” for these poses, or why we needed to have so many props to set up for them. Stretches were where I felt most like myself—and while I mentally understood that not everyone had the same flexibility as me, I couldn’t understand what exactly was holding them back from simply getting more flexible by stretching more. 

Part of that misunderstanding came from my baseline experience of a stretch. Because of my mobility (what I now know to be hypermobility), I actually felt little to nothing in deep stretches. Transpose that idea into the sentence I wrote above, and you’ll see where the problem was: If I felt like myself while stretching, that meant feeling like myself felt like little to nothing. Indeed, stretching was like going into a sensory deprivation tank for my whole body, far away from all the noise and anxiety and pressures I felt from the outside. Rather than being pulled out of myself and being defined by external demands, I could, while stretching, expand internally and feel, for once, okay. A prismatic confluence of all colors into calm, clear white light. 

***

Stretching (and the entire practice around it) served this therapeutic purpose of escape for me for a long time. Until I started to taste what all of those other people in my yoga classes, who grimaced and broke out into sweat during stretches, experienced. It started with my hamstrings—which one summer morning, after a run (and, I’ll add, after just finishing my 200-hour YTT, meaning LOTS of stretching), started talking to me via a jolt of pain down my leg. Then it was my groin—an unfamiliar POP while being silly-putty-adjusted in class. Then it was my SI joint, my lower back, my shoulder, my hip . . . you get the idea. The systemic laxity in my joints was leading to an endless stream of injuries, ranging from annoying to I-can’t-walk. 

Forced to modify my favorite poses for the first time (and use blocks—the horror!), I went through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. Needless to say, I wasn’t too good at resting in any capacity or context, so the idea of skipping poses entirely to let my body parts heal was off the table. Stretches weren’t fun anymore, and if I couldn’t do what I used to do then what was the point of practicing? I wondered. I got into Pilates as an alternative, giving myself a new movement vocabulary so I wouldn’t have to deal with how yoga felt in the present. As soon as I felt any improvement in my symptoms, I took it as a sign I could go back to full ROM—only to fall further back into pain and injury. And as the list of affected joints grew, I was less frustrated and more afraid. Of what seemingly innocuous activity would result in injury and set me back weeks or months. Of no longer being able to enjoy stretching—of losing that feeling of internal expansion and quiet, that feeling I’d come to know as me, forever. 

While my mind struggled with the limitations of my physical movements, my body was doing a lot of amazing work learning new things. Those props that I once scoffed at became my new BFs—but not in the way you’d think. I learned how to use them in novel (to me) strengthening exercises within my yoga practice, which eventually evolved into a curiosity of other “props”—namely, heavy things I could pick up and put down repeatedly to heal my joints and prevent new injuries. The props also became a creative outlet for my teaching and a way to redefine the sensations (or lack thereof) I was familiar with in traditional yoga poses. My stronger muscles started to feel things while picking up and putting down heavy things (could it be…stability?), and while stretching. This was the game-changer. I didn’t necessarily have the same ROM, but I could do the poses again—a split in the fabric of my microcosm. The non-painful sensations of my end range have helped me become more comfortable with reality and the present moment; rather than going to a place of numbness, where the main communication I received from my body was silence, I’ve become fluent in a new internal dialogue that has made me pay attention to my body in its changing, dynamic state, not just out of fear, but out of curiosity. And with way fewer distractions and demands coming at me from the outside, I actually have the capacity to tolerate all sorts of information coming from inside. If my previous stretching practice was like the sun—relentless, rhythmic, consistent, pervasive—my new stretching practice resembles the moon—never the same on the outside, but always there.

***

My current practice with deep stretches looks something like the last stage of grief: acceptance. Which is also, perhaps unsurprisingly, how the Yogis describe the benefits of forward bends on spiritual level. Asking the back body to stretch (as opposed to opening the front body, which is also a kind of stretch, in back bends) is a tall order because that’s exactly the opposite of what that part of the body is designed to do. Our upright anatomy depends on having a stiff back body—our legs, hips, and spines need to have strong muscles to hold us vertically and perpendicular to the force of gravity. Energetically, the back body represents the west side of the body (“paschima” means “west-facing”)—the direction of sunsets, or endings. It’s where we hold on—to the things and people we are bound to lose. Hence the difficulty in and built-in resistance to stretching along the back side. Doing so means making space for all those bound-up emotions and efforts to stay upright (literally and metaphorically). If we were to let go of that structure and stability, we might not be able to get back up again (which is how it sometimes feels after long stretches). 

(As a brief aside, let’s imagine what’s going on physically and energetically in bodies like mine with excess mobility. When our connective tissue is less stiff, we have to work extra hard to stay upright and “together,” as it were, creating excess stress on the nervous system to stay on alert and keep the muscles engaged—not only for fighting or fleeing, but for daily life, which adds further confusion on a psychological level. So what (I believe) I felt in my pre-injury stretches was a longed-for permission to turn off that 24/7 vigilance of making sure my limbs stayed attached to my body. I could flop into my joints, release the tension in my muscles, and just be.)

Hypermobile or not, many, if not most, of us walk around with excess tension in the body and spirit. It’s a good day if we keep ourselves together—go to work, eat the right things, be friendly—and moments when we feel like we’re coming apart become half-joking memes on social media about doing the bare minimum and being okay with it (which we’re obviously not). But what my forward bends have taught me is that there’s a difference between collapsing into a puddle of fascia and skin, and effectively opening the back body in a stretching posture. The difference is between the lines of all the sutras and anatomy books and mantras. It can’t be taught in 200 hours or 500 hours of formal “training.” It’s the fact that acceptance—which we might also call “surrender”—takes work. 

When I pulled my hamstring that first time, it took work to back out of my range of motion and learn new ways to practice. When I quit my job(s), it took work to listen to my heart’s messages to have confidence in myself and step off the beaten paths. When my dad died, it took work to get up, to eat, to say his name, to not say his name. Whenever reality has come for me, it’s taken work to accept my new life, however temporary or permanent, and not get pushed down it—to stay upright and together even while carrying a new experience and its (often uncomfortable) sensations.       

Opening the back body doesn’t release feelings like that scene in The Green Mile. When we forward bend, we simply make more space to gain the strength we need to carry as humans in our bodies and spirits. Forward bending is a gesture of humility. It’s saying to life, I’ll open myself up because I know I’m already free falling. 

***

I’m focusing on forward bends in July for a few reasons. Most bodies find stretching easier in warmer weather—which isn’t an invitation to exploit or challenge mobility (I’m looking at you, bendy people). Rather, we have an opportunity to feed off of the activating energy of summer (yang) to strengthen before (and sometimes while) we stretch, an approach I took last month while teaching twists. When yang yields to yin in this way, the experience is much more satisfying and sustainable. Like day yielding to night, sun yielding to moon, this exchange creates a sense of trust and internal stability that allows for a more fluid movement between contraction and expansion. We might feel “safer,” on a nervous system level, to forward bend when our bodies know our hamstrings and spinal muscles will spring back together afterward because they’re strong. It’s only when we’re in one of those states constantly—all stretched or all stiff—that the body starts to hold onto that state as the only option. Imagine if you only ever saw the sun—how would you react if the sky started to get dark? 

Energetically, this yang yielding to yin helps provide an anchor for our summer activities. If twists were an opportunity to explore boundaries, forward bends challenges us to respect those boundaries. We can practice feeling a lot (or a little) sensation in a small, unimpressive movement or posture; we can practice looking for an internal signal of where we are in space and time rather than letting endless sun consume our attention beyond our capacity. We can intentionally feel the weight of what we’re carrying—whether we’re adventuring somewhere new or staying in the (dis)comfort of home. From there we can choose: A) pay extra for an oversized bag or B) unpack some of that sh*t. Option B might seem like the right choice; social media certainly endorses the aspirational letting go of things and emotional baggage. But that isn’t always the best decision—you might be stranded somewhere without some necessary supplies. It’s also just not an option. Forward bends are the secret option C to this end-of-school pop quiz. Once you feel the weight of what you’re carrying, you can find yourself a bigger bag where it all fits. And if you don’t have one, you can borrow some space from your friend, your sister, or the Earth. It’s easier to stand upright when we’re together.

Photo: Hannah Franco Creative



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