Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
I’ll just walk in a little bit. My recent forays into the ocean always started like this. I assumed that by staying at the water’s edge, I’d be able to overcome the long-time fear I’d had of the water more gradually. Ankle-deep couldn’t be so bad, right? As I quickly discovered, the edge of the ocean is anything but gradual. First, there’s the shock of the cold—even on a hot day when your feet are burning from just standing on the sand, the water’s relief comes at you all at once, the surge of sensation when your elbow meets a countertop. Then, when you’re ready to walk in a bit further, the tide’s confusion as it meets land creates a great churning. The breakers’ intensity will make any fearful swimmer do an about-face; they undeniably prove that you’re just as weak as you thought compared to the mighty sea. Standing at this edge, the water battering your shins and literally pulling the ground from underneath you with each crest, it’s easy to think: My humanness—standing upright, breathing oxygen—doesn’t make sense in the water. Let me go back home.
I stood at this edge for a long time during my beach trips this summer. Each crash of the waves against my body felt like some kind of lesson I needed to learn, a method of feeling my own edges, falling down, and standing back up in a “healthy” way. The water pummeled me—I got actual bruises!—over and over, and it’s true that I got stronger. At the time, I’d been doing some major healing work on my psycho-emotional boundaries, and my face-off with the ocean embodied what I felt in my heart and mind. You push, I push back. In keeping with the resilience narrative we’ve all been taught, I confronted my boundaries and let them be tested. Doing so makes us fighters; it helps us grow.
Edges are indeed places of transformation. In nature, the transition zones between ecosystems teem with diversity and abundance that isn’t possible in other environments because they have a little bit of everything. At the edge of the water, as I observed this summer, the biggest rocks I’ve ever seen were coated with tender mosses and selkie-like seaweeds; the high and low tides left behind caves and clearings where the water pooled and tiny creatures called home, even as bigger predators hovered overhead, waiting for when their prey would inevitably be exposed for an easy meal. On land, the boundary between forest and field creates a similar paradise for plants and animals that thrive in both covered and exposed landscapes; there’s more access to food that grows in shade and sun, and protection is close even when you want to go frolicing for the afternoon.
We also see this phenomenon in our human microcosm. Our skin is the most obvious edge of all—the selectively permeable, waterproof, flexible barrier between us and the outside. Though we can’t see them, our skin is home to 1.5 trillion bacteria. These microbes protect us from pathogens that are a constant threat to our internal harmony; and even when something big and strong gets through, we’ve got even more bacteria inside our body to fight off the invaders. Even food—glorious food!—gets the microbe treatment: as a foreign body, food also needs to be transformed by the microbes that line our GI tract, helping decide what to keep in and what to eliminate. Microbes shore up our internal defenses psychologically, too; the gut sends messages bottom-up to the central nervous system, relaying information about whether we’re safe or need some extra protection. And when the latter is called for, the brain sends signals to the body that shunt all our resources to the edges. Muscles engage, blood surges and thickens (full of sugar for energy and cells for coagulation), our senses sharpen—our periphery becomes electrified, hardened to the danger before us, and we get to live another day.
Standing in the breakers at the ocean did indeed feel a lot like that stress response I’d been all too familiar with from the ebbs and flows of life, including at the time the lingering shadows of the pandemic, a devastating break-up, and ongoing illness. Although I felt more in control this time, I still had to engage my resources in a way that used up energy, rather than giving me energy. In order to not fall down, I gripped in my belly and hips, like a standing plank; and when I did get pulled under, I resisted gravity and the weight of the water to assert my uprightness. It felt like the battle of the immune system: human versus water, which doesn’t belong?
Edges are full of potential and vitality—but almost by definition, they have limits. The shoreline’s intensity recedes with the night and the moon, and the diversity of life is not equally distributed—the moss grows on the higher rocks, where there’s less of a daily deluge, whereas the seaweeds tend to fan out lower down. In any one slice of the edge, you’ll find the kind of limited, specific needs and qualities we associate with more centralized ecosystems; but the constant dynamism allows for more needs and qualities to exist side-by-side. You don’t find hybrid moss-seaweed-shells, or fish-hermit crab-seagulls; each creature has its own identity, but isn’t threatened by the others.
The longer I stood at the breakers, the more I longed for my original goal: to swim, and, more specifically, to float. I felt drawn to the ocean by its siren song of tranquility; the original fear I had of being swallowed by its power had gradually shifted into a craving to be carried by this force bigger than me, to become elastic and buoyant and free. This state was impossible to achieve at the edge of the water, even though it seemed “safer,” because I had to turn on all my defenses to maintain the integrity of my system. Being in-between felt like a threat, which it is when we consider our body’s evolutionary priority of survival. If I give over to this outside force, open up the barrier between me and the world, will I be taken over by the pathogen/oppressor/force of nature/fill-in-the-blank? Will I still be me?
While my brain subconsciously navigated this existential dilemma, my body already found (and probably knew all along) the solution—two, actually. One: I stopped gripping and started hopping. If I timed a little jump with the waves, they didn’t crash into my body with such force; even more fun, I could dunk under and feel the rush of the current pull me down and pop me back up without having to try. Two (and this one took longer to embrace): I could just keep walking/hopping/diving right through the edge. A short burst of effort, of mental and physical will. Either way, waiting on the other side was a whole ocean of calm, deep water. Where I could be at ease in my body and forget about it at the same time. As Rumi put it best, not a single drop in the ocean but the entire ocean in a single drop.
It seemed natural to me to couple my teaching theme from last month, the core, with its apparent opposite, edges. Like I learned on the beach, and later on the yoga mat, the two are inextricable when it comes to kinesiology—almost all of my “core work” postures and movements involved exploring the periphery (arms, legs, props). Curiously, the core turns on not only when we centralize our focus there (crunches, etc.), but when the whole system needs to make up for a lack of stability at the edges. Indeed, this is the kind of work we do mentally as well when the stress response has taken over beyond its utility; if our resources are always pulled to the edge, vigilant and defensive, our maintenance systems—digestion, reproduction, immunity, cell repair and turnover—shut down. The cells and tissues that define our being starve and weaken, just as our mental preoccupations around fear and self-protection cause us to lose sight of what gives our life joy, pleasure, and meaning. We become the alarm system for an empty house.
But once the core is firmed up, the edges of our experience lose some of their potency. This might look like less stress/fear (yay!), but it also means less stimulation overall (meh?). I believe that part of our cultural obsession with testing and going past our edges, then extending them even when we get to the other side (think: an infinite line of breakers, six feet apart), comes from a profound lack of internal stability. Caffeine and other substances that steal our appetite; advertisements and consumerism and achievement-ism that tell us we’ll never be enough. We lack a connection to our core on a spiritual level, which means we need to seek satisfaction externally. Fighting the waves makes us feel alive. Sitting quietly on the beach at low tide is pretty boring by contrast—unless we have realized we are the ocean in a drop, and our inner landscape is as full and vast as the ocean in front of us.
I’ve acted up this internal emptiness so many times throughout my life, whether taking on work project after work project or pushing my physical body to its structural limits because I had no sense of where my edges were. As someone who identifies as having a more porous personality and hypermobility, it took a lot of external stimuli for me to even feel anything: what one of my teachers affectionately called being a “sensation junkie.” Of course, I eventually found my edges, but often that meant I’d been supersaturated with what was not-me, making it very hard to get back to my center—which I barely knew where to find. Filling myself up with other people’s ideas and passions and emotions, pulling apart my joints in deep stretches, I thought I was getting “stronger” by letting the world fill in my empty, lonely core. In the quest to be everything—the moss and the seagulls and the sand and the water—I started to drown. And because I’d been at my own edge—and beyond—for so long, not even my survival stress response had enough juice to turn on and do its job.
Spending time in the center before venturing to the edges—the kiddie pool before the ocean—seems to be a reliable method to avoid drowning or in our quest for fulfillment. And yet, life is not always a progressive, linear, step-by-step process. We often feel like we have one toe in the kiddie pool and half of our body in the ocean, or vice versa. We need to straddle the challenge and allure of the edge while holding onto our center.
Navigating such dualities is at the core (pun intended!) of the yoga and Ayurveda traditions. The Yoga Sutras (2.33) teach pratipaksha bhavana, or the idea of “cultivating the opposite” as the path to a clear, truth-seeing mind; Ayurveda’s motto of “like increases like, opposites balance” helps us remember to seek substances and activities with opposite gunas when we experience excess doshas. There is obvious truth in these concepts. Even western science corroborates these claims; for example, studies show how people experiencing depression (a spiral of dwelling on the self) find relief in doing volunteer work (directing their energy outward, helping other people’s problems and seeing they’re not alone in suffering).
The more I study and practice these traditions—and spend time at the literal and figurative breakers of life—the more I see that’s not the end of the story. These rules of opposites can be simple ways to break through our difficulties—running from the shore and jumping into the ocean, you go from hot to cool, from standing to floating. But in reality, you’re just replacing one extreme stimulus for another. “Balancing” hypervigilant, traumatic stress with a long, still, peaceful savasana sounds nice, but if you’ve ever tried to do that (or help someone do that) you’ll know that it’s pretty much impossible, if not outright harmful. Without dwelling in-between, at the edge of our discomfort and our perceived satisfaction, we risk finding ourselves empty and lost on the other side—frantically trying to get back to the shore.
But when we vacillate more regularly between edge and core, periphery and center, we experience less shock along the way. We hop with the waves, and they’re less scary. More importantly, we realize that these two extremes are not really that different from each other. The microbial defenses at our edges are also inside of us, in the deepest folds and crevices of our being, and inside of us is nothing more than an empty tube filled with creatures who are not-us; the pleasure we seek from external stimuli is only so good as we’re able to digest and integrate it (also the work of microbes, btw); the vast ocean out there was always inside of you, even in the tiny pool with the minnows.
In our culture, we often experiment with our identity most readily at the edges of our being. Hair cuts and colors, piercings and tattoos, clothing and accessories, even affiliations with certain causes or ideas. Defining ourselves in these ways is undoubtedly helpful—essential, even—to our human experience. But if we really want to “live on the edge,” we need to let those external appearances be as porous and diverse and impermanent as possible, just like the transition zones in nature. Their resilience comes from never staying the same. The more rigidly we hold onto, or pour our effort into, our external edges, the fewer resources we have to actually be that person we project into the world.
We’ve all experienced situations where this edges-or-center question arises more intensely. They’re often at major life transitions (duh), where our previous sense of self is threatened but we can’t see the ocean on the other side yet. Puberty, college, new jobs, new relationships, new cities. But we’re actually always experiencing this ebb and flow in our bodies, which is why our simplest, least-sensational practices in yoga can have such profound effects on our well-being. Breath: what brings the outside-in and inside-out, a perfect exchange of energy that maintains the entire system. And circulation: our internal current, flowing with and against gravity, pumping blood from our center to the periphery and back, everywhere along the route washed in the same life-giving nourishment.
We practice pratipaksha bhavana not by moving from one opposite to the other, edge then center then edge. We practice by being the movement itself. The current cannot pummel you, drown you, or even make you stronger when you are the eternal rhythm that blurs the edges between the dancer and the dance.
When I teach savasana in yoga classes, I often use ocean-based imagery to invite people to experience this non-dual way of existing in rhythm with nature. Back body supported by the water below, front body open to the sky, in the center is you—open, spacious, infinite. For some, this kind of expansiveness is overwhelming, and so I empower students to take the metaphor as far as they want; maybe their body of water is a bathtub or kiddie pool. The longer you stay with it, though, the more the experience of being that empty space in the middle of your corporeal and conscious edges satisfies our spiritual hunger.
As I found that day at the ocean, not even the breakers can maintain their intensity. Eventually, the swells recede and what’s left is just you, at the edge of all that is not you, unaware of and uninterested in the difference.