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Or… your intention dictates the outcome.
I am sitting at a chiropractor’s office waiting for my appointment. I am in pain. What started out as some mild discomfort in the lower back some months ago has now evolved into radiating, moaning sensation, originating in my lumbar spine and radiating down my left leg. I cannot stand or sit without pain.
By this point I have already gone to a doctor, who, after discovering a cyst the size of a golf ball in my lower back, prescribed some steroids and sent me home. It just so happened that I was also in the middle of a flu at that time and every time I coughed I felt like a knife was driven into my lower back.
Did I mention I’m 21 at this point? I am also in college, working towards a double major. I am also doing two internships and working as a shift manager at Starbucks. I am also married. Most of my time is spent either in my car commuting from Dallas to Denton five days a week or standing on my feet serving coffee.
So here I am, feeling defeated, betrayed by my body, how could this happen to me? As my mind floats in a swamp of self pity I become aware of the images on the wall. Several large posters with X-ray images show what happens to a spine that becomes misaligned and therefore, destabilized. A few bullet points next to each image describe the stages of damage and the available treatment. The ghostly X-ray images show the gradual calcification and fusion of the areas of the spine that were originally misaligned. Out of the five or so posters that surround me only the first two list the possibility of recovery. Beyond that, instead of recovery the only option is to manage pain and be as comfortable as possible.
A life changing, chilling realization gradually dawns on me that I am on the verge of having irreparable damage to my spine due to ignorance and carelessness.
Form follows function.
My function, the function of my body on a daily basis, has produced a form that was not sustainable.
After several weeks of chiropractic adjustments three times a week, my chiropractor finally allowed me to attend a yoga class. So in January 2001 I signed up for a beginner series at a studio in Denton, Texas where I was going to school at the time. I still feel that moment when I came into my very first yoga posture. As I allowed my spine to drape over my thighs in childs pose on the floor I felt and even heard inside my body, the whole length of my back stretch like a bundle of rusted chords. The sensation was both intense and euphoric. I had never felt anything like it before.
I was teaching yoga within a year.
This could be a testament to the virtues and benefits of yoga - a form of movement developed hundreds of years ago as a path to embodiment and enlightenment. However, thirteen years after starting my yoga journey, I found myself in another chiropractor office. I had been up all night because of a radiating nerve pain down my arm. By that point I had had a successful career as a yoga and meditation instructor in Dallas. I had studied Iyengar yoga, Ashtanga yoga, Restorative yoga, Therapeutic yoga, Jivamukti Yoga. Workshops, conferences, online webinars, you name it, I was there. Eventually I was training other teachers.
And yet, no matter how much I grasped after the form, no matter how much I committed to my practice, to reading of yoga philosophy books, to memorizing sanskrit, to scrutinizing every minute detail of my body’s functioning, I was falling apart. Everything hurt. While other people floated in bliss on their mat, I was fuming, frustrated with the chronic inflammation in my knees, hips, and shoulders. What the hell was wrong with me? I was young, I was strong, I had endurance (6 months of crossfit proved that to me), I was flexible. I frequently was that person in the class who could stretch the furthest, willing my body to flex and extend as much as possible, I wanted that leg behind my head….no, both legs! Teachers would frequently point me out or use me as an example of proper alignment, students sought my advice and insight. That all felt good for my ego, but at the end of the day, I could not escape the feeling of profound discord between what I was practicing and what I was feeling in my body. Once again, sitting in a chiropractor’s office I faced the truth - the form I had been developing was not sustainable.
I had no choice but to stop what I was doing, to drop the pursuit of the form and confront my body and all of the damage that was reflecting back to me my beliefs and intentions about myself that were the foundation for how I moved through life. The main, most detrimental belief that I encountered, the belief that fueled the impulse for action, for thought, for words, for my whole perception of what life was about was “I am supposed to be different.” My intention was to improve, to perfect, to transcend my body. My function was a pursuit of a body that fit some ideal form so that I would feel good about myself. Instead, the form I was achieving was collapsing under the strain of my pursuit. It didn’t matter whether it was yoga, dance, art, or relationships, the perfection and success I was after were eluding me because of something that originated inside me - my intention.
It took me several years to arrive at an intention within myself that produced the results I wanted - a successful, structurally sound form. The prerequisite requirement was to reframe how I saw and related to my body. Time and time again, I learned that I cannot change my body, my body changes me. The body carries my consciousness and therefore, my thoughts and emotions are part of my physical anatomy. That which makes up my body extends beyond my conscious understanding, therefore, whatever idealized form I might consciously pursue does not and cannot match the perfection and complexity of what the body already is. In this context, the form is arbitrary and can be as simple as walking and as complex as an arm balance. The satisfaction is the same because the main prize is the experience of reverence and total awe for what the body already is at the moment of intention. Then, I ask...
What is being wanted now?
There are times that the body is silent or I don’t hear it, other times it will reprimand me for demanding too much too quickly, for not resting enough, it will demand sleep even though I want to be productive, it will insist on being heavy when I want to be light. I now know that there is nothing else to do but listen, respect, trust, follow, and observe. Over time I have gotten to know some of the internal ebbs and flows of my body, the cyclical nature of its desires for various sensations, movements, experiences. In response, my body has unfolded in ways I could never have imagined, it has gifted me with life changing revelations and insights, it has allowed for totally new and unusual sensory experiences, it has deepened my appreciation for life. Now at 36 my body feels younger than it did ten years ago.
Mr. Iyengar is known for saying that for the first eighteen years of yoga practice, one is considered a beginner. I remember how I felt when I first heard that. It was something like “oh, whatever, that’s ridiculous.” Now, seventeen years into my practice, I understand what he meant and why I wasn’t able to accept the truth of that until now. To accept it means acknowledging that there is no shortcut, that the unknown is vast and will always outweigh the known, that mastery can’t be achieved but has to be arrived at through time. I see now that no matter whether the form is yoga or tango or swimming or doing dishes, it is always unfolding as a result of and in relation to the intention I choose.
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