What I’m liking best about bikram these days is the yogatalk in the locker room afterwards. Today I mentioned that sivasana is still incredibly painful for me and elicited a chorus of similar complaints and advice. The consensus view is that I don’t know how to stand or sit properly, like lots of women. What I need to do, the women in the locker room said, is tilt my pelvis back while tucking my butt under and pulling in on my stomach muscles. A number of them demonstrated, in various states of undress, standing and kneeling on the floor.
It’s not like I haven’t heard this before. My wonderful Iyengar teacher in Hotchkiss, Nancy, suggested that I think about my pelvis as a bowl of milk. I need to tilt the bowl back, bringing the front rim up, so that I don’t spill the liquid that I’m carrying in it. This is an old metaphor. As the lover says to the beloved in the Song of Songs,
Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
According to the naked and sweaty women in the locker room at my yoga studio, combined with the advice I got from my wonderful Iyengar teacher in Colorado, my back pain, which is sometimes so debilitating that I can hardly move, comes from not having enough respect for my belly.
So where does this leave me? How do I continuously focus on how I’m holding my self, my spine? I don’t know if I can do this, but I will try.
What I am noticing now on day 26 is not physical. I haven’t lost an ounce and I can’t see that I’ve tightened up in any one of my muscular areas. My arms still look flabby, damn it. I’m still drinking a couple of glasses of wine every night. But I am eating less junk food, and I do notice that I’m craving healthier meals. Yesterday, for example, I did a double class–four hours in a 90 degree room, three of them holding poses–and afterwards I wanted to eat green stuff. But the greatest noticeable benefit is psychological. I feel calmer, more centered. I feel more self-confident and less anxious.
For example: today I sent off my book proposal. This is a huge achievement. I’m embarrassed to admit how long I’ve been working on it. Something about the commitment to yoga made it possible for me to make a commitment to myself in this way. After years of anxious hiding, I finally said to someone, “hey, this is my theory, and it is mine, and you should pay attention to it.” Also: “My ideas are interesting and worthy of publication.” And, “I’m not going to sit on this for one more minute.”
What is the connection between this locker-room lesson about the belly and the back and my having sent out something that I have been sitting on and fretting over for 10 years? The sending out of the proposal is a kind of birth, a kind of delivery of what is within me to the world. This gesture, so long guarded against, so long feared, has helped me to relax. But I wonder if I would have been able to make this vital move if I hadn’t also been going through the same 26 spine-altering poses for the past 26 days.
Tonight I practiced yoga with a woman who I have had trouble accepting, even though I have also been very touched by her. When I first met her, I felt resentment, competition, and dislike. Tonight my anxiety, or discomfort in the world, abated a bit, and I was able to see and accept her with much more compassion than before. I caught myself comparing my ability to do the poses with hers, and tried to let this ridiculous competitiveness go. Tonight she was rather noisy and self-centered and vain and domineering. I sensed that her not very likable behavior was coming from pain and misery. She’s very confessional and at the end of class she mentioned that, just before it, she had been weeping in her car. Christmas is coming on and she just broke up with her boyfriend. None of her family is here in Pittsburgh. She doesn’t know quite how to get through the holiday.
Why did it take so long for my heart to soften and to see her as a human being whom I actually liked and wanted to help? Is it not because I get into these habitual and rigid poses of the mind, not unlike the habitual and rigid poses of the body, that ultimately bring me pain? Isn’t this guarding of the heart, and these customary ways of holding the body and the mind, a way of dwelling in dislike and distance and alienation from other people? I experience this alienation from other people as a form of pain. I don’t know how I learned to hold myself in these ways, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I learn to change the way I carry myself in the world, not only in relation to other people but also in relation to myself. The old habits of rigidity and separation may once have protected me from pain, but they can also increase the discomfort, the stiffness, that makes the movements of my body and mind excruciating.