Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January. So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice. What is different? Sivasana.
Yes! Already! It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat. Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.
I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years. It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort. Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting. Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture. For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve. It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable. The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true. It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.
What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up. This is the usual response of my spine to the pose. Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain. What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create. I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain. That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it. Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.
It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting. Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up. So my resting period ends up being quite short. But it is getting longer. That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.
Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana. Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief. But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief. Where was the pain? The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared. I shifted position on the floor, looking for it. It had to be there. It has always been there. But it wasn’t.
So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson? Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world. Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.
During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity. I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it. I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness. What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.
The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be. There was no pretending this devastation away. In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt. The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became. So I had to learn to give in.
When I first lost him, I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.” Of course I would weep. Usually I would cry myself to sleep. I did this for weeks, for months, for years. But it was the only way to make it bearable. Only by focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way, could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity. I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.
The key is learning not to respond. The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it. I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.
To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma. Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic. And sometimes just breathing is traumatic. Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away. Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.
A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as over-exericising, over-eating, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life. But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through and beyond it.