Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dawning body awareness

A few weeks ago, I stood sun-lit on hard, wet sand in a deep redrock canyon, the edgewaters of Colorado River washing over my feet. I drew my body into Virabhadrasana 2: a deep lunge, right foot forward, the sole pressing into the sand, right knee at a right angle; left foot back, angled open and slightly forward, the leg straight from the hip, the outside edge of the left foot building a deep, still pressure wave of sand behind it. My shoulders were square over my hips, torso open, spine vertical; arms extended wide: right forward, left back. My head was turned forward, eyes focused upriver, just beyond the edge of the nail of my right, middle finger.

* * *

Yoga asana – the physical aspect of yoga – is the conscious forming of embodied patterns. Mind working with matter that responds to it, feeds it, becomes it. Is it.

There is an essential integrity of the mind, that sees everything outside itself as object, and body, that just feels and senses, sometimes feeling both sides of a touch sharply, sometimes less clearly, sometimes only one side, sometimes that, dimly.

But whatever objectifying lines the mind draws to cordon off the world like a crime scene, the senses nonetheless reach awareness. Emotions, too. Thoughts are not unique.

The classical yoga postures, and some of the newer ones too, are patterns, old trails traced in new bodies each generation. Yoga teachers familiarly tell fretful students that all they need do is practice and all else will come – mindfulness, peace, liberation, clarity. Just practice. But how, I’m asked and I wonder, can simply putting your body into shapes and holding them, breathing them, singing them, panting them, chanting them, gasping them, being them – how does that do anything except exercise (and that quite oddly) muscles to the point of trembling fatigue?

* * *

On the river trip, to cool off, to clean up, even just to play, I’d walk into the river. Almost everywhere we went, the river was the very definition of placid – flat, calm, slow, smooth. The river flows through most of Meander Canyon at about 2 miles per hour. Ankle-deep, it’s a gentle caress. Knee-deep, a swirl around my shins. But once I’m halfway in – waist deep, my body squared to face upstream, the river presses me downstream. I lean into it slightly. We oppose each other, we support each other. But in up to my waist, if I ignore the river’s slow push, I’ll lose my footing. As I work my way deeper, the slow, slow, slow press of river equals my own strength. To go deeper, I have to turn my body sideways to the stream – aligning myself to present a narrower profile to the current that then slips easily around me.

* * *

As I understand Albert Einstein's insights, matter is simply one manifestation of energy; time and space are two ends of the same stick; and – with the insights of general relativity – matter/energy shapes space/time. Every experience we have is a manifestation of energy transforming in, while simultaneously itself shaping, both space and time.

* * *

Yoga asana is about consciousness perceiving and responding to energy. And energy, as anyone who’s ever stubbed a toe against a rock (pretty dense and stable as far as forms of energy go) can attest, is not the same everywhere, all the time. It forms. It flows. It concentrates. It dissipates.

As I stand in Virabhadrasna 2, I feel three distinct axes of energy. A kind of dense, stable strength rises from the connection with the cold, wet sand at the soles of my feet. A kind of elevating verticality comes through the crown of my head, downward. And my heart expands outward in five directions at once; head, hands, and feet.

I’m not the first to find those energy channels. Virabhadrasana 2 was created by human awareness finding those channels – the pose is an expression of them.

That wasn’t obvious to me the first time I moved into the pose. That day, whenever it was, my attention wasn’t focused on the energy alignment of the pose, about which I knew and perceived nothing, but rather on assembling the verbal instructions into body language. And it wasn’t the second day I did the pose, either. But after a dozen, or maybe a dozen dozen dozen times, I began to become aware of those lines of energy. Noticed them not as lines of zappy, jittery electricity, but rather as a kind of energetic ease, fluid power. Prana. At first, I didn’t take any thought of them – just a random sensation in a body filled with random sensations. But going back to the pose again and again, resting in it’s trembling exertion, settling my jumpy mind, the energy lines became more distinct, like stars in a darkening sky.

Why’d it take me so long to notice?

* * *

The third day on the river, we paddled into the heat of midday, then beached the canoe on a mudflat. After slogging through the mud to dry land, we hiked a winding trail through the verge of willows and beetle-killed tamarisks. We made our way up a low cliff to some ruins – a couple of ancient granaries nestled under a high outcropping of sandstone. After a bit, I climbed out along the same shelf, looking for more. Dad stayed behind, sitting at the base of a pictograph of hand outlines in spattered white – an adult-sized right and left, and a child-sized right and left, the child’s right hand missing the fourth finger. I strayed upcanyon for longer than I’d planned, finding no other ruins in that direction, returned and then struck out around the other side of the promontory. Eventually, I worked my way back to the pictograph and my Dad. He’d been sitting quietly there, noticing. And in noticing, he’d found pottery shards, white flint chips – things I’d never seen.

* * *

Yoga was my first introduction to meditation.

Or rather my second, as I’d noticed the unusually clear and lucid mind-focus that arises in rock climbing years earlier. Though the word “meditation” carries so much baggage that it’s hard to believe anyone ever actually ventures to try it out, it really just starts with noticing. Yoga’s like that too, after you get started; not a thing to be completed – more of a practice. After you get the pose instructions more or less settled into your body, yoga’s first the intention, then the motion into a pose, the awareness and noticing while in the pose, the new intention, and the motion out of the pose into some other. Intention, body, motion, and awareness.

And awareness is subject to an awful lot of refining. The more you persist at it, the finer the details that become evident.

Like my Dad’s seeing the pottery shards and flint chips on the ground where I saw only gravel.

With time, through dozens of dozens of dozens of repetitions, those energy axes of Virabhadrasana 2 settled into my awareness.

And for kicks, I’ve tried variants of the pose that mess with those lines and aligns. And I got what I got – a sense of the absence of alignment, the tension of not being in that posture, that way, that Tao.

Like turning my body square to the flow of the river. Opposing energy directions, rather than aligning with them.

It isn’t a sin.

It’s just turning counter to the river’s flow – it’s being out of alignment. To my sense now, it feels incomplete, like an [url=]unresolved augmented seventh chord.[/url] Sometimes, the best part of a piece of music is the tension of that unresolved chord, the awareness of mind patterns and cravings that it apocalypses. Sometimes, it’s the whole: the engendering of tension in the quadriceps strength of a deeply lunged knee, or the evershifting balance of the grounded leg in dancer’s pose, or the just-this-side-of-painful ache of extended hamstrings in a seated forward bend, all resolving to stability: the lunged leg straightening, the balance calming as the second foot reaches the earth, the hamstrings releasing as the torso rises out of the forward bend.

Once we know where to find light and where to find dark, we can begin to draw.

Once we know the lines of energy in our skin and thoughts and muscle and intention and organs and bones and emotions and sinews, we can begin to practice yoga.

* * *

The assemblage of atoms and molecules and proteins and structures and energy of a human stands at the edge of the Colorado River, breathing quietly and seeing a slow-to-retire bat dancing on the ripples of air above the river that itself reflects the bat’s silhouette against a brightening sky and fading stars. The human feet press into the riverwet sand, connected to the grains by the plunging shape of gravity-carved space, twisting itself toward matter. The human feels simply a draw earthward, and shifts his weight slightly, realigning the sensed mass of his body to the vertical planes of femurs and spine, which changes, ever so slightly, the shape of space that he is.