Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Let's Be Pathological

I decided to go to a yoga class last night instead of playing handball. Originally, I'd thought to go to a 6:00 class at a different studio, with a teacher I've wanted to experience, but that studio is a pain transportation-wise, and I didn't feel like getting home at 8:30, because I wanted to make my mango peach chutney last night. So I went to a 4:00 class with a teacher about whom I knew nothing, at my usual studio. It was horrible. She talked way too much, without giving enough actual direction--chattering, it mostly was. We did very few asanas--I got more out of my walk over there than I did from a two-hour class. The directions she did give were sufficiently unclear such that I had to keep looking at her to figure out what the hell she meant (and we weren't doing any advanced poses--she wasn't doing anything unfamiliar, she was just explaining it badly). And, finally, she's apparently a student of a famous teacher who thinks that words like "the" and "your" distract from the teaching, so, instead of saying "Lift your left leg," she'll instruct "Lift leg" or "Lift left leg." Two hours of "tuck chin" and "raise arm" drives me batshit.

I've heard many good things about the famous teacher--Ana Forrest--from people other than her students and devotees, and the photos I've seen of her are quite beautiful. But second-generation teaching, well, it doesn't ring true to me. The two teachers with whom I take the most classes, plus a third from whom I used to take many classes, all have a personal style. They're very different, in many ways, but what they share is: (1) the ability to give clear directions about which asana is next and to sequence asanas in ways that help open the body; (2) the ability to give verbal instructions "within" an asana, that is, to provide deeper instruction about alignment and positioning for a particular asana; (3) a sense of humor; and (4) a sense of self. And that last one, well, that's the kicker, I think; that's the core from which many of the other things spring.

The first time I took a class with a Forrest student, I almost strangled him. He kept talking about finding your "area"--i.e., the place in your body where you've supposedly carried all the spiritual/psychological damage. He kept telling us to focus on our "areas," to release all of the toxins, blah, blah, blah. Jesus Christ in a birchbark canoe, I was ready to leap across the room and throttle him--which, I'm pretty sure, isn't what you're supposed to be doing in a yoga class. As a result, I avoid Forrest teachers like the plague, though I'll probably take a class with her sometime when she comes to town. So yesterday, when the teacher started leaving out words, I knew I was in trouble.

I think that what happens in yoga, and perhaps in any healing-related discipline, is that some of the people who come to it are not whole in some way, or they're looking for some kind of meaning, or they're looking to heal some emotional or psychological or spiritual hurt. (There are people looking to heal a physical hurt, too, but that's a different injury in some, but not all, ways.) The difficulties arise when someone makes the leap to assuming that everyone has such an injury, that everyone is damaged on some fundamental level. I remember going to a meeting when I worked for a substance abuse treatment agency and encountering someone from another agency who declared that "everyone has an addiction." I let it be, because I didn't feel like sidetracking the meeting, but, really, no, dude, you're wrong. Do bad things happen to all of us? Yes. Do we all make mistakes? Yes. Do we all have a little baggage? Yes, though I prefer that you stay under the two-carry-on limit. Are some people dealing with really weighty shit, like neglect or abuse? Yup--and I cannot in any way speak for that experience or know how one builds a sense of self that doesn't revolve around that horror. But, at least for some (many? I have no idea) of us, we do not have to be defined by the hurts we've experienced, and we do not have to spend our lives centered around those hurts. We may choose to do that, or we may get in the habit of doing that, or we may not have the resources necessary to make changes, or the damage may be so deep and lasting and the capacity to change may be so limited that it would be extremely difficult to do otherwise, but for most of us, we don't have to do that.

The way it's worked out for me, in yoga, is that I came to the practice as an adult--over 40, no less--with a pretty inflexible (if reasonably fit) body and, most people who know me would agree, a pretty strong self. I wasn't looking for Meaning, or Healing. I'm completely intrigued by the discipline, and the practice--I really enjoy learning how to do new things, and to be able to do something that can so immediately affect how I feel right this second. I like learning the philosophy, even if I don't believe (in) it. The bodily paradigm is interesting, in the same way that the TCM version of the body is interesting. And it's been interesting to me how much of the spiritual discipline, if you will, I already practiced in some way. That is, many people come to yoga searching for a means to still the lake of the mind, to focus, to relax, whatever--with "mind" intentions, if you will, and they have some belief that this physical, bodily practice will help them realize those mental intentions, heal the ethereal hurts. (And, in fact, yoga claims to do just that--use the body as a vehicle for enlightenment.) It's also possible to come at it with "body" intentions, more the way I did. Given the mind/body interconnection, however, it's bound to become a feedback loop. but I don't think these knowledges--of the mind, the body, the connection--are the be-all and end-all of it--I think they're a tool that one can use.

As one of my teachers says, the trick is to find one's own tadasana (Mountain Pose) wherever one is--and that act of (re)alignment helps one focus. You can't think of the realignment as being only in the body, or only in the mind--but once you've found center, you can move forward with a lot more balance and openness, and a lot less fear. Of course, that assumes that you can find center, that you can be balanced--not that you're inherently unbalanced. Basically, in the end, there's a subtle but important difference between (a) doing a lot of things because you're searching all over the place for Healing or Meaning, and (b) doing a lot of different things in your life and using your experiences, and a discipline of some kind, to deepen your knowledge and understanding.

7 Comments:

Blogger kStyle said...

I took a look at Forrest's web page; seems like she adds whole thick layer of New Age to the usual yoga philosophy. Still, I'd like to take her workshop on releasing hip, neck, and shoulder tension...

May I play Devil's Advocate? If the "release toxins from your emotional wound area" guy didn't strike *some* emotional nerve with you, why the extreme reaction? I don't yet buy that it was strictly philosophical...

8:34 PM  
Blogger Emma Goldman said...

Yeah, I challenged myself on that, too. But I really think it was just annoying, and distracted from the practice. I do think that practices/disciplines like yoga are tools--if some people can or want to use that toolset to work on psychological hurts, hey, I think it would probably be extremely useful for that. it's the assumption that the underlying body/self always has a pathology that I think actually causes further damage. Because, in that view, there's ALWAYS an "area." And, you know, sometimes you're better off letting something be for awhile.

The other thing--and I meant to say this more clearly, but didn't succeed--is that second-generation teachers, i.e., people who hew closely to someone else's style, especially when it's as distinctive a style as Forrest's, often seem to be wearing someone else's clothes. I think I would find it less annoying coming from Forrest herself, though the underlying-pathology assumption would still make me a little nuts. I remember not being surprised when I discovered, rummaging on her site, that she'd had some addiction issues. (that's neither good nor bad--it just "fit" for me.)

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