My teacher introduced me to the word “practitioner” in the context of Yoga. I like the word practitioner because it is a reminder that Yoga is about constant practice. The vulnerabilities of mind and body are in–here-nt as long as I have a mind and a body. There doesn’t seem to be a remedy for or release from these vulnerabilities. There does seem to be a potential for learning to better live with them. A continuous and earnest practice reminds me to be attentive to my vulnerabilities.
When I first started Yoga I was ambitious. I wanted to achieve progress (I suppose that being younger also had something to do with it). Ambition led to a quality of pushing that I mentioned in the previous journal entry. The first “play yoga” years demonstrated to me that pushing was not effective. Back then, the pushing was physical (trying harder to bend, stretch, pull, push), and in retrospect, pushing placed me on a path of collision with my body. I learned that when intend to push my body responds with anticipation and braces (tenses) for it. The very thought “I am going to push” turns out to be counterproductive.
Then, when I started practicing with my teacher she introduced me to breathing and breath has a lot to say about pushing. If I push my inhale too far, the exhale that follows collapses. If I push my exhale too far, the inhale that follows is fast and sharp. If I push “just a little bit” it may take another breath or two for the effect to show itself. The feedback from breath is quick and unforgiving and does not tolerate pushing. Yet, breath does grant me an intimate sense of agency since I can consciously manipulate my breathing. Breath is a benevolent and fierce teacher.
Over decades of practice & life mingling and informing each other I’ve witnessed a subtle change in attitude emerge in me:
- Pushing -> Noticing: I came to recognize that pushing does not lead to desirable outcomes.
- Noticing -> Inquiry: I was left wondering what could be an alternative to pushing.
- Inquiry -> Discernment: I learned to recognize my limits which meant I could “place” the impulse to push, I recognized that pushing was triggered when I approached my limits.
- Discernment -> Graduality: I learned to avoid triggering pushing by gradually approaching my limits instead of colliding with them (or stumbling into them).
- Graduality -> Softness: a gradual approach revealed to me that softness worked better for me (this is an almost opposite quality to pushing). Instead of crashing into my limits I could approach them softly.
- Softness -> Appreciation – I was (still am) in awe that softness can be effective. I realized that “progress” is not something I can do, not something over which I have direct agency. Accepting that progress was not up to me made me appreciate the mystery of whatever it is that does get better.
- Appreciation -> Trust: Something (within me?) seemed to be working reliably for me (as long as I didn’t get in the way by pushing my own agenda). I felt a growing trust towards whatever that may be.
- Trust -> Acceptance: Trust (in? myself?) allowed me to relax into whatever was present. If my spine felt stiff, I no longer tried to unstiffen it. Instead, I settled into practicing with a stiff spine, trusting that whatever can be resolved will be resolved (not by me, at least not directly).
- Acceptance -> Presence: in recent years I have experienced that when I fully accept how I am in the present moment, if I surrender any desire to be different, even to be better … that (by deduction) I am left with a quality of presence. This shedding of obstacles (desires) is not ideological, it comes from an embodied experience (from lots of trying and failing) that shows me that they simply don’t work.
This is where I currently am, it is a subtle shift that is hard to put into words. I feel less inclined to even mentally “label my spine as stiff.” I am practicing with my spine as it is. The framing is shifting from “I am limited” to “I am the way I am” right now, or maybe even “I am my limitations.” I feel like I am more inclined to inhabit myself and less inclined to label or generate a mental image that is always slightly distant and removed from myself. Sometimes I encounter an emotional echo of feeling defeated. That, I believe, is a devious manifestation of aspiration stubbornly trying to dominate.
Sometimes I am lucky and I am left with a silent presence. It is a subtle quality. I can lift my arms, straighten my spine, exhale deeply, I can generate sounds … there’s a lot it seems I can Do. Presence is not on that list. At best, I can try to recognize and recreate the conditions in which presence is more likely to occur.
This is especially true now, as I write these words. I am in my yearly allergy cycle. My eyes are itchy, my breath disturbed and my legs tired. For a decade (since living in Romania, closer to nature and encountering allergy) I’ve been exploring this transformation (from pushing to presence) in my relationship with allergy. I have shifted away from relating to allergy as something bothersome that needs to be cured or even understood. I have shifted towards accepting that this is how I am when the Elderflower and Acacia trees flower. THIS transformation, from “fixing something broken” to inhabiting “something that is” seems (the experiment is still ongoing) to be softening and easing my allergy symptoms. The peak period of symptoms seems to be shorter. The symptoms seem to be less severe. The daily recovery and overall recovery seem to be faster.
My experience has been that pushing beyond my limitations is counterproductive. I have learned that softly inhabiting my limitations is a path to whatever lies beyond them. Be it bending my spine, slowing my breath or reducing allergy symptoms, the turning point seems to be acknowledging and fully inhabiting my limitations … myself! I have in mind an image of a membrane that resists water pressure but allows water through by osmosis. It is almost as if the act of pushing against the membrane IS what defines and creates the membrane. If instead of pushing through I slowly flow through, it is as if the membrane is not there at all.
Can it be that deliberately responding to my limitations with slow, gradual, attentive movement dissolves the limitations?
Practice, practice, practice.