Upside down, on purpose.

Dear Cheapskate Readers: Sorry it’s been a little while – the summer got away from me a bit, and I have been working incessantly on the Giant Nonfiction Manifesto on Art, Technology, Politics, Gardening, Spirit, and Attention, of which you have all been reading bits and pieces here for some time.  In memory of B.K.S. Iyengar, who just might be the greatest yoga teacher in the world, and who passed away at age 95 this week, I’m going to share an excerpt from this book-in-progress (now in its third, totally overhauled draft!) on what Iyengar yoga has meant to me.

Iyengar practicing head balance (in 1993, at age 75) with students.
B.K.S. Iyengar (center) practicing head balance (in 1993, at age 75) with students.

Over what’s now five years of practicing it, I have found that Iyengar yoga reaches as thoroughly into the interrelation of self, emotion, and body as art does – it, too, is a craft, demanding of body and attention. The point is to align your body properly in a pose and stay there, adjusting by knowledge and by feel, then see what comes up from inside. It’s not about weight loss, “toning,” or even “religion” – it’s about a very, very old practice of using your body to tune into what’s really happening in your mind.

During yoga class one day, we moved through a series of standing poses – uttita trikhanasana, uttita parsvakanasana, parsvotanasana – involving not only strong work with the legs but a strong emphasis on keeping our shoulders back and twisting our bodies to open and raise our chests. In uttita parsvakanasana in particular – body in a deep lunge, one leg extended and one leg bent, one arm stretched down and one up and overhead – I was twisting my torso and ribs upward to look at the ceiling and extending both legs out and down and into the floor, more deeply and correctly than I ever remember doing before. My whole body was active. And I wasn’t really thinking about anything. Near the end of class, we did some deep, seated forward bends, and when I straightened up, an unnameable, inescapable wave of sadness flattened me. For the last few minutes of class I could only lie still, hoping the other students didn’t see the tears leaking down my face. Was it Person X? Was it Recent Emotional Disappointment Y? Was it a voice from some chamber of pain or guilt or doubt or loneliness I don’t even know how to touch directly? I don’t know. When we talked about it later, my teacher wasn’t surprised, with all the chest- and heart-opening poses we’d been doing. “People think the heart is where we hold love,” she said, “but it’s actually where we hold pain, and sadness.” Twisting, bending, and staying there, then moving to take a different position and go at it again, will wring emotion up out of your body as thoroughly as two hands on a rag, twisting one direction and then another to get the whole cloth evenly, lightly damp, nearly dry. It will make you clear of emotion without being clean of it, aware of what has been, or maybe still is, living in you, even if you can’t give it a name.   And that’s a good thing.

It may be best to talk about how yoga works for me by talking about one of the poses I struggle with the most – head balance, or salamba sirsasana. Head balance is pretty advanced. It’s something I never thought I’d do. And the first time I tried it, this year (after having practiced yoga for almost five years) it seemed not only impossible but terrifying.

To go into head balance, you kneel on the floor and make a triangle with your forearms and interlinked hands on the floor, resting your knuckles against the wall if, like me, you’re not yet a freestanding head-balancer. You nestle your head into your hands so that the back of your skull fits against your fingers and the crown of your head is in full contact with the floor, pointing straight down. Then you rise on your toes, straighten your legs, and walk your feet slowly toward your now-upside-down face. Your hips rise into the air and more and more weight comes onto your head and your shoulders, which you should keep lifting up to counterbalance the pressure. You walk your feet forward a little more. And then – I can’t say exactly how this happens, even though it took me so long to figure it out – you kick your legs upward, one leg slightly in front of the other, and bring them to rest against the wall. (If you are more advanced, you can bend both knees, lift both bent legs up together, then straighten your legs, but that’s harder.) Now you are upside down, your body’s whole weight supported by the triangle of your shoulders and arms. The work is to keep straightening and lifting your spine and your shoulders – asking them to reach up rather than sink down to bear the weight, so that you don’t collapse onto your neck and your head – and straighten the rest of your body without clenching it. And then – in the phrase that can strike you as infuriatingly casual when you are trying to do it – you hang out in head balance for a while.

Needless to say, you do not try any of this without proper training over time and preparation within the class session itself – we always do a few poses that point our heads downward before we do head balance – because you could really hurt yourself. Of course, you could also hurt yourself or your teacher or fellow students when you first try head balance – swinging your legs up only to have them fall back down, kicking backwards like a panicked mule, afraid you’ll topple over on your neighbor. This was me. I tried.  I fell.  I cussed under my breath. Suddenly I was caught in my old childhood humiliation at being the one kid who never could figure out how to kick up high enough to do a cartwheel. I was seldom allowed, then, to forget that I was a “fat kid” – tall and alienated from the body at which I seldom felt more than fury and shame. I couldn’t grab a horse’s mane and swing up bareback. I couldn’t jump. I could, when I was fifteen or sixteen working our haying crew in the summer, snatch a square bale by the strings, heave it almost completely over my head, and pitch it up into the loft to be caught and stacked by the boys. I look at pictures of myself now and think, You weren’t “fat.” But when you can’t fit into the cute miniskirts and tops all the popular girls are wearing, and your feet are so large that you have to wear crepe-soled nurse’s shoes (the only shoes anywhere in town that’ll fit you), what consolation is your reliable body’s humble, quiet strength? If you can’t do a cartwheel, if no boy ever looks at you, how can you ever feel what it must be like to fly, to feel all your heaviness – inside and out – just lift away?

Eventually my yoga teacher took pity on me and helped lift my legs into position; then I was doing head balance at last. Except I wasn’t. Head canted back at the wrong angle, neck stressed, I felt flooded with a sense of total panic. I was upside down, all my blood rushing to my head, my face breaking out in cold sweat, my shirt slithering inexorably down to reveal my never-shown-in-public-ever stomach. I dropped down and huddled with my forehead to the floor, breathing hard, unable to move for fear. I couldn’t imagine ever doing that again. Something all through my body was shrieking you’re going to DIE!

Of course, as I came to learn, that is exactly the reason you do head balance – because when you do it carefully and in the correct way, it helps your body and your mind learn that contrary to their first reactions under stress, you are not going to die, that fear may come but it is a temporary thing, and that even in a stressful situation you can still learn to pay attention to what’s actually happening, not only what your mind is telling you is happening.   Head balance rubs this knowledge into deep, deep levels of your nervous system and your self-awareness, and it’s not until you find yourself able to stay calm and not freak out in a stressful situation off the mat that you realize how deeply it’s soaked in, like some kind of really good Vitamin E hand cream. You get nervous or angry or start to lose your temper at work or in a conversation and something inside you puts a calming hand on your arm, just lightly: Calm down. This isn’t really as important as it feels to you right now. You’re not going to die, the danger isn’t real. Calm down and observe what about this situation is real.

I am still working on being able to hold head balance properly and for longer than, say, a minute and a half. But interestingly, I can’t quite remember how not to kick up: I go through the motions, I get close enough to the wall, I do the kick, and my legs seem to float up on their own. (Neuroscientist Douwe Draaisma writes that the present appearance of our loved ones can supplant and erase earlier memories of how they looked; similarly, doing a pose more correctly tends to help you forget how to do it wrong and helps you to do it even more correctly.) Once up, I try to keep my shoulders lifted and run through the rest of the body to see what needs to be straightened out or ungripped. (Pose to pose, yoga is helping me get over my own version of the unconscious, highly Freudian, and culturally omnipresent type-A WASP conviction that the whole world will remain upright on its axis as long as I personally keep my shoulders and buttocks as tightly clenched as possible.) When I feel panic or some other emotion, I remind myself: You’re just upside down. You’re not going to die.  And often, that emotion subsides.

This is a skill for life, it’s a skill and practice of the spirit – don’t be hounded by your emotions, obedient to and driven by them and whatever imaginary stories they lead you to tell. Be able to stop and look at them – like little Danny Torrence in Stephen King’s The Shining, shouting at the Overlook Hotel’s ghosts “False face! Not real!” – and evaluate them for what they are. This goes for actions, too, as yoga teacher Judith Lasater wrote upon B.K.S. Iyengar’s death (at age 95) this year: “Mr. Iyengar challenged me; he challenged everyone he ever taught to create a habit of reflection, then action, reflection then action, over and over again while practicing. He wanted us to never stop noticing how our actions affected the pose, our nervous system, our mind, the world.”[1] I know without a doubt that yoga has been an essential part of the ongoing process of growth and thought and prayer and reaching for the invisible realities I know to be true that has helped me do that. And I have learned it not just in my mind but in my body, which is always there to remind the mind, gently, remember, you are not in here to face the world alone. I’m here too. And I know more than you sometimes want to think.


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