Summer is here, with its higher level of activity — and time for me to take two yoga classes a week instead of just one. Among yoga’s many benefits is a higher level of awareness of your body, what it is really asking you for when you eat or drink, what all that stress is really doing to you, and what it really needs (more rest, less stress, more walks.) This is true even if you don’t get to the level of the founder of the Iyengar school in which I practice, Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar of Pune, India. Here is Mr. Iyengar — in 1991, which would make him in his seventies at the time, since he’s now in his nineties, and still teaching! — filmed during his daily practice.
When I took my first yoga classes in graduate school, I thought, as so many of us do, that yoga is mainly about doing cool poses or “tricks,” that it’s about “being flexible,” that it’s about “getting a yoga body.” So many “instructors” overstretch you to get you to look like the pictures in the Athleta catalog or Yoga Journal (a surprising number of which, reliable sources tell me, are incorrect), or bounce you in and out of poses at a pace more suited to aerobics, which hurts you, distorts your body and the real physical and psychological benefits of yoga, and gives the whole practice a bad name. For these and other reasons, I tell everyone even thinking about yoga to look for a teacher with Iyengar certification, trained to focus on enabling your particular body to reach its fullest possible range of correct anatomical alignment and motion. My teacher, Mary Beth Gallant, uses a near-magical combination of patience, skill, matter-of-factness, encouragement, and props like blankets, bolsters, belts, and blocks to help every joint and muscle reach, and then increase, its proper alignment and range of motion, according to years of research and knowledge about how the body is really meant to work. She helps you do what you can with the body you have now, knowing that even the strengths you already have will continue to change and get better. I’ve been taking yoga at her studio in town for almost three years now and — building on the compassionate teaching I first received in graduate school from Scott Campbell — have been continually amazed at the positive changes unfolding in my body and, even more importantly, my mind. Yoga is about deep change over the long term – and boy, is it deep. It goes with and deepens every spiritual practice or faith you may already have, and helps you live a better life, in every aspect of your life — especially your understanding of and patience with others – every day. Doubts, fears, changes, challenges, unexpected things that every life contains – things that used to just whipsaw me I can now view with, if not perfect calm, at least with a sense of equanimity, the knowledge that “it’s not always going to feel this way” and that by taking the time to calm down and look at facts – not only feelings – I can decide on ways to take action and control what I can while releasing what I can’t. Hard to describe. But real.
So one of the ways you proceed in yoga, as in life, as in writing, is by asking, “what is this really about?” What’s the root of this emotion that’s coming up during this pose – where in my body have I been storing it? (Sounds weird, but the connection between emotion and body is real, and yoga reinforces it. In times of sadness, for instance, forward bends tend to bring up and thus expunge at least some of that feeling. I’ll never forget when, during one of Scott’s classes in grad school – at an otherwise anxious time – I balanced successfully on both hands in “crow pose” for all of two or three seconds before tumbling forward and somersaulting like a baby, laughing with total surprise and spontaneity. You learn that if you fall, you will be okay, maybe even laughing.) Yoga helps you ask the right questions and lean forward into uncertainty with acceptance, even if the “any amount” you can achieve at that time is only a small amount. Change does come. And it is real.
One of the questions yoga is helping me ask, now, is “why, despite all these classes, am I still holding on to this (ahem) tummy flab I have?” Yeah, you get to be in your mid-…late…thirties (ahem) and you do find your metabolism slowing down. The effects of not exercising more vigorously (in particular) really show up. And this has been a year of exercise-precluding stress which even yoga classes have not prevented from bringing back some extra tummy and thigh flab, my recurrent problem. I used to joke that my body, shaped by eons of evolutionary imperatives, was speaking to me in some commonsensical, Southern-matriarchal voice: “now, listen, honey, come the apocalypse, when you are still havin’ to feed and bear that Last Child on Earth, you are gonna be GLAD you’ve got that little somethin’ extra.” My friends and I used to call that part of ourselves the “marsupial pouch” for just that reason. It’s good to be proud of your strength and your substance, the muscles that carry and propel you, the height that lets you lift your head proudly and see a long way. Perfection isn’t just mythical, it’s boring.
And yet I know, too, that the body like the brain holds onto things it does not need as well as those it does. So, I walked home after yoga class this morning feeling a renewed nudge to lose my Extra Around the Waist and Thighs, and this time, shaped by all I have learned then and now, it was coming in the form of a question: What is that substance still holding on underneath my skin? What is in it? Really? Yeah, the first answers that occur are negative ones, but what if there are positive things in there too? Might this help me keep getting rid of it without freaking out or feeling bad? Might talking about it, not being ashamed, and sharing it with other people who are asking the same questions help? Maybe so.
So, let’s ask: what is that flab? What is that Ring of Extra? What is in the surplus stores? What, literally, are you still carrying with you under your skin, and what changes if you name it?
— The cortisol-induced residue of too many days spent shuttling from home to desk to classroom back to desk and then into the car because it is too cold or you are too busy to drive, all the time carrying at least fifteen identifiable separate insecurities, resentments, anxieties, to-do lists, and angers, some of which are useful and most of which are not. Just about all of that translates, literally and directly, into fat. Which part of the tummy ring is an old anger at this person? That person? That old hurt, that anxiety? That bad day, bad week, bad month? That uptick in blood pressure, still carried like a pebble in each cell?
— The homemade peach and creme-fraiche pie you ate happily with this man and the six-pack of lard-frostinged yellow grocery-store cupcakes you scarfed, alone, because of that one. Remember the desolate sight of that plastic cupcake container in the trash, a “treat” that only made you feel worse, and the satisfying sight of two china plates and silver forks in the sink, waiting to be washed after a meal cooked and shared with attention and care. Linen napkins in the grass. Aren’t the good food moments and the bad ones always still here in your body, no matter how many years have passed?
— The times someone you loved hurt you and instead of telling them how you felt, or admitting even to yourself how you felt, you reached for food to stop the hole out of which that voice was threatening to speak. Why is that food always, in your memory, fat and white? Biscuits with butter, eaten cold. Grocery store cupcakes: see above. So part of what’s still holding on under your skin is protection against those emotions, isn’t it? Numbing, cotton-wool-swaddling? A literal bulwark? Except it never really protects you, does it? Better to give it up. The world still brushes against your skin, alive, languaging, evoking, every moment of every day. Feel it. Feel it. It will be there, regardless of how many layers you take upon yourself. It’ll still be there.
— Beer. Pay attention to the fact that it doesn’t feel that great to drink beer anymore, unless you are sitting on a river sandbar on a hot day after having hauled 61 tires, four old steel milk cans, and uncounted scraps and bits and bottles and cans and trash out of the river. But that is a highly particular circumstance. 🙂
— Too much of good things. It is possible to eat a little too much of your good organic homegrown homemade food too – the line between pleasure and oversatiation is so fine — even though you are sooooo much better than you used to be about eating quality, real food. Really, it’s all about time. You don’t always have to rush away from the table and do something else – for longer than you know, you’ve had this habit of eating too fast. Eat slowly and appreciate your food, one bite at a time – especially if you grew it, and it is giving you its good green life.
— Not listening. Years of not listening are piled up in those cells, aren’t they? Mindless reaching for one more chip or one more drink or one more piece of candy at your desk instead of listening to the right answers your body will give you if you tune in, patiently. Water, not food. A piece of fruit rather than a piece of jacked-up sugar junk. A few spoonfuls of honest-to-God dessert rather than some fake “lite” shit out of a plastic package that will not fool your body at all. Ignoring the little voices that say something in your life, in your world, needs to change, doesn’t it? We need sidewalks here. I need to get out of my car. I need to listen. I need to go outside and get away from this desk. Even if only for a minute.
And yet. What’s in those cells, in that tummy ring, is also fuel, literally and figuratively, for change, for transformation and growth, if we can look at it and know it for what it is, and what it might become.
To look, to see, to name, to know. That is where change begins.