Monday, October 24, 2011

The Gita

Picture the battle that stands before Prince Arjuna. With both sides ready to raise arms and fight, Arjuna lays his weapons down. He cannot stand to watch father, brother, teacher, and son fight and kill each other. Lord Krishna then convinces the prince to go into battle by discussing Wisdom and Action. I chose to look at Arjuna's dilemma in an allegorical sense. It seems as if the actual physical battle is not between men at all but rather a single man's battle between ignorance and enlightenment, between what he has known as truth and what he is being shown as truth. As Arjuna surveys the battle field from his chariot he sees people he knows, people he would not want to see die and says he'd rather be killed than any of their blood be shed. Think of this in another light. Arjuna has a fundamental decision to make. He can continue in a path of ignorance or enter the path of wisdom and correct knowledge. He can leave his life the way it is or choose to pursue something different. The battle then becomes one inside himself; one where he wants to choose to lie down and do nothing rather than deal with the presentation of a new path. He thinks it better to be overcome with ignorance than to accept knowledge. The imagery of his kinsmen to me represent a connection to the past; a connection to a previous way of life and a previous way of thinking. The battle than becomes one aimed at resorting to this old way of doing life or pursuing the path of the new one.

I very well could have missed the mark on my interpretation and think I may have but let's go with it for a minute. These chapters remind me of that point in my university career where new ideas, new paths emerged and conflicted heavily with what I had been taught to be true. I can remember sitting in World Cultures III as a sophomore contemplating the nature of God and watching the towers of knowledge I had built for myself crumble at the feet of  Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor and Unamuno's San Manuel Bueno. These were not particularly easy ideas to wrestle with and sent me down an increasingly difficult path.  At times I wanted to lay down (and still do) and let my old convictions consume me but always someone wiser would point me back to the path of wisdom in the same way Lord Krishna does with Arjuna.

At this juncture between correct and incorrect knowledge, between ignorance and enlightenment the deciding factor becomes  self knowledge. Krishna speaks of freeing the self from desire, of finding happiness in the self, and being content with nothing but the self. These things create a union between the individual and the divine, between the temporal and the everlasting. The goal of man should be to abide within his Self and be satisfied. Until one reaches this point  the battle continues to rage.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Waking Pt. 2 and 3


                The story picks up in part two with Matt headed back home to Duluth. Home, Matt didn’t know what that meant anymore. Everything had changed. The last time he had been home his sister and his father had been alive, he had been able to walk up the stairs to his room, and he was just a normal thirteen year old boy with thirteen year old problems. He had been dealt a different hand and now he had to learn how to live with it. His rehabilitation pertained to more than just his body; he had to relearn his identity. The boy travelling home from his Aunt’s house who got went into the accident had been long gone and replaced with one who had suffered immensely.
                During this time several different potential role models came into his life. None of them had a life that Matt wanted to emulate. They each seemed to represent different limitations to him. One man had children for instance, but had had them before he became a paraplegic. Another one found his new life in wheelchair sports but that didn’t seem to interest Matt.  He needed to find his own way. For any non-paraplegic this is difficult so imagine how difficult it would be with the added problem of having no feeling below your chest. Being a teenage boy is difficult enough. As he grew up Matt seemed to deal well with his problems. He had friends and girlfriends and went out.
                The conflict of his journey picks up. He has to reclaim the connection between his mind and his body that the accident separated him from.  He has to address the silence and the darkness that has overtaken the bottom half of his body. He uses this intricate analogy of darkness, light, and silence to illustrate his feeling of loss. He began to question the therapist’s insistence on his arms and his wheelchair being compensation for the darkness that pervaded his lower half. He didn’t want to ignore the darkness but to live with it, work with it.
For a while he worked against the silence in his lower half. He ignored as best he could the fact that his legs didn’t work. He describes these years as “an attempt to live a normal life despite the traumatic rupture I experienced between my mind and body.” (p.143) How does one live a normal life without the use of their legs? He just ignored his whole lower half. That’s pretty significant. Imagine the mental strain that would require to, in his words, work against the silence. As he did he describes his outlook on the world as becoming increasingly negative.  How couldn’t it? This negative view of the world brought him to a place unfamiliar to him. The happy kid who always had a smile on his face had been replaced with a cynical college student. He couldn’t ignore the silence any longer.
As I read these metaphors, these images of light and darkness and that feeling of silence took on meaning for me. I’m not a paraplegic and have no similar problem but feel as if we all might have these spots of darkness or silence that we hide away and pretend don’t exist. Reading this in the midst of the beginning of my own yoga journey while concurrently being introduced to the Yoga Sutras paints these problems as the vritti of memory. Darkness and silence exists in areas of my own memory keep me from seeing my true self in the same way that Matt’s inability to accept his condition kept him from seeing his true self. It’s hard to describe what I felt while reading this section. I felt sympathetic to Matt’s condition and it forced me to look at aspects of my own life where I may have been holding myself back or allowing darkness to pervade. This section didn’t necessarily inspire me but rather pointed me towards my own shortcomings that I’ve ignored. It wasn’t particularly comfortable but helpful.

Yoga, Bodies, and Baby Boys

                The previous section ends with the line “It is the time for yoga.” Matt has begun his yoga journey. He has found the alternate path that will lead him to once again experience the mind body connection. He finally has found a way to experience the sensations in his body that he has been missing out on. As he begins doing yoga he gains self-confidence. One of the first problems he has to address is how to get from his chair to the floor. He uses a blue velvet chair in his living room that sat just lower than his chair but low enough for him to use it to transfer from his wheelchair to the floor. This small victory does wonders for him. He’s out of the wheel chair, on the floor, and in a position to experience the mind body connection that had been eluding him since he was thirteen. He makes a particularly poignant statement at this point. “Finding the floor and a way back is healing. It may sound too simple, too easy to lift a damaged heart. But most of our shackles are invisible.” That last line haunted me for days. Most of our shackles are invisible. What does that mean? The things that hold us back usually cannot be pointed out by anyone except ourselves. The fluctuations in our own minds keep us from reaching our own potentials or seeing our own selves as we truly are.
                Matt’s journey has brought him to yoga but not without setbacks. Yoga does not prove to be an instant cure all for him but rather a life style that has odd ways of teaching him lessons. While working on one of the few poses he could do, dandasana, he hurts something in his neck and his body goes numb. Unexpectedly this injury plays into his healing story. The metal rod in his back is removed. Once he recovered and began his yoga practice again he broke his femur doing padmasana. He had been trying to push his body too far too soon and the violence of the encounter taught him a hard lesson. For eighteen months he couldn’t practice yoga. He had only been practicing for a short time and now had to take a year and half break. This however, taught him the importance of nonviolence in his practice; to not push himself beyond his means but rather patiently work towards achievements. As I was reading this section of the book we had just become doing shoulder stands and headstands in our practice. One day at home I decided that a five minute shoulder stand would be no problem and so I set a timer and held that shoulder stand five minutes. Five minutes happened to be about a minute and half longer than I had held that pose ever and I sure felt it the next day. I had bowling class the next day and could barely swing my arm. My story isn’t as intense as Matt’s but I still somewhat understand what he felt.
                As his Yoga practice took shape his personal life did as well. The poses he practice helped reconnect his mind to his body. He could feel his confidence increase as he got deeper into poses. Yoga helped him see glimpses of his true self and realize his true desires. He got married and had twin boys. Life has not been without its suffering however. One of his boys died in the womb. Nothing in life can prepare someone for something so horrible. His yoga practice allowed him to view this in a better light. “There are moments in life when it becomes necessary to do something more, when strength is no longer the question, but only what needs to be done.” (244) His journey into yoga allows him to view life and death in a new light. Since the accident death has been a specter hanging over his head while life hung by the wayside. He began to see the two as existing concurrently. As we live we move towards death.
                Rather than taking the lessons he learned from his journey and keeping them to himself, Matthew, as did the characters in How Yoga Works, directed his compassion towards others. He teaches classes for disabled people and continually tells his story about how Yoga restored his whole self. His story inspires and tugs at the heart strings. His memoir proved difficult to put down and at times shined a bright light deep into my own soul causing me to evaluate my own life. This book proved to be a perfect entrance into how much the practice of yoga can change the life of an individual. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Waking Pt. 1

Part One Trauma and Separation 
“Death and trauma reach through one’s life with stunning swiftness”

In 1978 thirteen year old Matthew Sanford began his healing journey. In a car accident that took the lives of his sister and father Matthew breaks his back and goes into a coma. His mother and brother survive with small injuries. After three and half days Matt wakes up and his journey begins. At the age of thirteen he is confronted with the fact that he will never walk again shortly after waking. He describes this as more than just bodily injury; his sense of living was under attack. How does anyone deal with something like this, let alone a thirteen year old? “I could not control what was going to happen, but I could control how I perceived my situation” (12) At this point he began on a path to healing; he began telling himself healing stories. His remaining family needed him to live and so despite the suffering he had and would continue to endure he had to press forward.
                Matt had lost the connection he had with his body. The injuries he had sustained could not be fixed but only dealt with. The hospital he had been taken to in Iowa could not properly deal with his injuries and upon recommendation of one of Matt’s nurses his mother demanded he be moved to a hospital more equipped with dealing with these injuries. The move itself would be risky and could prove fatal in his current state but they moved him anyways so he could find better care. Death looms over his family and over himself and although he acknowledges it he avoids it. As Matt describes it this accident did not happen to just him and not just to his family but to a connected group of people, a community. People come together to support his recovery; his mother, brother, aunt, his father’s friend, and his sister’s boyfriend.
During this time Matt has a great deal of time to contemplate his life up until this point and then his life as it stands. In a particularly poignant chapter Matt asks “Which family were we?” referring to a deeper eternal question. “…which family were we? An average one from small cities who happened into some bad luck; or were we never average and always headed down that embankment?”   And then on a more personal level “… has my life been a preparation for itself?” He starts to unravel this basic human desire to connect the randomness that defines our condition. He sees these events from the past several years of his life as a form a foreshadowing to this event. A friend of his brother’s had a dream their family would be in an accident, Matt commented ironically on being paraplegic that he’d rather be dead less than a month before the accident, and his sister became wrapped up in this stanza from a poem:

Remember me,
As I do you,
With all tenderness
Which it is possible for one

These seemingly random events added up to something. But conversely had the accident not occurred they would mean nothing. The pattern of thinking that he brought up at this point affected me. I’ve often thought of the events in my own life and have really wanted to make sense of them by believing they point towards something greater. It makes dealing with the situations life presents easier but at the same time could it be true? Could the events of today be preparing us for later events in our lives? For Matt decisions that he made growing up and while dealing with his new life in a wheelchair molded his path. His actions even as a young kid set him apart. He tells a story of how his mother would rub his back as a child and he would reach back and rub hers back. A traditional path to healing would not be in the cards for Matt because he did not fit that mold and could not journey down that path.
                The details of Matt’s suffering as they apply more aggressive forms of treatment are haunting. As he describes the feeling of receiving his first full body plaster cast my mind goes blank. I cannot begin to imagine the pain that he might be feeling in that moment. I cannot fathom his suffering. Through this experience Matt learns how to disconnect from his body and bring his mind to another place. Learning how to dissociate himself from the pain becomes key as he continues through his healing story. Each day he has to be introduced again to his broken body, one he does not know and cannot get used to. At the end of this section he gets introduced to his first wheelchair and can barely sit in it. His “giant leap forward” out of the bed and into the chair feels anticlimactic and discomforting. This isn’t his body he feels. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

One more thing....

.... There was an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday about Yoga. I put the link below if you are interested.

and there was another interesting one today:


I practice yoga most days. I'm fairly certain that had I not been injured earlier this semester I would not have chosen to do yoga as much as I do. It just happened to be one of the only means of physical activity I can still do. I'm really glad I've been set down this path though. I've began to notice subtle changes in my thinking, my actions, and my interactions with others. I've also been spending a greater amount of time reflecting. When in a resting pose or upside down for several minutes I tend to think through the day that has passed and interactions I've had. On several occasions after coming out of head stand or shoulder stand I've had moments of clarity where the vrittis seem stilled, if only for a moment. For instance this Wednesday I came home after a long day of class and meetings feeling frustrated and worn out. I spent some time being angry and my mind was racing with negative thoughts. Rather than continue to let everything fester I realized I had a tool to deal with these fluctuations. I stood on my head and then stood on my shoulders before laying in shavasana. After coming out of the poses my mind was calmed and I gained some clarity on the situations that had frustrated me. I decided to change my mindset for the following day and ended up having one of the best days of the semester. Thanks yoga. 

This coming week however I won't be able to do anything. I'm a little frustrated by that already. I don't know how to not do anything. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Upside Down

In the first several weeks of class Dr. Schultz would mention how we are doing particular poses in preparation for headstand (sirsasana) and shoulder stand (sarvangasana). I remember thinking that those days were far far away and that more than likely those poses wouldn't be something I could do. Thankfully I underestimated myself or perhaps overestimated the difficulty of the poses. I have done sarvangasana most days since we learned it on Tuesday and have done several sirsasanas. I've been doing sarvangasana without the blankets supporting the shoulders as it is described in BKS Iyengar's Light on Yoga. It feels great and I leave the pose much more energized than when I entered it. I'm still iffy on sirsasana. Because I'm doing it myself I have very little idea if I'm doing it correctly. Is my body actually vertical? Am I too close to the wall? Do I even need the wall? I'm not confident in the pose yet. 

I've hit this point in my own practice where I can't decide whether or not to stick only to the poses I've been taught or to venture into unknown territory with Light on Yoga and other resources as a guide. We've learned more than enough poses in class to keep me occupied but I'm still curious. I'm also having trouble figuring out how long I'm supposed to hold certain poses and how many times I should do them in a given sequence. All in all however my practice has been going well. I feel the effects of yoga more and more each day.