In January, I will be teaching a workshop on the hidden stories of the body, working with Jenny Otto, my yoga teacher and friend who is a brilliant body worker. Every discomfort, every dysfunction of the body is a mystery to be unlocked to her. She is a body detective, a tracking the paths muscles and nerves and bones take, unraveling old patterns and structural quirks to reveal blocks and the true source of pain.
My part in this “Body Talk” workshop will be to help others give voice to the body, to make conscious those life habits and thoughts that we carry in our bones. We will be cartographers of this flesh and blood map of our lives, attempting to understand better how our experiences – our thoughts, beliefs, hopes, despair, love, losses, delights- are embodied in this beautiful instrument that is our most constant and faithful companion.
These past few months, planning the workshop, I have been trying to listen to my own body, observing how I react physically to being a physical being. It’s all there in the way I walk and sit and move. My body is mute, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t communicating constantly. If I pay attention, I can feel the effects on it when life throws me onto the mat and also when it delights me. I can begin to see how this body sustains me, gives me joy and feeds me the sensual smorgasbord of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell.
My meditative practice starts by observing the body. When you’re “sitting” (what us Zen practitioners call meditation practice), it’s impossible to ignore your posture. My habit of slouching is not a new revelation, but I have been pushing myself lately to pay attention to the entirety of how I sit. And this is what I have discovered: In general, I am a collapser – my entire upper body bows sightly forward, ribs sinking into waist, shoulders rounded, neck bent forward, head following that forward and down trajectory (chin up, I remind myself). My lower spine- from tailbone behind the lower ribs – collapses, too, fiving in to the soft belly that tips me entire lower back forward. What little support I give myself!
The collapsing is a reaction to a lifetime of trying to stay upright through decades of gale force winds. A tree can bend and snap back, but if the winds are constant, the tree grows at an angle. It is its way of surviving. My fallback is falling, collapsing into myself. It is the position of giving in and giving up, But I also have to honor that it is a position of endurance. This is how I have survived. This determined little body has bowed, but is still standing. Still sitting. Still in the game.
When I catch myself in this fallback position and right my ship- head up, shoulders back, chest up, ribs up, belly and spine lined up and holding me up – I feel an immediate difference in my demeanor. I breathe in, deep, not the shallow breath of a collapsed body. I do know how to stand up for myself. My body tells me when I am not doing so. It is always telling me. And waiting for me to pay attention.
The word collapse came as a revelation to me as I write this. I have been feeling and sitting and standing collapsed in the wake of what I feel is an enormous tragedy for my country. I feel defeated and not sure how to stand up. But my body reminds me I do know how. Pull that head up, chin up. Shoulders back. Open your sternum wings, as Jenny once told our class – or at least that’s how I heard it – and so the wings come out. And the mind follows.
My body loves being upright. It wants to be there for me. Now I have to be there for it. Maybe today, that’s all I can do. Breathe and stand. Feel the earth under my feet and the sky above. Be there for my body. Be there for myself.