Photo: Oliver Delgado (a.k.a. teambo), Newark, DE, USA
This is your brain on self deception.
You just can’t get a real view of yourself by yourself, physically or energetically.
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Christmas Day 2009 I was sitting on a bed in the Bellevue ER with a sugar tong splint on my right arm. I was wearing a sling and a hospital gown.
I’d broken both bones of my wrist in an ice skating fiasco at Bryant Park, and because he was worried about nerve impingement, the doc was asking me to curl my fingers for him. If I could just do that, I’d be free to go home.
Having been in the emergency room for a few too many Santa Claus hours, I gave it my best shot. Squinting with effort, I closed my eyes, and concentrated until slowly the fingers bent. Relieved, I opened my eyes, only to drop my jaw at the sight of my four fingers standing absolutely straight out of the cast.
“Can you move them at all?” the doctor was asking.
“They didn’t move?” I was blinking in disbelief.
If I could have made a fist, I’d have rubbed my eyes.
I had a little more ER time to put in.
How things were meets how things are.
This reconciling of what seems to be and what “really is” happens to us all the time.
Almost everyone has done a double take when they see something unexpected, and lots of people have looked at a stranger across the room only to recognize themselves a moment later when they realize they are looking in a mirror.
When what our senses tell us doesn’t match our expectations, our brains may discard the news as unlikely, irrelevant, or too disturbing.
VS Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, says the the right and left halves of our brains deal with the same information in different ways. It’s as though we process everything, instantly, twice because the right and left sides have different tasks.
“The left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system,” says Ramachandran. To create a sense of stability, the left brain either ignores what doesn’t fit our current idea of things, or “squeezes” important truth from the new concepts until everything fits “into a pre-existing worldview.”
“Lying,” to ourselves says Ramachandran, is “a small price to pay for coherence.”
Wow. In yogic terms, that’s a hell of a theory.
Why yoga classes matter, big time
Fortunately for us, the right sides of our brains, “question the status quo.” The job of the right side hemisphere is to watch for those troubling and meddlesome “inconsistencies,” the very toads that plague our self satisfaction.
“Whereas the left hemisphere always tries to cling tenaciously to the way things were,” he points out, at a certain point, “the right side decides that it is time to force a revision.”
In order to incite the confidence your right brain needs for rebellion against your own old tired status quo, you need an experience of what Paramhansa Yogananda called “guruji” and Chogyam Trungpa called a spiritual friend. Someone who will look at that stylin’ peacock posture of yours with compassion and start your ass from scratch.
Without a view like my doctor’s in the ER, I might have convinced myself all was well when in fact, things were still pretty much a mess. When it comes to asana, it’s not that you can’t work deeply with yourself, it’s that you will helplessly define “deeply” where the waters don’t trouble your world view the way they should.
Good teachers bring on a new view of reality –
the “a ha” moment.
For years, most of my days began at 4:30.
I said good morning to the security guards at the retreat center where I worked, checked to see if anyone had phoned in sick, then headed off to practice on my own before teaching a 6:30 class.
I had the benefit of a wonderful studio with walls of mirrors. I was able to closely observe the correlation (and not infrequent lack thereof) between what it felt to me I was doing and what the reflection reported to my eyes.
Three, four, or five classes into my day, I was able to see how postures changed on my body over the course of getting limber, working deeper, and subte fatigue setting in. I was often surprised how differently my body felt from how I was actually moving. All to the good, yes?
Yes, and yet none of it was remotely as useful as standing in triangle for five minutes in a classroom with my Iyengar teacher
Kofi Busia, God bless his handsome self.
Kofi characteristically walks into the room in a comfy looking cardigan and corduroy trousers, greets his students warmly, and asks for a posture. We just start right in. He talks, we do postures. He looks. We do postures.
Time slows down. We do postures.
I remember Kofi once standing next to me for an eternity, then patiently beginning the next posture, jovially speaking one sentence that was an arrow that could not fail to find its mark. “Well, I think I got this yoga thing pretty well figured out.”
Things got considerably more honest after that.
And every posture, every posture, meant something new.
No book is a second pair of eyes
I have a couple yards of yoga books in my library.
The spines are creased, the pages are penciled in, sticky noted, and dogeared with use. I study and re-study details from placement of hands, feet, and limbs, to how a twist or the arch of a back is distributed from the tailbone to the neck.
There are times when the photographs of postures are boosts of clarity, inspiration, and pure energy.
I love my books.
Still I’m utterly confident. No book, no matter how well written or documented, is a second pair of eyes.
Go to class.
Wake up. Let the competency of someone whose call in life is to see bodies in motion look into the glass of yours, dear practitioner.
Throw off your left brain’s tyranny and wake up to the new world you already suspect exists.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.