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The truth and how we sense it
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
If, as in tantra, the body is regarded as a divine palace and the result of great good fortune, as the best possible vehicle for reaching enlightenment, it becomes a vehicle that can carry us beyond death.
- Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche
I’ve been working for awhile on headstand. Kofi Busia once came by after a practice and said to me, “Strengthen your inner thighs.”
Kofi offers superb advice and I knew he’d been able to track down something instrumental, that this wasn’t an instruction detail about position or perfecting a line. He was speaking from his own physical intelligence and he could sense the question in me as clearly as he could see the sun in the sky.
The truth and how we sense it
I am a person who likes to take the measure of things with my body. It’s something I can remember doing a lot as a kid, playing perception games with the feeling of being a body. I would, for example, lie on my back outdoors in the Pennsylvania farm country, close my eyes and repeat the fantastical numbers and facts I read in the encyclopedia:
3,959 miles to the center of the earth. Could I feel that? The earth underneath me went on and on, but not forever. Almost 8000 miles to the other side. The quiet field I was lying in was really and truthfully rotating at 1000 miles an hour and flying through space around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour. That blue sky? Gases scattering sunlight. If I could see a little further, it would be black.
I would try to feel it, I would be intrigued by not being able to feel it, I would wonder if I wasn’t recognizing feeling it, or if something else that I felt was actually related to it. I liked knowing that so much of what is real was not something I could sense. I was really interested.
Cultivating the body
What can I say – I was a geeky nine year old, and I was always thinking about these things. It doesn’t surprise me at all that I’m drawn to yoga: to the possibility of sensing more with my body, and sensing it intelligently.
When Kofi helps me work on my headstand, he waits next to me until one of my feet twitches or I sway a little. Then he shouts at the top of his lungs, “Don’t panic!”
And I fall down.
You might wonder if roaring at me is counterproductive, but pause and consider: if I were standing next to Kofi and I swayed on my feet, and if Kofi then shouted “Don’t panic!” – would I fall down?
Absolutely not. My body is way too smart for that when I’m standing up.
I don’t want to just “stay up” in headstand, I want to feel the measure of headstand with my body. I want to be physically intelligent upside down.
At home in your skin
Cynthia Gorney wrote an essay about Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin that you can find in the New Yorker archives (July 5th, 2004). Coughlin’s swim stoke coach, Milt Nelms, tells Gorney he thinks Coughlin is “a physical genius in water.”
This turns out to mean, among other things, that Coughlin has an intuitive, physically intelligent response to the strange physics of swimming.
The body has to propel itself horizontally, for one thing, which is weird for human beings.
Gravity has stopped working in the familiar way it does on land. (“You no longer have a platform,” Nelms says. “Plus, since your lungs are your aerobic chamber, it’s like a water-polo ball is trapped inside your body, so there’s a part of you that falls up.”)
The surroundings are lethal, if they’re managed incompetently enough, and the racer in particular has to contend with the fundamental paradox of acceleration through water: the faster a person tries to go, the harder the water pushes back.
When it’s all going well, and a swimmer has learned to work with what’s present, “There’s no visible fight with the water at all.”
Gorney notes the physical intelligence involved, “Some people just seem to feel water, as they move through it, in ways that others cannot. This is meant literally, as in some heightened physical perception of the water around the body – ”
The Philosophers’ Stone
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the practice of yoga was interwoven with that of alchemy, transforming a relatively common substance into a different, exponentially more valuable one. In the European middle ages and the enlightenment, the search for the Philosophers’ Stone – a subtance or formula that would turn lead into gold – was also the foundation of modern medicine.
What I think the practices of yoga do is create intelligence through heightened physical perception. Yoga releases the potential of the body for physical genius.
Yoga practices create more sensation from more aspects of self and more points of the body in a non-ordinary set of interactions. Consistent practice allows that sensation to become fully integrated with the perceptions that are familiar, the things we’re acclimated to feeling and understanding.
A posture can be a philosophers’ stone: we just have to find the one that transforms the most common substance into knowledge of incomparable value.
Give yourself to the right question
It’s been two years since that particular practice with Kofi. The simple phrase “strengthen your inner thighs” has formed the basis of a hundred practices, and been an inflection in a hundred more. It has changed the experience and intelligence of half a dozen postures, which have in turn changed my perspective of others.
I’m not working on this one thing because it’s sequential, or in the right order, or because the book says so. I keep showing up for the thrill of intelligence building around a physical concept, as though the space from my groin through my adductors to my knees is a semantic field innately networked with my pelvic floor and rib cage, the arches of my feet and the top of my head.
Yoga is taking the measure of self with my body, with physical intelligence. It feels like a birthright, giddy with mystery, electric with questions; it feels like a legal altered state that’s built in to being a body the way that digestion or breathing is.
The permeable boundaries of the body
When I was a kid once in awhile I would have an experience like swimming in a lake all afternoon, then going to bed a few hours later and feeling like I was still in the water, feeling all the motion in my body as though while lying still I were still moving.
One New Year’s Eve with a friend whose parents owned a circus, I spent the whole night exploring time and distance between an enormous trampoline and a trapeze swing.
Falling asleep near dawn felt like flying.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.