"How can you learn to trust the words again?"
A student asked. Believing that she is referring to trust damaged in her marriage, my answer is: "don't trust words. Trust actions. Behavior is truth. If/when actions and words come into alignment, then, very slowly, begin to trust words again."
There is no mistake in relationships to equal believing words that do not match behaviors. When Nicki was about three I used to hold her over the garbage disposal, threatening to put her in. She would giggle and laugh: "oh, Daddy!" My wife Toni, quite naturally, was...er...curious about what I was doing. It was all simple in my mind: I was teaching her to pay attention only to behaviors, never words.
Hey, my intentions were good...
A reader wrote the following in response to the article posted on the connections between physical and mental flexibility (lightly edited):
"I've had a few yoga teachers insinuate that I'm not physically flexible b/c of some spiritual or mental failing. I don't think you're doing that, since you're talking about loss flexibility, which I never had. But I would like to say that the flexibility mind-body connect doesn't really apply to all people. I actually have a fairly narrow pelvis. It makes me really not flexible. No amount of yoga will ever change that. I won't become more flexible over time or with practice -- this is the case with a lot of not flexible people.
I do however have an incredibly flexible mind. And I also think that doing yoga though I'm not flexible at all has given me a more flexible mind. Helped me keep my ego in check and also relax by doing something I'm just not very good at. I would hesitate to say that someone who is better at yoga is actually spiritually better than me.
I think yoga is a great practice, but I don't believe flexibility makes or breaks your spiritual nature."
This note is both correct, and quite wrong. I say this with confidence from working with hundreds of students who thought that they understood the limits of their flexibility. She (I'm assuming a feminine gender just for the sake of convenience) is correct to hesitate to believe that someone more flexible is more spiritually advanced. But I'd like to take a look at what seem to be some other assumptions or conceptions. Because I don't know this person, I am certain to be off base a bit, but the following general comments have proven accurate often enough for me to speak them aloud.
"I actually have a fairly narrow pelvis. It makes me really not flexible. No amount of yoga will ever change that. I won't become more flexible over time or with practice -- this is the case with a lot of not flexible people."
Not really true. While there are certainly anatomical and genetic limits to flexibility, damned few people ever find them. The primary limit to most people's flexibility is literally not knowing their body. "Sensory motor amnesia" that literally stops them from "turning off" their stretch reflex. The Golgi Tendon Organs try to protect you from destabilizing/damaging your body by limiting how much range of motion they give you. To turn them off means approaching the edge of a "cliff" more closely--a place where you could actually tear a muscle or risk injury. Your body doesn't trust that you are smart enough to know how far you can actually go, and creates a "safety zone" denying 10 or 20% (or more!) of your actual anatomical range of motion.
The only way I'd believe you have no more range of motion is if:
1) you are a perfect genius athletically, understanding exactly how to turn off and turn off each individual muscle fiber. That is beyond the range of Kung-Fu monks or advance yogis. Don't buy it.
2) you have perfect knowledge of physical alignment, such that it would be safe to go to your edge. Again, approaching the edge of biomechanical efficiency is possible. Reaching it probably is not.
3) you have no fear, grief, guilt, or other emotional pain stored in your body. I've met a few of what might be called "human superconductors" in this sense, but boy oh boy, are they rare. And they have bodies like Gumby.
4) You have perfect knowledge of the most advanced sports science techniques, as well as the most advanced yogic disciplines. Saying "I won't become more flexible over time or with practice -- this is the case with a lot of not flexible people." Is a belief system, based on frustration with your previous experiences.
Lots of things can influence flexibility, and a BIG chunk of them are purely in our minds--our bodies exist within our minds. "Yoga" isn't stretching exercises. It is a word extracted from a Sanskrit term meaning "to yoke" or "to join" and in the sage Patanjali's explorations of the subject, the "asana" or poses are only one of eight different major "limbs." Those poses without the inner understanding are no more "spiritual" than push-ups. A cheerleader thinking about her boyfriend with her legs pretzel'd behind her head is less of a yogi than Betty White bending three inches to the side with perfect concentration. It is the integrity of the body-mind connection, not the depth of pose that is "yoga." The depth of pose comes after creating proper alignment, which allows the body weight to rest on the skeletal structure supported by tendons and ligaments, not muscles. This creates a situation where your body COULD relax into greater flexibility without risk...but won't until and unless you learn to control your breathing, turning off the panic response.
Learning to control your panic when compressing breathing while tired, shaky, etc. demands a type of breathing that cannot be taught by lecture, or observation. What the thing IS is different from what it looks like, or sounds like.
Our bodies also adapt to our behaviors: sit in a chair all day, and your body will bind up, tighten, as if you are swathed in leather straps trying to help you stay erect in your chair. People who stop moving get tighter. Whatever behavior you repeat, it tries to make more efficient: including sitting still or laying down. So these bands of tension and thickened tendons have to be approached carefully. I have a favorite demonstration showing that almost anyone, ANATOMICALLY, can perform a full split. What stops you is not your body--it is your mind. I've done this with more people than I can count, always choosing someone who considers themselves totally inflexible. And the expression on their faces when they understand, finally, that they don't know their bodies at all is quite enlightening. If we ever meet, be sure to ask me to prove my point.
But what does all of this have to do with "spirituality"? Well...that's a mighty hard word to nail down, but shall we assume that when most people use the term they are describing a state in which there is more love, less ego, more sense of connection to the world, more actions in alignment with our deepest values, more acceptance of the transient nature of life, less fear, more action for long-term as opposed to short-term benefits, more "Self"-lessness? And that the road to such things, in almost all religions, disciplines and cultures involves discipline, focus, release of negative emotions, practicing "right action", compassion toward others, forgiveness, facing/dealing with fear of death, raising of "intrinsic energy" and so forth?
Well...all eight "limbs" of yoga approach these, with different measure. To progress in asana yoga, one must steady the mind under extreme stress. Learn how to calm panic and fear. Learn to forgive ourselves our limitations and failures. Discover our true natures through movement into previously alien inner environments. Pierce our ego shells (tough, regenerative little suckers, they are, too!), live in the question, rather than believing we have the answer. Love and fear compete for the same space in our hearts--decrease fear and that love flows amazingly. Any physical activity that goes into "second wind" can aid in this IF accompanied by the proper emotional work. Asana can be perfect for this.
In other words, hatha yoga, as a spiritual discipline, is actually better for "tight" than naturally flexible people. While someone more advanced in yoga isn't automatically more spiritual than a non-yogi, they are probably more spiritual than the same person before they took that path--assuming that they have even a cursory understanding of how to "ride" their breath "in-pose" and then apply that same breathing to other aspects of their lives. That assumes a lot, I know, but I'd be willing to stand by it. They have improved themselves--not necessarily become "better" than someone else...an illusion, anyway.
But the most important thing is that this reader has a belief that could only be true if she has perfect knowledge of self. A more accurate comment would have been "I've tried many things, and many teachers, and none of them have helped. I know no way of increasing my present flexibility." That would have been true. Saying "I won't become more flexible over time or with practice -- this is the case with a lot of not flexible people" almost certainly is not. I'd put a hundred bucks on it.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:42 AM