I recently became aware of a gradual but significant transformation that has been taking place within me. For many years I have been meditating on equanimity and the familiar image of a strong, tall, deeply grounded mountain surrounded by the ever changing ocean. However, after a deeply liberating experience with yoga anatomy expert Leslie Kaminoff, my mountain of equanimity started to crumble and dissolve until it had transformed into something more like a water balloon of adaptability. While not nearly as poetic as a mountain, the water balloon (you know the Water Wiggler-type toy?), has a strong, yet permeable, membrane that allows it to be safely contained yet easily change shape to adjust to the space around it something my mountain found difficult.
Fear of life is fear of change. ~ John Cage. Mountains change at a very slow pace indeed! My mountain has provided me with a much needed strong, safe, stable base of support for many years, yet, on reflection, I wonder if it also served as a defense against fear of change? When I went to visit Leslie Kaminoff in New York for the first time, I had no idea that he would challenge my patterns of holding and breathing the way he did. His safe, yet strong, techniques of breathing and hands-on adjustment forced me to change the muscles I was using to breathe, stand and walk. When I first stood up from Kaminoff’s bodywork table, my legs didn’t feel like my own, my shoulders expanded as I inhaled and I had no idea what had just happened to me. Since then, my challenge has been to ‘keep the space’ that Leslie helped me to find through releasing tension in my back, shoulders and neck. My asana practice has changed from a form-based, alignment focused practice to a more fluid, breath-centered exploration of intention and movement.
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In asana we practice moving our bodies into various shapes and positions, some of them, like Child’s Pose or Ardha Matsyendrasana, restrict the movement in our bellies when we breathe. Poses such as shoulder stand or Halasana (the Plough) constrict the front of our necks, and inversions turn us, literally, upside-down. In all of the poses that restrict the flow of breath in the body, we must learn to adapt. Rather than deep belly breathing in Child’s Pose we learn to find space for the breath across the back or the side of the ribcage. In shoulder stand we learn to trust that despite the constriction of the throat, the breath can flow freely enough to meet our needs.
Mountains aren’t so good at adapting to new environments with different conditions, they just stand there hoping that strength and stability alone will be enough to get through whatever is coming. Water wigglers, on the other hand, can be squished into shape, they offer us an image of a malleable, flexible shape that can maintain the integrity of its structure but be open to change at the same time.
So with the aid of water wigglers and breath-centered bodywork, both my teaching and ‘doing’ of yoga have transformed into a practice of embodied impermanence and adaptability. What cues or images help you to balance structure and space, or sthira and sukha, in your practice?