You can hold back from
suffering of this world
and you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided.
The biggest challenge in my own asana practice is backbends. I am not a naturally flexible person (as a child I was unable to complete the Presidential Physical Fitness Award due to my inability to touch my toes. I remember so clearly the look of frustration on my gym teacher’s face).
Part of the problem is my natural tendency to slouch, to round forward- even as I’m typing these lines, I’m hunched like a bridge troll over my coffee table. There’s not even a suggestion of a straight spine, let alone an extended (backbending) one.
Those of us who round forward (let’s call us “most of the Western world”) do so because that’s how our lives are arranged. We type, we drive, knit, text, etc., all with our shoulders medially rotated and our spine flexed forward, which is exactly the opposite of what we’re looking for in Urdva Dhanurasana- wheel pose. But there’s more to it than that. This natural rounded position has an emotional component as well. With rounded back and curled shoulders, we’re guarding ourselves and our most intimate emotions from the pain of the world.
This is easy to see when you look at someone who is introverted. The entire posture is one of self-protection. A confident person, on the other hand, has an open chest- shoulders rolled back, collarbones wide- think Superman with his hands on his hips. Amy Cuddy has a fascinating Ted Talk about how body language shapes self-image that is worth checking out if you have 20 minutes.
Which brings me to the Kafka quote. I like to ask myself (and students), as I come to a challenging posture: “Where are you holding back?” I often find that I am deliberately tensing or guarding myself to prevent further opening- to “protect” myself in some way.
For example, as I push up into my third wheel pose, and my anterior deltoids crackle in protest, I might initially feel that I’ve gone as far as I can. Pausing here to smooth out my breath, I ask myself- “Where are you holding back?” and notice that I have stiffened into what I think is my full posture. Relaxing, I begin to refine- I can engage my rhomboids to draw my shoulders together, that my lats can now be recruited to draw my shoulder blades toward my hips, my armpits can begin to hollow more as I laterally rotate my shoulders, and as I look back toward my feet, lengthening the front of my neck, I feel a deep opening between my shoulder blades as my thoracic spine creaks open a bit more.
At this point, if I’ve ever doubted the emotional component to the stuff that we hide in our bodies, I am, as the Monkees say, a believer. The rusty cage of my heart is creaking open and I can feel a wild sob- almost a laugh- curling up from my belly into the splitting expanse of my chest. Emotions are boiling like hot lava at my sternum and oh, I feel so close to letting go of everything, all of the fear and insecurity and sorrow and grief and rage that comes with being human- and then it’s time to come down, to rest, and to nurse my aching parts.
“We have to face the pain we have been running from. In fact, we need to learn to rest in it and let its searing power transform us.” -Charlotte Joko Beck
Where am I holding back? I have a lifetime of holding back. My (now ex) husband would say (with some affection, truly) that it was a stick up my ass rather than a cage around my heart, but it’s not a coincidence that we use these physical descriptions to describe emotional blockages. They are real and they manifest in us in the way we hold our bodies.
During the last month, as I am learning to unwind decades of tension, fear, and withheld truths through my painful backbend practice, I have begun to unlock long-held truths. Suddenly I’m not afraid to face parts of myself now that seemed too ugly, too mean, too embarrassing to acknowledge before. I have been able to make contact with people from my past that I was too ashamed to talk to before. I can reach out to my ex-boyfriends and to my ex-girlfriends. I can say to you that there are ex-girlfriends and be peaceful with whatever you think of that. I feel more confident in myself, as though I’ve unchained my heart and it is free to be loving and kind to itself once more.
Franz Kafka had it right. The holding back has been one of the greatest sufferings of my life. I’m doing what I can to let go. But Charlotte Beck has it right, too- it’s a searing pain. Transformation isn’t easy.
As you practice today- on the mat or off- I challenge you to ask yourself, “Where am I holding back?” What suffering are you perpetuating when you refuse to let go? Where can you give a little more, allow a little more, soften into the experience?