This is the second post in a series of reflections on Yoga and Christianity, written as new contributor Amanda Munroe underwent yoga teacher training. Read the first here.
Mid-Training: Pain in Memory and Metaphor
When I perceive a threat in the world, I experience it in my body through pangs in my nervous system. This is diagnosed psychologically as “somatic anxiety.” Sometimes it is difficult to me to know which pain is “real pain” — brought about by an external physical stimulus, like a bruise or a sore throat, and what pain is only “perceived pain” – a more psychological reaction to the a possible threat, which feels like pangs in my veins, or a tightness in my chest, or all the defenses that alert when a body feels in danger: clenched muscles, a headache, an upset stomach. Just plain feeling afraid.
I felt swept, at times wrenched, between ultra clear perception and murky confusion most days in the training. I literally felt like my sense of order was flipping from up-dog to down-dog,
I’m facing the sun!!
I’m facing the floor!
New theologies and methods for experiencing calm and processing emotion opened up each day: I learned to chant in Sanskrit. I practiced forms of meditation each morning that expanded my understanding of the world and of what order is. My appetite decreased, and my contentment increased. I sat on the floor all day long and began to dislike the feeling of sitting in chairs.
Sometimes these novel experiences took on a more serious tone, one that impacted not only my preferences but my identity. I learned to understand a different explanation of life, death, and eternity than I had ever heard before.
Sometimes, my body and mind perceived these shifts in capacity for understanding as threats to my survival, confusing psychological and emotional threats for physical ones.
Sometimes time would seem to drag on forever, or sometimes it would pass too quickly. I would feel connected to my body, and then suddenly as if I were observing all of it from another location, not exactly behind my own eyes. At the same time, I experienced “real” exhaustion and “real” pain from an old back injury that grew stressed under daily up-to-down dogs. Depending on how I felt, at times I would be overly cautious and at times I would be overly adventurous.
I would experiment on myself. “Now that I know that about the spinal column, maybe I should bend farther forward…” “But now that I know this about spinal discs, WHAT WAS I THINKING?….” At one point, it was so painful that I thought I had dislocated a disc in my lumbar spine, and I quickly was back on the treadmill of irrational reasoning where I imagined myself near paralysis and never able to practice yoga again. Was this disc and this imagery “real pain” or “perceived pain”?
And then, “What’s a spiritual threat? Are yogic teachings “the devil”?” My jaw clenched and my stomach churned as words from The Screwtape Letters wound through my head, and I wondered if I needed to protect myself from something. At this point, I would return to the big-T truth argument from before training, allow my breath to calm down my thinking, release tension in my jaw, and accept the presence of ambiguity in the anticipation and trust of a bigger, deeper, more capacious truth.
“Asana practice” – practicing the yoga postures – concentrates on the relationship between the breath and the spine. It’s no coincidence that we emphatically use the term “backbone” to refer to someone with integrity and strength. The unharmed human spine uses and defies gravity at once. It can move six unique ways: forward, back, laterally left, laterally right, and it can twist. “Breathing” is simply a negotiation of the location and pressure of air, between outside and inside the body, as well as within the body’s cavities. The cavities adjust to make room for it or to expedite its exit of the body. Bringing focus to the breath is also the most effective tool that we humans have to regulate the nervous system – in essence, the breath is my best antidote for anxiety. For 13 hours a day over 14 days, my mind told my spine and breath and spirit to negotiate space with each other again, and again.
Everything was like jelly by day five. Of course, this tension and release, the fear and the freedom, were the intention of the training. In all of my particularities, through lumbar pain, existential questions, fear, suspicion, and balance, I learned on a fibrous, muscular level what I was also learning cerebrally and spiritually: I don’t need to labor to breathe. It happens on its own. I can trust my breath to keep happening like I can trust truth to be essentially true no matter its packaging.
Like learning to ride a bike I learned to calm the waves of my emotions and to focus my thoughts. Learning through my spine was actually preparing my mind for the spiritual gymnastics I would subsequently tumble through. Cajoled, coaxed, or assisted, new information changes my expression of the posture and ultimately what the posture does to me. Like the sins inherent to my character, old injuries cause distraction, require special attention and modification. But focusing on the breath, rather than the injury, brings more integrity to the pose.
I still feel the most significant injury in my low back when it is triggered and at some point every morning when I regain consciousness. And then I breathe.