I mentioned some months ago that working as a model has given me a funny insight into self control. With practise (and the right exercises) one can extend one’s ability to tolerate discomfort to an extraordinary degree. But even though my experience has taught me a large part of pain is actually our mental fear of pain, the question of bearing it also has a lot to do with how we think about it. Planning for a very long pose is different from planning for a two minute gesture. So different that for a two minute pose I will often lift light furniture over my head or put myself into some other graphically useful state of high muscle tension. For a sustained pose I don’t just think about how it will feel to take and hold the pose – but how it will be feeling a half an hour later. Can I brace my limbs against one another, create a ‘box’ of contact points, or set up any other self-supports? Even finding the right rib to dig your elbow into can help you sustain a raised-hand gesture that would otherwise be completely impossible.
Planning from experience is one half of the mental part – the other is the ways we find to section and compress the time, without moving or even changing our eye-line. Personally I write in my head, and get many great ideas for poems stories and parables. The funny thing is – it really is easier to plan for and do forty minutes in pose, than it is to plan for twenty, and then when those twenty are up, add another ten. Seems irrational somehow, but this has been so often and so clearly proven to me in practise that it has given me great new respect for how much of strength itself is a function of our thinking.
Having to make sacrifices and simply bear them for months and months in a row has been difficult for all of us – and the fear of how much will be lost when things open up again is real and valid. Having to extend what was already a very long and challenging pose even further – in part because some are behaving irresponsibly, and in part because we are still trying to figure out how to approach this frightening disease, has got many who are usually confident and cheerful asking themselves if they still have ‘enough in the tank’ to make it through to the far side.
But strength isn’t everything – not even when strength is clearly called for. As part of my long term project of seeing myself as both the experimenter and the lab-sample, I took pain-control exercises and willful self-mastery to a point so far out of balance that I caused myself serious and lasting injury. It is important to tell young people – like everything which has powerful effects – Yoga can do us great good – but it can also stress us very badly when we are more willful than humble in our approach. I was warned as a teenager, by a middle age devotee who had messed up his knees – I did damage to my back in middle age, and I have two friends with serious lasting hip problems.
Modern life is so force-and-action based that the ‘will’ part of our strength can easily get out of balance with other necessary principles – and when it does, even the most natural and healing-centred techniques we know can go awry.
The other part of strength of course, is gentleness. We can get fancy and call it mindfulness, meditation, special awareness – but it wasn’t invented recently – and its importance for us as individuals and as a society has never been greater.
Being compassionate with ourselves can itself be difficult. Cut off from so many of our usual stimuli – many of us have been struggling to find ways to drive ourselves hard enough to stay fit, interested and active, and yet also balance that with relaxation, personal emotional connections, and small pleasures savoured in ways that we used to be much too busy for.
But finding compassion and kindness for others when everything around feels chaotic and hurtful is most difficult of all – and still, even in terms of simple self-interest, entirely necessary (we mustn’t take on and carry any stress which we can instead recognize and become transparent to).
Let that which cannot be resisted flow through us, and then flow away again. A fence against a flood does nothing but collect tragedy and horror – shades the rebuilding task before us with grief.
Anger is not just seriously toxic stress to our metabolism, though it is absolutely always this at minimum – and should therefore ideally only be invoked when it has direct emotional purpose. Anger also reduces our capacity for gentleness and compassion even for ourselves and those we love the most. It endangers our heart-balance literally and metaphorically, and in doing so makes us less likely to think and act with a clear mind. We are more likely to add regrets, miss opportunities for learning, solution and inspiration. We are also less happy in the moments we’re living.
Of course, we in the west can be a bit silly about our ideas. We prefer something that works always and in all situations – a one-point checklist which leads straight to nirvana, if you will. But as far as I’ve been able to discover in many years of looking at systems of thought – the easier the rules and bigger the emotional payoff of your new favourite belief, the more of a devil’s bargain you will find in the rearview mirror. It is actually pretty amazing how much of the rest of the texture of life we’ve all (left and right) proven willing to sacrifice, in order to feel like we are the special correct and righteous ones. History is completely full of it. ;o)
So here’s the real key idea for today – metabolism – inhale AND exhale – cycle and balance. There is no one rule, no one perfect pose which is well enough braced that you can hold it forever, no matter your strength. Eventually you have to give up all the tension and relax, stretch, recharge, savour, appreciate, share and find ways to be grateful.
Not because it is some patronizing enforced rule from on high – but because our strength requires the rest of us to join in and help it. Humour, whimsy, wonder, music and art, long rambling conversations on the phone, short poems that speak directly to a heart you miss more than you can say. Even just taking a few minutes to be a cat, find a patch of warm sunlight coming in the window and curl up to savour the nature and source of life on earth wordlessly – purring optional.
Learning, humility, forgiveness, understanding, reconciliation, alliance and progress can wait awhile, when we’re still upset. No one makes their best points when they are frightened and angry. But these duties do all await us more certainly than ever – and those muscles too must be fostered and developed as we sit yearning for the so long awaited return of what we all know will actually be a brand new world.