by Ann Chrapkiewicz
Would I rather feel Pain? Or Nothingness?
This is the broad choice I have been given, the dominant set of options I was born into. Not just me, personally, but I, the human of 20th and 21st century North America, and probably many other places and times.
Whether I am experiencing emotional pain and choosing alcohol…
In the process of childbirth and being pressured to get an epidural….
Anxious about my family’s split-up and eating mindlessly, or counting calories compulsively as a numbing tool…
Stressed about my status – or exhausted from that status – and seeking temporary sexual pleasure as a distraction…
Having menstrual cramps and popping Motrin preemptively because that is just what you do…
…this body has been relegated to an annoyance. Something to be quieted. A disturbance of the peace.
The peace of our neurologically, physically, and proprioceptively defunct collectivity.
If I feel something unpleasant, I want it gone. Now. The body should work well and do what I want it to do. It should run for miles on pavement without negative effect.
I should be able to stuff it with hardly-passable food or poison it with my stressful thoughts, and it should still accept my commands for movement, rest, and ease. This is a one-way street, and I am in charge. I tell it what to do, and it listens, right?
I talk. You listen.
I don’t want to hear from my joints. I don’t like hearing from my connective tissue. Not a fan of headaches. And I certainly don’t want to hear from my uterus.
I was not trained to listen to the body’s intelligent calls for assistance or its innate wisdom. I am in control, and the body is unpredictable.
So when I feel something unpleasant, my first instinct is either to ignore it, or to numb it. With a prescription or without. Legal or not. It doesn’t really matter, just make it stop. As soon as possible. And distract me until then.
In our Civilization of Defunct Physical Intelligence, pain and discomfort are simply hindrances. Not tools for the learning process. Not methods of liberation from the body-silencing culture I was brought up in. Not training for childbirth. Not wake-up calls that I have been abusing my body for decades.
We live in a culture that does not teach us how to use the human body we have been given. We only repeat the bodily-abusive patterns of the elders, the experts, the chemists, and the authorities around us. We are human, after all, and we mostly absorb the collective wisdom. Even if that wisdom is killing us slowly.
Is there a way out?
Well, sure. Death would be a way out of the body.
But what about a way through all of this while still inhabiting the human form, and experiencing life. Life on the third planet from a random star in deep space?
Is there something other than PAIN or NOTHING?
Well yes. There is infinitely more. Every color on the visible spectrum of light is possible.
I can feel my sciatica when I have worn bad shoes (i.e. most shoes!). I can feel my lungs when I am slightly anxious. I can feel my intestines when things are not quite right. I can feel my back squeeze a little bit if I have not done a backbend in a while. I can balance better in Standing Head to Knee – and breathe extremely well in the second part of Awkward Pose – just before I start my period, so I guess I can feel my hormones. I can feel my body in early labor (during class!), 6 hours before any contractions, because I felt those hormones every month for the 3 previous years of practicing the same yoga class. After 3 hours of the pushing stage, I can feel that something is just not right with the contractions, and that we need assistance. And I can communicate that to my midwife so she can help the baby out gently.
I can feel deep grief for my friends who have lost their parents – and I can I cry about it for a few minutes. I can feel fear of losing those I love, experience it and cry about it. And then start again with immense appreciation that we are still here.
I can feel the compression of my throat when I try to put my forehead on my knee. I can feel the sharp pull in my knee in toe stand sometimes, and respectfully only go into the posture 80% of the way for a few months to let it heal. I can feel the body telling me that I need to sit down. And sit down again. And again. (I think I knocked the influenza virus right out of my body on more than on occasion – just by showing up to class and doing what I could. And no, that was not a “bad” class when I sat down all those times.)
I can contract my abdominal muscles or let them stretch, and hold totally still with either sensation. I can feel my breathing for 90 minutes straight, when I hold still in each of the 26 postures that Bikram and his teachers have – thank god – managed to preserve. I can feel my heart beat pretty slowly throughout the class – although for the first 10 years I practiced, it beat a lot faster and harder. I can feel more and more as time goes on.
But before starting this yoga, I was mostly stuck in the black and white realm, believing that pain, nothingness (i.e. no particular bodily sensation), or temporary surface pleasure were the three menu options. For many years before doing Bikram Yoga, I even lost the ability to feel hunger and satiety. I had detached so fully from the physical intelligence.
Each of us could – and maybe should – write a history of our physicality. Of our bodies. Of how we have listened to them – or of how we have specifically not listened to them. Of the times we had traumas or dull aches, and how we responded to them. Of when we used the supposedly “rational”, calorie- or fat-gram-counting brain, to decide what was best for our systems, even when they were trying to tell us otherwise. Of how and why we have abused them. Kept them in a cage. Ruled over them. Confined them, or scattered them all over the place.
When I fractured my back, what did I choose? Did I take the experts’ advice and ingest prescription narcotics for 4 weeks? Did I accept their order not to do yoga (whatever they might have though “yoga” meant) for at least 6 weeks? Or did I refuse all of that authority over my human system and haul my broken body into the Bikram Yoga room? Did I move as slowly and mindfully into postures as I had ever moved in my life?
How would each of those choices have served me? What would I learn from all of the possible courses of action?
Bikram Yoga and Physical Intelligence
Bikram Yoga is not the ultimate or final solution. It is, in fact, only the beginning. Bikram Yoga can be used as numbing tool just like anything else can. I have seen students and teachers retreat into auto-pilot mode and tune out for 90 minutes….(but man, they sure “detoxed” so it must have been good, right?)
At the same time, though, Bikram Yoga has been used by many – and hopefully the majority – of us as a user manual for the human body. It has been the first of many steps into acknowledging the infinite physical intelligence deep within each of us. Into feeling every muscle and joint in the body. Into looking at our weaknesses, behaviors, and patterns with equanimity. Into putting the mind into its rightful place (hint: it is not superior to the body). Into transforming how we walk, how we breathe, how we eat, how we move, how we talk to others, how we live.
And one of the best parts is that there is no rhetoric needed. No special vocabulary about sensing energy. No new-agey talk about anything.
Just put your toes on the line and your body weight on the heels. Interlock your ten fingers underneath the chin. Keep a nice grip.
Start please. Inhale.
Wait for me please.
Stay with the words. (It keeps your brain with your body…which helps you develop your physical intelligence!)
Breathing always normal.