Yoga Feet, Pointless Conversations and my relationship with the Other.
By Dr Libby Nugent, First Published Aug 15 2019 08:59AM
“It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.” B.K.S. Iyengar “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.” Carl Jung Like many other white, middle class, women, I am a fan and intermittent practitioner of yoga. There is so much structural racism in this phenomena to unpack, but if you can bear with me, I will put that part of this conversation on hold for this piece. My relationship with yoga is multilayered and as such my ambivalence is high: wanting to practice /not wanting to practice, loving and avoiding, attraction and apathy, talking about rather than doing, wanting the reward without the effort etc etc It is very similar, in fact possibly identical to my relationship to being in an analysis. I find it is when I am practicing both yoga and being an analysand that my ability to hold compassion for myself and have a real view of the world is at its greatest capacity. Helpful personal understandings emerge between the two spaces, some of which I want to share here. My observations so far show me that yoga and analysis both provide me with the structured environment needed to gain insight and understanding of what it is like being me. Both invite an examination of my limits and how to negotiate them. How do I approach and define my lived averageness, my unwanted parts, my imperfections, my being human? How do I aspire for change without engaging in self attack? Can I bring awareness to parts of myself I am blind to, that shape my existence and yet I feel no connection to? Thinking about yoga and doing yoga are two very different experiences. Likewise the true impact is an embodied experience that can only be known through the doing. Feeling fit and flexible is not as I imagined. Sessions are always effortful and uncomfortable regardless of my experience in my practice and it does not offer a peaceful utopia although life is absolutely qualitatively different when I practice and for me life is also improved. For all of this, the same is true of my experience of analysis. One of the initial curiosities I had with yoga was my instructor’s supreme confidence and ambition in the possibilities of the shapes my body can make. Without giving too much detail about my body I hope you are more or less comfortable with knowing that my feet are big and mostly unresponsive. I would attend yoga classes and whilst mid-downward dog (this is white lady yoga), have this fascistly enthusiastic women shouting ”lift your arches, spread your toes” - to me seemingly impossible and trivial tasks. My toes do not spread or arches lift and what difference would it make if they did anyway. They are still, fixed even, and it has been like this for as long as I can remember - I get about my business just fine. I have never ever considered my lack of toe stretch an impediment. Yes of course it could be improved but my feet do the job they are supposed to, they get me places. I am able bodied. It surely was a pointless, irrelevant alignment and she was wasting my time ignoring the bigger more impactful aspects of my woeful physical landscape that needs attending to. As the weeks and months rolled on I became aware that despite my best efforts to ignore her, the foot task had become firmly fixed on an agenda for me. With her continued insistence I began to pay attention to my feet, I also began moving through a range of reactions to this attention - hilarity, awkwardness, play along, shame, hopelessness and occasional panic. Finally curiosity. Why did she remain so insistent? What might she know? If she is right and there should be a connection between her suggesting I spread my toes, me thinking about it and then it occurring, why wasn’t it happening? Was her just telling me repeatedly whilst I mentally willed an impossible physical action enough to really make it occur? If there is no felt connection how do you do things differently, how do you bring alive connections you can’t see or feel? Even if I did, what difference could it possibly make? My feet are really not that important, are they? The short version of this anecdote is: I don't know how or why things changed, I just know they did. Whilst my toes are in no way in toddler reach territory, they definitely do now offer significant and effective stretch. My arches lift, a bit. This has in fact gently but profoundly impacted my alignment across my entire practice and made so much more possible. I am more stable and grounded in a way I was not previously and that I had not known was lacking. Who knew? My yoga instructor apparently. I also now have an awareness of the importance of trusting the entire process: I do not know what I do not know and sometimes it requires a guide to help switch the light on and show me the way out of the dark. This change however, requires humility. My resistance to being open to her guidance and my refusal to acknowledge the possibility of her knowing something I did not, was exhausting and, I think, caused the majority of my slowness to change. My analyst was doing a very similar job at the same time. He was sat with me giving me repeated instruction, coaxing my attention towards my underused and inert resources. He would repeatedly draw my attention to particular aspects of my relationships - more often than not my beliefs about, and my experience of, the other. He appeared compulsively to bring into our conversation compassionate reflections of the other’s part in my interactions. It seemed entirely unnecessary. I did not need to be reminded of the politics of sexism, or that black people having feelings, people being different from each other, or that there is the role of privilege to consider. I did not need to have this drawn to my attention because I knew this stuff. Really well. I had left the Mormon church decades ago, I wasn’t in that system anymore. Yes there is always a bit more work to be done, but not there surely. How guilty was I supposed to feel? It sometimes felt like a waste of time - we had my childhood to talk about. Surely we should be focussed on that? Eventually, over time I realised this was firmly on the agenda for me. I used humour regularly to try and bring the conversation back to what I considered the real issue. Occasionally I would feel some awkwardness at his comments, sometimes play along, then shame, hopelessness and occasional panic. Finally curiosity arrived and the light dawned. He was bringing my reality into grounded alignment. Allowing my emotional reactions to connect with their true cause. Helping me see that in alignment the world looks and is experienced very differently. Another part of my yoga learning was the shock I felt discovering this exhausting downward dog pose I was working so hard at, was actually a “resting position” ! A space for me to collect myself in between more dynamic poses. In analysis this was equated to the shock I discovered in realising that my acknowledgment of my whiteness, my class, my education, my body, my privilege, are merely alignments to help with my resting pose in the dynamics of relationships. Just like my feet provide the foundation of physical poses, these aspects of my social self form the foundation of every interaction I have with the other. The work of actively engaging in a more conscious and ethical relationship with the dynamic real world is what we were preparing for. A final thought: I have learnt from both yoga and analysis that my defences are guides towards reality and so there is huge value in noticing, attending to and caring for my anger, shame and guilt. As a result of these two endeavours I can hold myself in discomfort for longer, knowing that discomfort, danger and pain are not the same experiences and that long as I resist any experience of discomfort, no growth can occur. In allowing myself to see who I really am I can also see how things might be and pathways forward.