Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Body, Electric and Unplugged

The Church says: The body is a sin. Science says: The body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The body says: I am a fiesta.
Eduardo Galeano

When I was twenty six, I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It took me five months, got me in better shape than I’d ever been before, both physically and mentally (at least until it was over and I went home with a raging metabolism, no money, no home, no job, no practical plans for my life—though I’d thought, when I started, that I’d have a smart, raven-haired girlfriend to come back to—hitch-hiked from the trail to small town southern payphones to stand in the rain listening to endless dial tones—only to find she’d met some other guy and headed off to Oregon with him). At one point, my brother asked me “what do you think about when you’re out there walking the trail all day,” and I was surprised by my own inability to answer, probably because, before I’d started, I’d thought a lot about what I’d think about—the big philosophical questions, certainly, but also...everything else...all the most difficult passageways of a difficult past, present, and future—every scar and issue, all the hidden bitterness, fear, pain, and confusion, like a purifying fire as I pushed my body through wind and rain and snow and overwhelming heat, coming out finally healed, strong, complete. But that wasn’t what happened. In fact I didn't think much about that stuff at all. I thought about food, about keeping myself warm and my sleeping bag dry, about having a place to sleep that night that’d offer protection from rain and insects. When those needs were met, I was happy. When I got into a town, to find ice cream and pizza and a warm shower and maybe even an actual bed to sleep in, I was in paradise. By the time I got to New England, I'd started writing “life is good” in trail registers, despite everything, present, past, and future, and all the big philosophical questions that remained unanswered.

I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed
Willie Dixon

Paradoxically, I also learned something about the benefits of life as a couch potato. Early on, it seemed like every time I got to a town where there was a hostel or other place hikers could stay for free—there were lots, particularly down south; locals tend to be highly hospitable, and certainly appreciative of the incredible appetites hikers satisfy at their restaurants and grocery stores—the place would be like a hospital ward—full of hikers nursing injured legs. The thing was, almost none of these injuries originated in their recent long days on the trail, and those suffering were often the more athletic-looking types. Their stories were strikingly uniform: “broke it playing basketball in high school,” “blew it out running track when I was fifteen,” “the problem started when I was playing football in college...” and the thought came to me: “thank god I spent my formative years getting fat in front of the T.V.!" Wishing them all the best, I chowed down on sausage biscuits and Little Debbie’s snack cakes, and got back on the trail in the morning.

Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym.
Woody Allen, Annie Hall

The way they taught gym in my school was just about guaranteed to inspire those who weren’t particularly athletic to stay that way. If anything, it probably increased the rate of childhood obesity. Rather than encouraging long-term physical fitness, it seemed to be about creating and encouraging hierarchies—or at least giving official sanction to those that formed on the playground—glorifying the big kids, the tough kids, the bullies, and teaching the rest to feel like losers who'd never measure up, no matter how they tried.

god...not another fucking triangle pose...
unidentified yoga student

One thing that’s not said enough about the yoga thing is that it can suck. This, I think, is the reason so many start only to quit after a couple classes—not, actually, that it sucks, but that people are led to believe that it doesn’t. Alright, that sounded way more like a koan than I intended. Listen: if you read much on the subject, you’ll no doubt find a lot of descriptions of first experiences of people who’ve since become yoga teachers and now write books about it and are trying to encourage others to start by saying shit like “as I did my first triangle pose a mystical warmth streamed through my heart chakra. My entire being glowed as its every fiber merged with the Absolute. A full mind body spirit orgasm soaked my shorts as I began to levitate through the ceiling...” and so on. Sounds good, but I suspect my own experience was a good deal more typical: for the first month or two, soreness and exhaustion and utter mystification about what that mystical shit the teacher said had to do with that agonizing downward facing dog thing. The only apparent change in consciousness involved a deep understanding of just how pathetically out of shape I was. In time, that changed, and I commenced making my teacher wonder if I was serious when I said “whoah...that was cool" after every class, but that took a while. And, actually, it still can be a pain in the ass sometimes, especially trying to keep up an every-fucking-morning practice at home. I mean, normal people get up, take a shit, have their coffee, eat, read the paper, etc.. But not me. I gotta try and mellow my mind and do a bunch of clumsy sun salutations before I check my fucking e-mail, no matter how crappy I'm feeling. But, then, maybe the point really isn't to have a stupid smile plastered on my face and think everything's wonderful all the time. It may be more like what my friend Meg said (quoting somebody): "Good days, I'm okay. Bad days, I'm still okay."

I will show you fear in a handful of dust
T.S. Eliot

We all know how effective parents can be at fucking with our heads. No matter how old we get they can make use feel like kids, or simply as hopelessly dysfunctional adults, can manipulate and cause immense guilt trips; more poignantly, they can fail in every imaginable way to be who we want them to be. But, there's still one way that makes all the others pale: they can die on us, cause a major foundation of our reality to disappear...even if, or maybe because, we hadn't seen it that way before, hadn't realized we didn't really know it could happen...except that it isn’t actually like that at’s people dying that’s the reality, not the illusion that they won’t.

in spite of how it feels when you inhale, you are not pulling air into the body. On the contrary, air is pushed into the body by atmospheric pressure that always surrounds you….The energy you expend in breathing produces a shape change that lowers the pressure in your chest cavity and permits the air to be pushed into the body by the weight of the planet’s atmosphere.
from Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff, Amy Matthews, and Sharon Ellis

Is there something strangely liberating in the notion that life’s most basic act is not, as we Americans might be wont to think, one of grabbing and consumption, but opening ourselves to the universe?


Anonymous said...

Dr. J! Brother Man! So good to hear you out there across this glorious, fuckered-up nation of ours. Maggies and fish tacos anytime, everytime you come west, my friend. more...more...more...
Sister Freak Love, Flagstaff, AZ

Unknown said...

Om Namah Sivaya! You could write the Great Gonzo Yoga road trip novel - Fear and Loathing in Samadhi. Love your blog.

Ezra Kidder said...

Where did you learn about paragraphs? In prison?

Janine Kain said...

Wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

Dr Jay, another awesome post. So jam-packed with interesting sidelines that I find myself having to choose what to respond to lest I write a minor novel.
Or perhaps I need to think in bullet point form?
* First up - kudos on the hike. Sounds fucking brilliant!
* Thinking about... nothing much - yeah, that happens. That sounds a bit like one of the 'gaps' that Trungpa talks about. When you can open like that, let go of your internal dialouge... many things are possible. My Guru and Trungpa both refer to the "Square World" (where most people live) and the "Round World". The gaps are a way into the Round World.
* Injuries - LOL! Yes, as a sporty type, most of my injuries have come from being involved in martial arts, swimming and skiing to name but a few.
* Yoga can suck - you know, I've never heard anyone put it like that before. But its true. Yoga is not all sunshine and roses. For most non-Gumby people gifted with extreme flexibility, yoga really hurts if you're doing it properly! And even if you're good at some things and find no more pain in them, or at least think you don't... there's always other asana. Or other yoga teachers who can teach you a new meaning of an asana you thought you understood. Once in a class when some of us were complaining about some posture being painful, our teacher looked at us whilst he sat there peacefully in the asana and said: "Ofcourse it hurts. Do you think I'm not in pain here?"
That really did it for me. Its like, actually, the pain is caused by our blocked channels and the limitations we've allowed to creep in. And how do you expect to resolve those things if you can't push through the pain?? Doh!
* Daily practice - yup, that can blow too. Until... it doesn't. Until it becomes more natural than breathing. Some days I have that smooth experience and others its still ridiculously hard. Apparently at some point it will be smooth and easy every day, but I'm still waiting on that one!
* Death - the great contemplation of all yogis is that we're dead already. Its a done deal.
* Opening to the universe - yes, yes, but the bigger question to consider is where has that air just come from? What was it a part of previously, before you breathed it? And if that's the case, how can anything be seperate, be not a part of the whole? How can you ever imagine yourself as seperate from the universe?
Hari Om!