The last few weeks have been quite the bumpy ride. The day before I was due to leave Singapore, I pulled something quite deep in my neck. It wasn’t even during my practice, just something really stupidly trivial like lifting a tea cup… I don’t even remember. All I do remember is how frozen it became. Just before a 14 hour flight back to the UK. Great.
I did a led primary class the day after I got back which seemed to reset my neck but the following day during my practice, I pulled something else, this time on the opposite side, deep in the shoulder blade. After an impromptu massage from a friend, it seemed to ease and was gone the next day… only to return a couple of days later in another, different spot, when I innocently lifted my arms up overhead in my first sun salutation.
The strange thing is that during the times I was able to practice, my upper back felt so much more open, to the extent that I was able to grab my heels in kapotasana – hugely significant for someone that is most definitely not a natural back bender and hugely terrifying to think my body was able to move that far that quick. A couple of days later however, during headstand – a pose I must have done thousands of times with no problem – something audibly clicked in my neck and I was laden with yet another bout of frozen neck for almost a week. All very disconcerting…
Interestingly, during the same period, I had started working with a new group of ex substance users at work. This is their third week of our very intensive 12 week group programme, and marks their entry into the part of the course where the unconscious mind is cautiously delved into. The group found the day painful and fraught with emotions that had understandably been boxed away for a long time. Their reflections at the end of the day were inspiring: there was an understanding that although a difficult process to go through, it was an important one. It reinforced the parallel that I believe connects both areas of work – that in order to rebuild your life on a firmer foundation than the precarious, unstable one that it had been constructed on up to now, it is important to deconstruct it, painful though that is, in order to be able to create a more solid foundation on which to live one’s life. And in order to get to this, a certain amount of destabilisation has to be gone through, be it physical, psychological, emotional.
Yoga works in very much the same way. The practice highlights imbalances and weaknesses – the very patterns that have become embedded into your body through your life up to now (your biology is your biography) – and begins to shift and realign them into more constructive patterns, ones that are more evenly balanced. Shoulders that were slumped forward begin to realign, improving posture and circulation to the upper back, neck and head, and creating more space for the lungs to be breathed into. Circulation overall is improved and as the breath becomes slower and deeper, blood pressure stays at a healthy level and oxygen in the blood increases. Tight spots begin to open, and muscles (and fascia) ultimately become a balanced mix of strong but flexible. The process can be difficult and painful, but I do believe it leads to the equivalent of an engine that runs more smoothly and economically.
This all happens through the strengthening of subtle muscles and learning how to engage them and use them in connection with other strong muscles, leading to entire muscle chains working in beautiful unison. The process itself is aided by moving with awareness, thereby increasing proprioception and means you’re not just throwing yourself aimlessly around your mat (if I had a pound for every time I thought someone was about to give themselves whiplash in their updogs…). The combination of newly strengthened muscles and ones that are more alive and full of sensation, and greater flexibility lead to a practice that is soft and graceful. The mind is quieter leading to less fidgeting and faffing, and instead to more precision – again we return to the concept of effortless effort. All of this takes a long time with a practice like Ashtanga but the rewards after so much cultivation are plentiful.
Just as the foundation of the psyche changes through psychotherapeutic work, as does that of the body, which evolves to become something more sturdy and able to deal with the challenges of 21st Century living. The two taking place together results in a wonderful symbiosis, consonance not dissonance, a symphony in harmony.