Pinocchio. George Washington and the cherry tree. The boy who cried wolf. Many stories exist to tell of the perils of lying and the beautiful purity of truth. These tales tend to present Truth as a fairly simple duality—right over wrong, good conquering evil—but as we age, the complexities and conditional aspects of this realm make themselves...Read More
MindBodyBrew is ultimately about providing a space for written reflection at every step along the yoga path. We hope that by sharing assignments from our Foundation and Yoga Pedagogy students, we can expand their deep investigation into community-wide dialogue. The following is a piece written by one of our newest, current students, Megan Doughty, about a recent yoga class with TaraMarie Perri.
In architectural drawings, a centerline is indicated by a dash/dot line that extends out of an intersecting C and L. This symbol has always been one of my favorite drawing symbols because it’s clever (the C and L intersect each other at their own centerlines making it a code that can be read even by those who don’t know its meaning) and it’s exceptionally simple but able to convey a great deal of information and organize an entire building. The centerline symbol is used at every scale, from locating alignment of massive structures that literally hold the building up, to indicating the smallest of details such as where to drill an ⅛” hole inside a wall cabinet.
I spend a lot of time extending dash/dot lines through columns, 2x4s, and hinges, but have never thought about superimposing this symbolic guideline over my body, mind, and yoga practice—that is until Marissa’s class on mindfulness and centerlines at Steps. As we began class and were encouraged to be mindful of finding and engaging with our various whole body centerlines by rocking and bending from side to side, front to back, and head to toe, I started to envision drawing that dash/dot line through myself at each of these axes. With the progression of the practice and frequent reminders to bring mindfulness to our centerlines in a variety of ways—through our breath, through the use of props, through external and internal rotation, through activation of the inner thighs, through extensions of the limbs, through the ground—I found myself drawing all over my body in all different directions. There were lines extending through my shoulder blades, out my fingers, across my eyes, up my legs, and through my joints.
As I was mentally marking up my body from the large scale spine and pelvis to the small scale joints of my toes and centers of my ears, I realized that being mindful of these various centerlines allows us to organize and align our bodies so that they can be structural systems of support at any scale, much like buildings. For me, the centerlines became guidelines for balance and strength throughout asana, flow sequences, and transitions. They became reminders to fully work through postures by thinking of their expressions on every level, from their foundations down to the smallest of details; they became points of reference from which I could safely depart in exploration, because I knew where to return to for grounding and stability.
Thinking about my body as a drawing sent me back to Yoga Anatomy, and sure enough, Kaminoff and Matthews do at times annotate their drawings with centerlines, axes, and points of gravity. They also begin their discussion of the spine and its evolution by talking about how as organisms increased in complexity, they developed spinal structures and skeletal systems out of a need for “central organization and guidance” and out of a need for “a structure that allows for free movement but is stable enough to offer protection."
As class began to slow down, Marissa emphasized the importance of mindfulness not only in our yoga practice but also in our everyday lives. She encouraged us to take the time in our days or weeks to practice mindfulness, because much like a muscle, mindfulness must be used and stretched in order for it to get stronger. Admittedly, I’m not exactly sure how to do that yet. I understood it when applied to a familiar and practical concept in class, but mindfulness is relatively new to me and I often find it difficult, uncomfortable, and tiring. It’s reassuring, however, to think of it as an evolving process, and that much like (as Kaminoff and Matthews point out) spines evolved in our species in order to provide organization, guidance, structure, protection, stability, and freedom of movement, mindfulness must also evolve inside us in order to provide that same organization, guidance, structure, protection, stability, and freedom of movement for the mind—especially as our lives and the world around us get more and more complex. And if centerlines can be used as guidelines to locate these concepts in the physical body, I imagine they can be used as guidelines for our mental, emotional, and spiritual lives.
Since Marissa’s class, I have been thinking a lot about where to draw my dash/dot lines in my personal life in order to give myself datums that are always with me, no matter where I am, so that when I stray too far from my center and lose my balance, I can use mindfulness to return to those centerlines and once again find organization, stability, and support.
Photo by Flickr user
The following piece was written by Kathy Hartsell, a fellow yoga instructor and mind-body practitioner who studies alongside the Mind Body Dancer® community. She writes from Boston, MA.
During a cherished holiday week with my sister's little ones, tiny hands twirled my hair, traced my face and playfully tugged my arms, pretty much around the clock. The reciprocal nourishment of this sweet physical connection caused a tiny weight to form in the pit of my stomach as I flew back home, where children do not yet reside.
Generally, even for those of us that are married, the majority of our days are often physically detached from one another. Ironically, I used to welcome this kind of boundary. Despite being attracted to careers that depend on touch (dance, yoga, physical therapy), I wasn't naturally a "hands-on" type of person. Therefore, years ago, when a teacher guided us to place our own hands on our sternums, then our frontal ribs, then our sacrums, I was skeptical. This self-connection tool, woven all throughout the movement class, was offered as a way to harness interoception - awareness of moment-to-moment sensations. As someone that values practicality and shrugs at anything that has a tint of pampering, I was shocked to discover my body's immediate receptivity. I realized that simply holding the base of my own skull in meditation melted my neck muscles. I discovered that the warmth of my hand weighted on my solar plexus would calm the acid reflux so often brewing in that region. In savasana, resting my palms on my stomach gradually built a bridge to this area of my body that I had dissociated from as a dancer. Again and again, I realized that placing my own hands onto my "pose” soothed and deepened my experience. I slowly began to understand how to find my own sense of center, while simultaneously becoming more present in my surroundings. Gesture by gesture, I began to layer this tool into my regular yoga practice, and later, into my teaching.
Today, I consistently “self-assist,” to help stay grounded, while still open and receptive. I employ this tool not only in yoga practice, but also all throughout my day. Not once has anyone seemed to care when I settle a hand onto my heart mid chat, or briefly anchor a palm onto my core during a busy workday. This tiny tool helps me become more embodied – more whole-self present. By connecting more fully with myself, I notice I am better able to connect to the people and situations in front of me.
No matter where we each land on the "hands-on/off" spectrum, the nourishment of mindful touch is essential. Our hands complete the sentences that our brains cannot. Spending time with my nieces reminded me how much we all need and thrive on physical contact. Our world is indeed fragmented, but surely reconnection begins with our individual work. As we navigate through our new year together, perhaps we physically connect with our compasses more frequently. The next time you feel dissociated, distracted or stressed (in yoga, at work, at home), perhaps you land a steady palm over your chest or belly. Breathing into that connection, notice the moment-to-moment sensations that roll through your experience. If this practice is meaningful for you, take it with you into 2015, enjoying that it is a strategy never further than an arm’s reach away.
Photography by Kathy Hartsell
I recently had the privilege to dance in Palm Desert, California. Even if for a weekend, the prospect of taking a break from New York’s premature winter was almost more exciting than performing in a large proscenium theatre rather than the usual NYC black-box. I knew how temperature patterns worked in desert regions, but experiencing it was something else. The California sun goes through a spectral journey, commencing mildly in the morning, revving up to a sweltering dry blaze by mid-day, only to cool back almost chillier than where it began, as if to apologize for going too far. This and major jetlag were enough to completely throw off my sense of placement in time and space; in the same respect it got me wondering: Between a day in the west, jam-packed with temperatures that never stand still, and a day in the east, where it is overwhelming if the high and low aren’t more than twenty degrees apart, which experience of a single day feels more complete?
Of everything that happened that weekend, it seems like a strange thing to ponder, but the stranger notion of completion has been surfacing elsewhere for me. I’ve always fancied myself as a completionist. When I started collecting music, I felt I could only experience a piece if I did so fully. If I only cared for one movement of a large symphony, I still needed the whole recording. I was even happier if my Broadway soundtracks contained scene-change music and snippets of dialogue. Something about not only experiencing the big picture, but possessing it, too, made me feel safe and contextualized, as if my responsibility could be lifted and I could let my discoveries work their magic around me. I adopted this method with my planning as well. Registering for high school classes as a freshman, I went through the entire course selection, handpicked what interested me, and arranged it among four years. It wasn’t until I spoke with my advisor that I thought this unusual. It was my idea of practicality. Actually completing my obstacle course would be the accomplishment.
This has not been so easy in higher education. After finishing my BFA last May, I decided to stick around NYU to complete a fourth year of my own independent study, after high hopes of being able to take on a double major were dashed early on. As with my high school self, I planned out everything, thinking the success of my master plan would simply be a matter of showing up; but after many back-and-forth’s with the financial aid office, I was soon facing the prospect of having to quit school entirely by the end of the fall semester if I didn’t downsize. Abstract technicalities had never seemed so pointedly vicious. Unwilling to sacrifice my classes, yet (somewhat melodramatically) unable to imagine living having not finished something I had started, I managed to reduce my course of study to the barest essentials. I had to accept fragmentation as a form of completion – and I’m still working on it.
There is no moment without an experiencer. Societies are full of notions of moments of completion that are arbitrary, if not utterly false. Rites of passage, certifications, and, yes, even graduations take life’s whirling spiral, flatten it out, and section it off with thick concrete notches that are impossible to move. We then come to equate accomplishment with merely our finish lines; however, the finish line cannot exist without some stretch of road before it.
These moments of completion represent a kind of hoarding of time. They represent not one moment, but a sum of many moments, bound together in a culmination that feels good. We see this desire reflected in the traditions of our art – exposition that leads to some sort of climax that comes as a result of intense development, after which the only place to go is the end. The more moments comprising a moment of completion, the more valuable that particular moment is, yet when one alone is creating an entire world, that person is responsible for making sure the pre-climactic moments are just as thoroughly considered. It is not enough to desire with artifice. It is a simulation for which one must diligently work.
When you reach the end of a TV series you’ve been binge-watching on Netflix, have you contributed to its completion or has it contributed to yours? If the series is available for online streaming, chances are it’s already finished. Rather than the segmented flat line, I like to think of our timelines of experience as a free-form game of Jenga – a mass of movable parts with the potential to always grow or remain. Each activity is a new block, inserted somewhere in our own personal construction, from which you can take any two seemingly unrelated pieces at any distance and find some sort of connective pathway within the whole structure.
There may be a rule-book-prescribed shape in mind, but there is no predetermined frame to fill in. Even if you create that magnificent cubic rectangle, the way you insert each block is unlikely to be geometrically precise. What tells you you’re done becomes not something external, but highly internal – whether it be a stopping point that feels right, the gut-wrenching panic and acceptance of defeat upon seeing your tower collapse, or simply the need to do something else. Because there is no end form – only addition – the structure is technically complete at any point in time. This Thanksgiving season I move to turn away from any moments of completion in all their polished veneer, and instead, in a nuanced practice of aparigraha, turn towards examining the inherent completeness of each moment – of each stage of our experience.
It’s a fun thing to say, but it doesn’t mean I’ve gone off on my merry way, falling back on the inherent completeness of each moment when I feel blue or reluctant to work. Indeed, this kind of—perhaps equally arbitrary—viewpoint requires an active and energetic noticing in order to function.
I love the early work of the minimalist composers for this very reason. In the sixties, traditional arcs of musical development were being disassembled into ones built on gradual process and repetitive structures. Steve Reich took one phrase, and phased it in and out of itself, finding every combination of the phrase’s parts with its own parts. Meanwhile, Philip Glass would take one phrase, or even a segment of a phrase, and express it in every possible rhythmic coordination before moving on to something else – the thing was that, by virtue of such an exploration, he already had.
In taking something that’s already complete – a melody, or an empty measure shaped by a potential organization of beats – and filling it with every permutation of what a choice could be, you see not so much a piece, but a layered roadmap of options. You realize that what you might experience as complete was but one route through the attack of something much larger.
Naturally, maintaining such vigilance for everyday life can be pretty tiring. What, then, enlivens this idea is how our need to connect with others is essentially a prerequisite. Few labs are as ideal for exercising the interpersonal assistance of active noticing than the mat. Like a minimalist composition, the yoga practice is something in which we exist through repetition and slow developments, and, like our free-for-all Jenga, whatever blocks we take and add to ourselves, we work fully insofar as we are honest with what we need – taking that child’s pose while the class moves on, trying that bind, or perhaps using the blocks on a higher height one day, only to push forward toward the next day’s edge.
Class discussions of an asana create a rich bank of subjective experiences through which we can understand ourselves, others, and the many pathways that take us to that which we commonly choose to practice. That we often fight against what we need, or are not aware of something simpler we can offer ourselves until a teacher recommends it makes for so much richer an experience than knowing it all. It proves we are not islands, but cities with borders that are always being redrawn. We are complete through our bridges, rivers, and tributaries, in any and all combinations.
It is only fitting that it was a teacher of mine who, unbeknownst to him, explained this idea most concisely to me. In my aural comprehension class, between learning to hear and synthesize increasingly difficult components of music, we always return to the simple exercise of identifying solfege syllable by blindly striking keys on a piano and labeling their scale degree in the key of C as quickly and confidently as possible. We are never graded on it – instead, my professor puts us on our own spectrum, letting us know how far we still have to go. Rather than getting an immutable A, those who do well are told that, in that skill, they are “fully trained.” It leaves room for the subtlest refinements, reminds us that that status must be actively maintained, and ultimately that our journey, being journeys, are never complete. It goes without saying his class is not one that I’ll be dropping from the remainder of my academic trek.
The self-placement of each block is not only a collection of something that has passed; it is an opportunity propelling us into the future. Our limits are not the concrete notches sectioning off our timelines, but our companions, surrounding us in a relentless embrace. They can’t be demolished; they are endlessly flexible and generous, always there growing with us, but only if we first grow within them.
As for that sun, how better to realize twenty-four hours have passed than with a little temperate mischief?