Saturday, October 20, 2012

On bandhas, dinner parties, and Self-realization

About a year ago, I taught a workshop at Santa Cruz Yoga where we talked about the physical nature of the ever-elusive bandhas. We tried to pinpoint the location of the pelvic floor muscles, using imagery, and of course, using the breath to bring awareness to these largely unconscious parts of our bodies. At that point in my personal practice, I felt as if I had a pretty good understanding of what bandhas are, and what they do in our practice. I could feel them engaging. I could conjure the lifting, upward energy in certain postures. I could see in my students' bodies if they had a general awareness of their deep, pelvic and abdominal muscles, or, if they were unprotected and unsupported in the low back and their core.

I also understood, conceptually, that there was much much more to the bandhas than what I had felt in my own body. I was excited for the natural progression of practice and awareness.

In my experience, most teachers fall into two categories when it comes to the subject: they either avoid talking about it, because it is so subtle and there is very little tangible, physical 'showing' one can do (I've heard stories of teachers, um, 'assisting' with mula bandha. No, thank you.), or, when presented with a problem they don't have a proper answer to, they will say 'more bandhas' as if bandhas were something one could buy at the store and apply to their bodies for increased protection.

I have been fortunate to have amazing teachers. They have in different ways, contributed to my understanding of the bandhas. Richard Freeman uses colorful imagery--a golden thread sewn to the pelvic floor, the mandala at the root of the spine, the wedded bliss of pubic bone and coccyx--to direct our awareness to the specific areas in the body where the energetic lift happens. Mark Stephens, in concrete anatomical terms, urges a lifting of the arches of the feet which in turn wake up the inner legs and draw the energy upward. Chuck Miller, in his holistic approach, says bandhas create protection around the joints, so we can apply a knee bandha in triangle, if we take care to send the inner knee back equally as the outer knee and not hyper-extend; he teaches to notice the tendencies in the body--the tilt of pelvis, the protruding ribs, the turned out feet--and to work towards samastithi. By focusing our conscious awareness on these points of alignment, we undo samskaras, and we work toward bringing balance to prana and apana, the upward and downward forces in our bodies and minds.

But the most tangible, bandha awakening experience for me has come from someone who did not even know the term 'bandhas'. To work through a recently reactivated, long-time injury that involved my deep hip rotators, I began working with a seriously gifted, advanced Rolfer. She began her work with me from my feet, noticing my tendency to hang behind the arches of my feet. She noticed my tendency to over-work, something that goes well beyond my physical practices, as these tendencies often do, and she suggested that instead of thinking about my legs as muscles or bones doing work, that I imagine them as hollow reeds of energy. At this point, I was ready to hug her. In my years studying literature, I would often get this feeling when the books that I was drawn to, seemed to be in conversation with each other. I would organize my books on the bookshelf based on this principle: if they were at a dinner party, would they have a lot to talk about? I wanted to put Karen the Rolfer next to Richard Freeman, so I could soak up their wisdom as they shared their thoughts on Prana and Apana! She then worked with me, on releasing the deep hip rotators. Her theory is that they are confused and are trying to do the work of my PCG muscles, and once the PCG muscles come on board all the time (you take bandhas! All the time! echo the famous Pattabhi Jois words; of course he would have to be at the head of the dinner table...), the deep hip rotators will release. There is of course much much more that she worked on, but I'm sure that kind of personal, idiosyncratic information is not interesting to anyone but me. When I asked her if she was asking me to use more bandhas, energetic seals, she shrugged and said that she had never heard of the term, but that she always thought of them as portals.

This practice is ever-deepening. There is no end to it. Just when you think you've got it, you realize that you don't. Just when you think it's out of your reach, something shifts, and makes you feel like you are closer to it than ever. What is the 'it'? What is the 'it' we are trying to get close to? How do we ask these questions in a way that the answers never  fully arrive, never fully satisfy so that we may keep asking them in different contexts? How do we peel back the layers of the self to get closer to our core, to the Self? Bandhas are certainly portals, doorways we walk through in order to raise our consciousness in new ways. They are not something to 'get', or to master. Much like the practice, it is the process of awakening that is interesting.

How we stand on this earth is important. How we carry ourselves in the world, is how we interact with it. How we do one thing is how we do everything. This is how we relate; this is how we give and receive, how we see and are seen. Our teachers, our guides on this path, are in constant conversation with each other, and sometimes, we are lucky enough to feel their wisdom in our bodies and more importantly, in our lives.

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