By Grief to Heal

At a Good Friday service, a minister once advised:

There are some sorrows too great for the body to bear, and for this reason we have rituals.

If this is true, then perhaps also the converse is true. To confront our deepest wounds, we strip away all semblance of ritual, and connect to our experience through the simplest practice.

For the final workshop of my Soul Play Fall Fest, I participated in Clarity Breathwork with Ashanna Solaris. The thirty attendees almost filled the space. After a brief explanation of the practice, Ashanna passed a crystal around the room, asking each of us to share our name and a few words that described the goal we hoped to achieve. Seated just to her right, I received the stone last. Held in my left hand, the crystal was infused with the energy cupped in my right as I slowly intoned:

Empowered feminine partnership.

But the Father asserted himself.

We were organized in two rows, heads toward the center with a footpath to allow Ashanna and her assistant to reach easily those overwhelmed by powerful emotion. I positioned myself next to the wall, actually a short space from the others.

The practice was simple: a slow rhythmic breathing, described by Ashanna as “feminine.” The inhale was heard as “ah” and the exhale as “oh.” No pauses between – we were to create a deep, steady cycling of energy.

Whether fighting food coma or afternoon lethargy, for the first twenty minutes I had trouble staying awake, much less maintaining the rhythm. Eyes closed, four times or five I heard a female voice in my ear encourage me to “Keep breathing.” Finally I got the knack of it, enjoying a steady cycle that built energy between my hips and solar plexus.

The voice was not satisfied. “Breathe into your heart. Let it rise into your chest.” Allowing my ribs to expand with the inhale, my back arced away from the carpet as my breastbone lifted upwards, falling with the exhale. The blocked energy washed upwards. Running from shoulder to shoulder, an intense band traced my head.

Sorrow awoke in my heart and built through five or so repetitions, and I was there again. My breath caught on the grief of the experience, losing its rhythm. The voice again ordered “Keep breathing.” I went deeper, and then crumbled in psychic agony. Wracked by sobs that broke into moans, the inhale became a brief gasp. I struggled for a minute, the blood-streaked visage filling my mind’s eye, until the voice commanded, “Breathe, breathe.” Slowly the inhale became longer, the exhale less explosive.

I was astonished by the serenity of the face above the broken body. My forearms just below the wrists began to glow with energy. He suffered, but when the animal reactions asserted themselves, he projected them away. That urge to scream, to struggle against the pins that held the limbs against the wood, to flee the pain of metal grinding against bone, these were suppressed and projected forward, finding their way through two thousand years to me.

I screamed, a long, impossibly slow articulation of agony that stretched out for twenty seconds. As the sound echoed in the room, my amazed intellect observed that the lungs were not deflating. Hands took my head and the voice, less assured, again commanded “Breathe!” I did, but the rhythm was marked by short, choked sobs.

I broke again, long waves rolling through me, hips and shoulders seeking freedom from the floor made intimate by the discipline of the practice. A last paroxysm brought my head against the carpet hard enough to thump against the concrete floor. Intellect stilled me with alarm.

And then the serenity transfixed me. I lost bodily awareness, floating in a space of sacred regard. The twelve elders stood guard around me, finding focus in the twelve apostles. My sacred lady turned her tender gaze upon me. Returning to earth, the glow in my forearms brightened and lengthened, and filled my feet. He thought “Father, I offer these wounds to you.” Pulled skywards, my arms and legs left the floor. Tears came, punctuating the impossible serenity and the compassion that sustained it.

The voices around me broke through, others sobbing in grief. I realized that I had triggered this. I came instantly to alertness, again in the room. Rising up on one side, I caught Ashanna’s eye as she ministered to a woman near me, and breathed the question, “Do you want me to help?”

“Whenever you are able.”

I gathered my legs under me, stretched my palms into the heavens, and washed the room with love.

The woman next to me was the most distressed. I won’t describe in detail. Ashanna’s assistant and I spent several minutes with her. Others needed attention, and left alone I advised. “Feel the love in the room. Breath it into your lungs. Now let it flow into your blood, and gather in your heart. Now let it flow from your heart to the rest of your body.” She steadied, and I offered simple praise. “Good job.”

She gasped “You too. Good job.” Then she turned away to her man. Gathered in his sturdy embrace, she immediately steadied.

Ten minutes later, as I delayed waiting for the others to depart so that I could check in with Ashanna, my coparticipant caught my attention. “Thank you. I never would have done it otherwise. You went for it, and I decided to do the same. You filled the room with this incredible energy, and I just went along.”

I’ve been there before, triggered by the passing of the elements or the words of a song. Eyes filled with awe, people huddled together in groups, glancing over shoulders turned against me.

So this was the greatest gift of the weekend: to be told that in that suffering the seeds of healing could be found. That is why it was done. That was its purpose. It is the only way to make meaning of it.

Reflection: Yoga Beyond Asana

It’s coming up on the end of my fourth year of practice in the Bikram Yoga school in Agoura Hills. Obviously the primary impact has been physiological. When I was out at the Skeptics Conference in Pasadena in May, a number of people commented that I had excellent posture. As I am painfully aware right now, that process is ongoing – I realized just recently that when standing, my right hip is shifted about an inch to the left. The pain derives from a shortened band of muscles in the right side of my lower back. Every class, I stretch them out, and every evening they crawl back to the length they have had for the last thirty years.

I didn’t realize how great the changes in the rest of my body had been until I met again with Balwan Singh yesterday. Balwan works at Bikram headquarters organizing teacher trainings. He is very Indian, struggling still at times with his English, but humble and joyful to the core. He had taught in Agoura Hills on Saturdays while the studio was establishing itself, often coming by with his lady-love Sharon (who is now expecting). The first words out of his mouth were “You look really good.” Sitting on the floor in the second session, I looked in the mirror and finally saw what people have been talking about. My body has filled in, and it responds gracefully to direction.

Most teachers in the Bikram method hew tightly to the established environmental constraints – primarily to keep the room near 105 degrees and the students in posture. The conditions were established while Bikram was developing his practice in Japan, and as a 6’6″ physically active American, they are really brutal on me. Most of the advanced practitioners in the studio are actually proportioned like the Japanese.

Balwan always catered to my challenges, and yesterday was no exception. I set my mat up in the back in the path of the air through the door. It came open early, and the oxygen that came with the air made it a very different practice. When the owner Rachel, who was set up just to my right, indicated that she wished it closed, Balwan remarked that advanced practitioners created heat internally, and the environmental controls weren’t as important as for beginners.

Rachel is a really beautiful lady, both inside and out, and I’ve been trying to facilitate her union with some angels that have been floating around in my orbit. Balwan got us to focus on breathing from the get-go, and I surrendered the tension in my chest to let the air really fill my lungs. I got into this rhythm with Rachel, each of us just looking into the other to see where the energy was getting stuck. For me, the most surprising impact of that collaboration came during head-to-knee posture. For the first time I really got up into the second stage, balanced on one leg with the other held out parallel to the floor in front of my hip.

When the practice was over, we were offered a lecture by Arvind Chittamulla, organizer of MokshaFest here in LA. As anyone who has studied the Vedic practices knows, there is far more to Yoga than the physical training, or Asanas. The ultimate goal of Yoga is to allow the purifying energy from the divine source to flow into the world through us.

As Arvind explained, here in the West yoga has spread as a physical practice. As I see it, that reflects the forces that Western society organizes to channel our behaviors to the purpose of creating wealth for those that employ us. They are reinforced by media images that impose air-brushed standards of beauty. We lack both consciousness of the psychic costs of internalizing these forces, and methods for purging them. Yoga asanas allows us, to a certain degree, to at least regain control of our physical manifestation.

But there is much more to yoga than that. Meditation is essential to management of our minds, and breath-work grounds us in the world. Asana, meditation and breath-work are connected: if we don’t have control of our mind, the corrupt thoughts that we entertain during asana practice will infect our bodies. For this reason, Arvind sees that the narrow focus of yoga in the West actually hurts many practitioners.

Arvind walked us through the other seven limbs of the tradition. In Indian studios, orientation to the first two, involving morality and life action, are often prerequisites to practice of the asanas. The remaining five manage the inward journey that opens into relationship with the divine.

The lecture was directed towards the teachers in the room, and Arvind’s ultimate goal is to broaden instructor certification to include, at a minimum, meditation and breath work. As a business proposition, he believes that the idle hours at many studios could be filled with sessions that offered students those tools.

I know that I have benefited from the coupling of my physical practice to my spiritual development. As I explained to Arvind, the difficulty of the conditions during a Bikram class forced me to completely surrender my ego – I had to accept that I had a lot of work to do before I could achieve the postures even in their initial expression. Given that surrender, the consistency of the sequence ensures that I am able to enter a meditative frame, letting my muscles do the work until something doesn’t work, and then focusing only on that. I have learned to ignore the other students in the room while still sharing the energy that arises between people committed to a common goal.

So I must wish Arvind success in his efforts, although I think that he might find more acceptance if he packaged them as advanced certifications.

The interaction with Arvind came with some tensions. I was glad to be with Balwan at the end of the evening. He was talking with one of the other attendees, and I circled around behind to put my hand on top of his head and share a hug, wishing him all the deepest joys of fatherhood. He sent me off with a heart-felt “Thank-you, Brian. Thank-you so much.”