Following up on my inventory of physical achievements, I want to clarify why that list was important for me. I am negotiating a new contract with my body. When I went through childhood and adolescence, I was laboring under several handicaps about how I perceived myself:
- Trauma: At the age of six, I had an appendectomy. I had felt a pain in my side for several days, but did not recognize it as a serious symptom. I kept asking my mother for aspirins. I was at school when it worsened substantially. After school was out, I tried to walk home, a mere two blocks, but that distance seemed as if it were two miles. (The sense of distance is still engraved on my mind; when I went back last year, I saw that my sense of dimension had been blown out of proportion.) I did make it home. The crossing guard saw that I was doubled over in pain, and got help. I was rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation because it was close to rupturing. While recovering from the operation, an infection set in and I had to stay another week. I was conscious when the doctors drained the abscess. I remember the putrid color of the pus as it flowed out of my belly and into the metallic pan. This was also my first separation from my mother so it must have been traumatic for me to spend the evenings and nights alone. When I went home, I was hit with several other childhood illnesses, which kept me out of school. I ended up repeating first grade.
- Wimp: I had allergies that caused asthma and skin rashes. I did not participate in organized sports or engage in fights or quarrels because I feared an almost pre-ordained defeat because my body could not defend me, it would break first.
- Feet of clay: I had a fungal infection under my toe nails and on my soles. My nails were very disfigured by the time I was a teenager. I did not want to show my feet in public, which meant that I hated going to the beach or the pool. The biblical metaphor of having feet of clay seemed to apply to me. About eight years ago, I saw a dermatologist and had the condition treated. I don’t think I could have started practicing yoga if I had not first cured my skin condition; I would never have taken off my socks.
The unspoken conclusion of these visceral experiences was that I could not trust my body. It was going to fail myself. If tested, it was going to break. What’s more, I could not anticipate when and how it would betray me. So I discounted it; I ignored it; I concentrated my efforts on a mental realm, in a fantasy world that consumed my energies during childhood and then intellectual efforts once I got into junior high and found that I could distinguish myself in the academic world. I did not participate in sports because I could never push myself to the maximum because I misinterpreted the exertion required for sport competition as a warning that my body was near its limit and close to a breakdown.
Those perceptions of my physical body have followed me for 40 years, shaped my self-image and conditioned how I dealt with the physical world.
Over the past four years, I have been moving slowly, gradually and hesitantly towards a new awareness of my body, a prolonged dialog between my body, mind and spirit to reach a new agreement about how all three hang together and establish a different interface with the outside world. I did not even know why yoga and pranayama felt so “right” to me when I started back in early 2004, or why meditation has been so liberating. But I have kept engaged in this new flux and have gradually changed the terms of the partnership. I am reverting to childhood and the primal tasks of walking, running, bending, lifting, extending. I even find myself re-examining something as fundamental as how I take each step, what parts of my foot are employed and when, and how that changes translates up my limbs and changes the way that I carry myself. It’s a much bigger challenge than becoming physically stronger, more flexible, more skillful at moving my body. In a sense, I am taking ownership of my whole body and exercising full dominion over my personal space, rather than being confined to my head. It requires a greater command of sense and awareness. and an extension of my will through my core, out to my fingers and toes — and beyond.
That’s why this physical side of change has taken on so much significance. If I am able to run five miles or push myself into wheel or crow pose, that small achievement means that I can take a childlike joy in possessing my body and its capabilities.