mind vs body

By on Oct 7, 2014 in The Unruly Ascetic

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What do we need to be able to do a pose?

I’m not talking about the deeper sense of knowing and being and awareness that can result from the practice of Yogāsana. I mean, what is required in the physical body and the conscious mind to make it happen?

That is what I have been interested in lately.  The difference between understanding an asana with the physical body and understanding with the mind.

Sometimes my mind understands what is expected from the body… theoretically, intellectually.  I can conceptualize the necessary joint rotation and muscular support;  I can describe the needed application of strength and shift of weight. As a practitioner, it can be infuriating to not be able to reproduce a movement or posture that I can easily explain how to do because my body is limited in its available strength or range of motion.

But sometimes it’s not that simple. Sometimes my body’s physical limitations (and it has many) are not the problem.

Sometimes my body just doesn’t understand. 

Despite the fact that my conscious, analytical mind can see, process, and conceptual what is necessary… my body just won’t do it. Like a willful toddler who throws a tantrum because it doesn’t want to, my body rebels against my mind and won’t apply its available resources in an integrated enought manor to achieve the desired results and all I can do is try again tomorrow. Nothing particularly needs to be learned, my body just needs time to believe it.

But there’s a flip side to this rupee.

Occasionally, I will be instructed (either by my own bossy mind or by one of my lovely teachers or practice buddies) to do something that I am positive, mentally sure, that I cannot do. My mind says: nope. But out of respect and a vague attempt toward humility I will ask my body to try something my mind does not remotely understand… and voilà! tic to a toc on the first honest try. Not because I studied and I listened and I put in the mental work to set the foundation, but because my body had been doing work that it understood, whether or not my mind realized it.

I recently had a student whose body loves to bend. It bends without much resistance or structural support and leaves him looking a bit like Stretch Armstrong. This seems to leave his mind feeling a bit unstructured as well, always warding off compliments from other students for abilities he doesn’t feel he deserves credit for. His body can do things his mind doesn’t understand. So when I had him humbly and steadily practicing under my criticism (‘like an antagonistic older sibling’ …his words, not mine! but I’ll take it) I decided that his mind needed to catch up a bit.  While he was easy to assist into advanced variations of postures, I wasn’t sure if he was learning from them.

So I kind of stopped. Rather than assist him, I would heckle him through his paces. Scolding him when he avoided the work and fell back on his natural gumby-nature or clapping and whooping when he got it right.

While I had hoped that his mind would understand how to find muscular and structural support for his vast range of motion, it appeared that I was losing the battle. He vehemently declared that it was too hard, that he couldn’t do it, that he didn’t understand. He left most days looking a bit defeated.

and my time with that particular program came to an end. I moved on. Then, not long after, he mentioned that he was having an easier time with backbends, that he was catching more comfortably without help and it wasn’t so stressful. Soon after that, he came across town to practice with me in my new space and he showed me his new method… and I’ll be damned if he hadn’t learned exactly the thing I’d spent all summer trying to explain to him! The very thing his mind spent all summer refusing to understand.

I don’t honestly know which part of him learned it first. I had been trying to teach his mind, but I think his body learned first and his mind caught up a beat or two later. All I know is that I was as proud as a mama bird watching the chick leap out of the nest.

In the end, I think the important thing was that it didn’t matter that he didn’t think he was understanding, just like it didn’t matter that I didn’t believe my teacher when I was told to try something I thought impossible. Because sometimes the body understands things the mind doesn’t (and vice versa) and then all there is to do is…

practice, and all is coming.