It should be no surprise to anyone reading this that I have a troubled relationship with the concept of the body. I've been thinking about that trouble in theological and spiritual terms lately, and yoga plays a big part in that.
Six weeks ago, I was scrolling through Facebook and found a post by a high school friend mentioning that a new session of the Therapeutic Yoga class she teaches was starting the next day. My heart in my throat, I sent her the following message:
Hi Marianne! I took the bait and signed up for your therapeutic yoga class. I am a little bit terrified of the prospect, since I've really become decrepit as the years have passed and have a lot of health issues. I have only done one yoga session in my life (a few months ago) and was pretty much crippled for the next two weeks, but I'm feeling so terrible right now in terms of chronic pain that I am willing to take a chance! I did love the way doing yoga made me feel mentally -- it prevented me from thinking too much since I had to make sure that I didn't fall over. So, I am excited and scared and will be happy to see you after all these years. See you tomorrow -- I hope I can find the yoga studio.... and is there parking?
Marianne enthusiastically encouraged me to come and I've been so happy that I did.
There are several things that have struck me during the sessions I've attended. One is Marianne's repeated question, "Are you breathing?". I wish I could reproduce the warmth and wryness with which she asks this basic question. The second is the idea that our body gives us information -- if you are standing with more weight on one side than another, if one foot is in front of another, if your feet are not parallel, that is information. Marianne says, "Don't try to fix it. Just notice it." Finally, at the beginning and the ending of each class, we are asked to place our hands in prayer position.
"Allow your hands to touch and be touched," Marianne says.
Touch. Being open to touch. That's never been my strong suit. I don't come from a hugging family. I was in high school before I ever saw my parents kiss one another. I don't remember my parents embracing me much during my childhood. I've made an exception with my own children -- I'm very physically affectionate with them, allowing even my eight year old, almost as tall as I am, to sit on my lap at will and cuddling with both girls as often as they'll let me. But, I confess, sometimes it's hard. I've had to stop myself from saying (especially when they were younger), PLEASE STOP TOUCHING ME.
I think there are many reasons that touch, carnality (in the sense of living in one's body), and the physical body are not easily accessible to me. I mentioned here my isolated and immoble infancy. I'm also a very cerebral person -- I spent much of my childhood in my head, fantasizing, telling stories, reading books, and not a huge amount playing sports or getting down into the mud.
There's also a family history to contend with. I come from recent immigrant stock. Poor immigrants. My Irish grandparents were born just a few decades after a third of their countrymen died with stomachs distended from starvation, their teeth and tongues and lips green from the grass they ate to fill their emptiness. My Polish family was so poor that they indentured my great-grandmother to a landowner so that she would have something to eat. Until the day she died, my grandmother talked about how poor her cousins in Poland were and how conflicted she was when she visited them, knowing that the beautiful meal they provided to her meant that they'd go without milk, and meat, and butter, and jam for the rest of the month, since they'd used all their ration cards to entertain her. That kind of poverty, that kind of hunger, makes people suspicious of the body and its imperatives and pleasures. I think that this is a kind of hidden strand in my family history -- certainly no one would have talked about that kind of thing. But those kinds of traumas shape a family culture and we pick those attitudes up by osmosis.