An account of an overweight, middle-aged Christian man’s adventures in Kundalini Yoga.
Mr. James Duffy lived…at a little distance from his body. ~ James Joyce[i]
…it is the problem of us modern men to connect the body again with the spirit, rather than identifying spirit with soul or mind, to the detriment of the body. ~ James Hillman[ii]
I have taken up Kundalini Yoga, and I’ll tell you why. At least, I’ll begin to; there are a lot of reasons, but here’s one.
When I was six years old, I woke up on my grandmother’s couch with my face in a box of Legos.® The last thing I remembered was seeing a PSA on TV about first aid for car crash victims. I remember the part about sweeping the throat with a finger to clear the airway, and then my mother telling me I had fainted.
A few months later, I nearly lost consciousness while having my blood drawn prior to my then-routine tonsillectomy. I vividly remember the reviving effect of the cold air as we stepped out of the hospital into the Upstate New York winter.
I fainted again during a high school health class. The subject turned to “sucking chest wounds,” and I made it about halfway to the door before keeling over. I awoke with a bad cut on my lip from my own teeth.
I evidently came by this squeamishness honestly. My mother had planned on going into medicine before discovering, in anatomy lab, that she fainted at the sight of blood. (She went into microbiology instead.)
This vasovagal response is normal; the body wants to lower the blood pressure in response to the sight of blood, on the chance that the blood is its own. The low blood pressure causes the syncope, or fainting, by depriving the brain of oxygen. Everyone has some vasovagal response–some people just have a little more than is useful (or socially convenient).
Unfortunately, this normal physical response can, when appropriated by mental illness, burgeon into a fairly debilitating condition called blood-injury phobia. A conversation that turns to illness or injury, a gruesome passage in a novel or any of a hundred other situations can be torturous to someone afraid they may pass out.
I include conversation and reading because in my case, it’s the idea of gore, more than gore per se, that sets me off. Even the most stylized, non-realistic gore in a stage play–because live theater works so powerfully on the imagination–might be harder to deal with than something more natural-looking in a movie, from which it is easier to maintain emotional distance. And cold-blooded gore–such as scenes of suicide, torture or medical procedures—is much more difficult than the soul-stirring bloodiness of passionate violence. (The most terrifying scene in The Exorcist, for me, is when the nurses are trying to get an I.V. into Regan.) So my queasiness is evidently a bodily reaction to ideas in my head, rather than something purely mechanistic. Presumably, if I could change my ideas about things, I could change my brain’s response to them, too.
Which was the reason I first sought therapy: knowing that I was about to become a father, and that the days of dads sitting out the delivery in the waiting room were over, and not wishing to compound the stress of the moment by ending up on the delivery-room floor, I knew I needed to come to terms with my anxiety.
As it turned out, I not only assisted at the births of both my daughters, I cut both their umbilical cords, too. And the various exigencies of parenthood have done a lot to put things into proper perspective for me. The more real life gets, the less scary our vulnerable humanity is. As my ideas have changed, so have my bodily reactions; finding an aisle seat in the theater, in case I need to leave, is no longer the priority it once was, nor do I need to hijack the conversation whenever it turns to medical issues. I also spent four years as a Eucharistic Visitor, taking Communion to elderly folks in nursing homes, which did a lot to dispel my fear of illness and healthcare institutions.
But I’m not all better yet.
Years ago, whilst making an abortive run at the ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, I spoke with a priest about my issues around disease and bodily violation. “This business,” she warned me, “is fraught with death.” Now that I am preparing for ordination as an Interfaith Minister, it is time to finally confront my discomfort with the body head-on. And no, I have not been led by my Christian upbringing to believe that the body is somehow “sinful”; the whole religion is predicated, after all, on God becoming flesh. But it’s true that we Christians are seldom given specific encouragement to regard the body as an arena of spiritual practice, which is where yoga comes in.
Why Kundalini Yoga in particular? Yoga asana practice has been immensely beneficial to me—if nothing else, it has enabled me to sit comfortably in meditation. But for me, the spiritual benefits of the practice itself (to the extent that there are any—which is, I realize, matter for spirited debate) is just too subtle. For as long as I’ve practiced it, it has remained almost exclusively a form of physical exercise.
My hope, in taking up the overtly “spiritual science” of Kundalini Yoga, is to achieve the integration of mind, body and spirit that both my Christian upbringing and my yoga asana practice have failed to give me. If I am going to minister to people, I need to be more fearless than I am in the face of disease, injury, suffering and death—to be, as one Christian Tantric described Jesus—“the one who does not recoil from anything.”[iii]
I’ll keep you posted on what happens.
Visit Scott at Open to the Divine!
[ii] Commentary on Gopi Krishna, Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man. Shambhala, 1997. (43)