October 7, 2011

The Knee Bone’s Connected To The Thigh Bone.

And That’s Just The Start Of The Interconnections Revealed By Yoga.

The word yoga has become such a part of our modern jargon that it is easy to forget that it’s a Sanskrit word with a meaning beyond “moving and breathing in stretchy clothes on a rectangular, rubber mat.” In fact, in Sanskrit the word yoga means “to yoke, unite, join or connect.” What are we uniting? Depending on your perspective and understanding of the practice of yoga, there are many answers to that question.

At its most basic level, yoga brings to life an old song my grandmother used to sing to me. Maybe you know the one? “The knee bone connected to the thigh bone, The thigh bone connected to the back bone, … Oh, hear the word of the Lord!” As we move and breathe on our mat, our understanding of the interconnections within our bodies deepens radically. No longer do we complain of wrist pain without considering that the sensations could be coming from our forearm, elbow or shoulder. As our yoga practice evolves, we come to understand that the body cannot be understood (or treated) part by part. It is a whole. Each part inseparable from the others.

The practice of yoga unites other, less tangible aspects of ourselves than our foot bone or thigh bone. As we practice asana on our mat, we synchronize our movements with our breath. Working with breath is the gateway to working with the mind. In fact, yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch writes that “Learning to control the breath is the first step in learning to control the mind.” Therefore, in our practice of yoga, we’re not only connecting breath and body, we’re connecting body and mind. Our movements and our deep, fluid breathing help us settle into a calm, centered, steady state of mind in which we feel capable, powerful, and complete.

It’s relatively easy to see and feel these effects of yoga – the integrated understanding of the body and the connection of body and mind. All we have to do is get on our yoga mats every once in a while. While it’s really nice that it does, yoga was not created to help us feel better on our mats. Yoga was created to help us live better, more enriching and more valuable lives off our mats. Our intense focus on ourselves on our mats is practice for turning our focus with the same intensity to our experiences and interactions with others when we step off our mats and into our lives.

Yoga is a practice designed to reveal our connection to everyone and everything around us. As we practice more, we see that the interconnections we recognize in our bodies are pale reflections of the interconnections of society. We begin to sense our special, important place in the vast, incomprehensible whole of Creation of which we’re part. Just as our elbow is impacted by tight tendons in our shoulder and our knee is affected by a tight hip, we affect the world and the people around us. Our actions and our inactions create ripples that impact people we know and people we may never meet. We are united with the whole world and yoga is designed to help us remember this.

While the interconnectedness of my body and mind are vividly clear to me (sometimes uncomfortably so), the notion of my inseparability from the whole of Creation is more often a fun idea to toy with than a sharp, visceral reality. Therefore, I am always immensely grateful for those rare moments when I can actually see and feel this connection.

For more than a year I have been working on our church fair – almost full-time for the last month. Annually, over 4,000 people from the surrounding area flood through our gates the first Saturday of October for food, shopping, rides, games and an old-fashioned country auction. This was a project of epic proportions! The details, the deadlines, the questions to be answered and crises to be averted (mud, mud, and more mud from day after day of rain!) required me to focus as I do on my yoga mat. My yoga also helped me to maintain a cheerful outlook, keep a smile on my face and stay in a centered state of mind as I responded to questions, requests and concerns. I was even using my entire body (mindfully, most of the time) as I lifted boxes, moved tents, raked woodchips and ran hither and yon across the fairgrounds.

As our work reached a fever pitch during set-up week, I noticed I was feeling fantastic — alive, invigorated, connected. It was then, as I worked side by side, hour after hour, with literally hundreds of volunteers, that I realized I was having a powerful experience of that more elusive, greater connection that yoga teaches about. I was feeling and seeing my role in a greater whole with the same intensity that I can feel a tight hip or a frazzled state of mind. I actually paused in that moment of clarity to soak in the feeling. I deliberately reminded myself to pay attention all week to my ongoing sense of connectedness.

I climbed into bed the night after the fair filled with mixed emotions. While I was thrilled with the success of our event, I was very sad that my role in the greater whole of our team was ending. The feelings of connectedness that I experienced through my work on this project were “mountain top” feelings – intense, powerful, inspiring, unforgettable. But no “mountain top” experience lasts forever. After all, reaching another peak requires you to climb down and then head back up another hill.

I’ve chosen to take a slow and gentle path from my mountain top. As I wander down, I’m holding close my memories of being so tangibly connected to the world I’m part of. I’m also keeping my eyes wide open for other instances when I can sense my role in the vast sweep of Creation. In between moments of clarity, I’ll continue to practice on my mat so my awareness is keen enough that I don’t miss my next glimpse.

“The knee bone connected to the thigh bone …”
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