June 13, 2012

Does Yoga Really Foster Transformation? ~ Michael Joel Hall

A student today shared with me how her dedication to the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system was beginning to affect change. 

She was able to bind in Ardha Baddha from standing– and do so solidly. She was clear headed at the office. David Robson has said that a sincere yoga practice guarantees transformation

Really? Guaranteed? She looked earnest. My eyes filled with visceral memory and understanding. Starting out as an oft-depressed and obese football lineman, one car accident changed everything. Does yoga really foster transformation? A shattered leg and a broken jaw later, I was given the opportunity to change. To transform. To find freedom. This is my story:

The sparks from the ne’er-do-well looking contraption illuminated the rain-drenched street as the line of cars changed shape with each pause of both rain and saw. The jaws-of-life tore through the roof of the turquoise Geo Storm like you might tear through an over-ripe peach.

This was a car small enough to be but an hor d’oeuvre for a T-Rex. I would have screamed, I’m sure, if my jaw hadn’t been broken by the impact with the tree. Then again, maybe I did: I’m not sure anyone would have heard it over the sound of the helicopter in the distance.

The grizzly iron insect was in cahoots with the Jurassic contraption, waiting to retrieve and then Medevac. The closest hospital to this tiny rural farming community I called home required their aid if I was to make it there alive. Change flew in that day on rolling thunder.

Sutra is Sanskrit for thread, as in suture; and they used plenty to stitch me back up.

I can remember the day they took the rod out of my leg. I asked for the wires in my jaw to be taken out without anesthesia. I wanted to feel the change. I wanted to sit with the discomfort (that only lasted one harrowingly bloody piece of wire twine). I may have simply been a masochist.

There was no yoga asana in my life then. I mean, yoga had become mainstream enough that my football coach incorporated some very yoga-looking stretches and movements in our warm-ups, but we were still on the outskirts of passing the granola standard. The closest thing I had to eastern philosophy was a copy of the Tao Te Ching.

“If you would have a thing shrink, you must first stretch it.” ~ Tao Te Ching

The first thirty pounds came off in no time. The most decadent meal my mother attempted to puree for me was a pork chop. I remember desperately wanting solid food, and this was a close salve.

I remember the first time I was allowed to go out of the house again with friends; our trip was to the brand new, very exciting McDonald’s at the far end of town. The French fry couldn’t be pressed through the metal. I had forgotten, in that split second, that I was an invalid. The smush of processed potato re-reminded.

The next fifty pounds took some hard work. Diet and exercise. Learning to walk. Then run.

You know that game. It’s the real deal. I had no reason to be just shy of three hundred pounds anymore. I wasn’t a lineman. I wasn’t even a biped. I shunned the walker and worked with crutches and canes for that first year. It’s hard to remember any of it through the haze of Percocet.

Somehow or another, I found myself on the other side. I got way too skinny.

I tried on a variety of disordered eating patterns just as I tried on new jeans. I had no idea what one would fit properly. I got reckless with sex and drugs, and when my best friend died in a car accident of her own, not only did I no longer recognize my reflection in the mirror, I couldn’t relate to the head I inhabited.

There were asanas now.

In between highs (and lows), there was occasionally a yoga class. There was sometimes an extra 20 pounds. At other times, I could have really used that 20. I wanted so badly to be not alive anymore, but having been so close to death, I couldn’t bear the thought of the messages on my parents’ answering machine.

The calls that would sound like they had that rainy night as my small town saw the helicopter and the gossip spread with an inaccurate fervor that rivaled brush fire in speed.

Rock bottom came, as it does, in the guise of violent rock-and-roll—that is, the sex and drugs, of course. But, to the lucky ones, it comes with people who stick around and show you where your bootstraps are; the kind that won’t pick you up by them, but instead wait for you to find the moxy to get your own ass up.

And, as it does with me, it all comes back to asana. The toy of bakasana to play with. The sensation of movement in my hip. The chance to feel like I could fly and move. All of these little physical challenges and accomplishments pushed me towards order. My disorders melted away slowly. Year by year.

Soon, I was registered for my first marathon.

After the boyfriend with whom I had registered and I parted ways, I ran the marathon anyway. Then, I did it again. At first to beat him. And then to beat myself. By now, bakasana (crow pose) was a dear friend, and Mr. Iyengar was the one who whispered the secrets of flight that Orville and Wilbur missed.

“A cup is not a cup, but a label of an object” ~ Swami Brahmananda

Longhaired, with a good attitude, I looked right at home at the ashram. As the puffiness of the stitch-and-staple marks on my legs slowly became a dull pink beneath my tan from the island’s sun, I learned about sutras. The yoga kind. And transformation. About the power and potential for change.

“You are not your bullsh*t.” What a revelation!

Developing the capacity for discernment during your yoga practice allows you to identify the difference between masochistic tendencies and honest discomfort that breeds transformation. Becoming a witness to your feelings begets opportunity for honest observation and the labeling of “useful” or “not useful” to actions and thoughts.

Cultivate the useful, dismiss that which isn’t. It’s easier said than done. But in the same way that starving myself would make me skinny (and somewhat stupid), the means are sometimes more important than the end. Asana practice has begun to change what I do with my head space.

“Cessation of thought is limited by reliance of the phenomenal world.” ~ Yoga Sutra 1.19

Oh, how natural the disorder patterns feel! The loci of the body is so quick to become circumspect with asana-ego and competition. It’s this kind of sh*t that asexually reproduces into violence and force.

The transition to life in India was as violent as it was forceful. Too close to the blade to know for sure if this was more unseemly masochism or an opportunity to sit with discomfort, I used it as an opportunity to explore authenticity. To listen with fresh ears to the chatter of the mind.

Was my digital persona my true self? Did my proficiency in asana beget me special powers of awareness?

I was looking for the clear jewel of awareness that would not reflect the colors of that which was around me, but stay clear and crystalline.

And I’m not there yet.

Everything is a reflection. Be it of the sparks from an over-grown circular saw tearing away at a used car, the flame from the butane torch on a husked out light bulb, or a sense of worth based on abilities or inabilities. But there in lies the work.

“The profound clarity of intuitive cognition brings inner tranquility.” ~ Yoga Sutra 1.47

What did I learn from my travels to India?

The first month felt like sh*t. No matter how middle-way I attempted to be, I was brought down by the friction and inertia of my attachments and discolorations. The second month was so much easier that I felt somehow enlightened. My third month reminded me that the only color my crystal deserved to be was green. I didn’t know anything except that I was me.

But transformation is always there waiting. Every decision we make brings us an opportunity. Our own fear and shame keep us from doing the work. It gets dangerous when those same things become the motivators for our work.

Heck, doing the work that is required of me in my Ashtanga practice is not terribly different from the work that I’m determined to do as an active participant in society and my local community. By that I mean it comes from a place of compassion and acceptance as opposed to being from a place of unworthiness or shame.

When I go lift weights, I know that I’m helping to hone my compass. I’m setting conditions for my crystal to be clear. Perhaps, like the cork block I long favored in hanumanasana, I won’t need the prop anymore. (6 WaysYogaHelpsCrossfit)

I read somewhere that asana wasn’t the only way to get kundalini, you know—spiritual energy, to rise. I think they were referencing heavy back squats. I’m not esoteric enough to know for sure if that’s true, but I do believe that the work we do on our physical body affects our subtle bodies. And vice versa. Breath and movement.

Chatter of the mind becomes chatter of the mouth. Just look how long this is already. When I talk about the powerful effects of yoga, I frequently end up speaking to transformation. Asana as a mindfulness practice. An awareness exercise. It is in this awareness that we can discover the ability to discern.

It is in this quest for heightened awareness that I find myself the forever student.

I’m still learning. I’m still testing. And that has to be okay. For most, cessation of thought follows faith, heroic energy, mindfulness, contemplative calm and wisdom.

I practice yoga to cultivate the parameters required for transformation. And to be that radically accepting and honest requires work. But, so goes the eternal paradox: it’s easier to do the work than not.

 Yes, yoga fosters transformation. I just wouldn’t know it if I weren’t doing it.




Editor: Cassandra Smith


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Michael Joel Hall