June 23, 2012

Kintsugi as Yoga: Filling the Cracks with Gold. ~ Zo Newell

Photo: Jimmy Hilario

“There are cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” ~ Leonard Cohen

Changing our thinking about life’s injuries transforms our experience of them.

As a therapeutic/restorative yoga teacher, I don’t try to fix anybody.

I try to find out where they are broken, and how to illuminate their particular cracks.

This might involve a strong, backbending practice for one person and a supremely gentle, supported practice for another.

For me personally, it’s sometimes one and sometimes another; but as I get older, and as I become more fully aware of all that has befallen me in this lifetime, I am drawn less and less to a “strong” or extroverted practice and more and more to whatever helps me embrace my scars and breaks.

An image has been surfacing, persistently, of late in my Facebook world: a ceramic teacup, badly, even—you would think—irreparably cracked.  But the cracks are filled with gold.

photo: Ars Electronia, Flickr

The image is accompanied by a few lines about Kintsugi, the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with gold-imbued resin.

With this process—said to have been invented at the behest of a fifteenth-century shogun, dismayed when a cherished piece of cracked porcelain was mended with ugly metal staples—a damaged vessel is transformed from something to be discarded into a work of art.

The process makes no attempt to hide the crack, but incorporates it as a design element into something simultaneously broken and strengthened by the break.

I gather that some medieval Japanese craftsmen were so enchanted by the designs revealed  in the Kintsugi process that they sometimes broke perfectly good vessels for the sheer joy of mending them.

I’ve shared the Kintsugi image on my own Facebook page, and it’s engendered lots of “likes,” “shares,” and appreciative comments from my Facebook friends.

Hardly any of them are ceramic artists. The idea of enhancing and honoring one’s scars seems to appeal on a metaphysical level.

It resonates with an old impulse of mine (not acted on) to have a master tattoo artist decorate the scar which runs from just below my right wrist, halfway to my elbow, with a dragon, or perhaps a flowering vine—something sinuous and lively to honor the break which deprived me, for awhile, of my right hand, an organic symbol to celebrate the titanium rod which now lives in my skin in  place of part of my bone, something that proclaims a quirky beauty in my scars.

As a yoga teacher, my “vein of gold” has always lain in the cracks of injury.

My ideal student is someone who is irreparably altered, broken by life’s experiences and yet yearns for transcendence. I understand yoga, not as asana (physical posture), but as a multifaceted path out of suffering.

This does not mean that I think that “doing” yoga means that all the lights will be green and all the parking places free and near the entrance.

No, yoga as a darshana, a point of view, helps us to understand that suffering is inevitable when we collide with the world as it is and expect it to behave otherwise  than it does. It also tells us that we have choices about how we deal with the world’s unkindnesses.

I had a major disappointment this week.

I thought I was being “brought on board” by a well-funded organization to teach therapeutic yoga to people in  pain. I thought they valued my training and experience, and I thought that, at least to some extent, they were concerned with my well being. It turns out that, actually, they don’t and they’re not, and that we have different ideas, that organization and I, about what is really important in yoga.

This is where the Kintsugi part comes in.

When I learned how wrong I had been about my position in relation to that organization, I was angry, and I dove into duhkha, the suffering that comes from identifying with the individual personality.

I blamed myself for being—I don’t know, too old, too opinionated, too something, not-enough something else—I felt that I was being discarded because I am broken.

After a day or so of that, the yogic technique known as pratipaksha bhavanam, literally “moving to the other side of the house,” or transferring awareness from negative objects to more positive ones, kicked in.

I thought about those broken porcelain vessels and how they were not only strengthened but marvelously beautified by their golden seams.

I recognized the cracks that life has left in my own psyche and body, and how those very injuries allow me to understand and bond with people who suffer in similar ways. I recognized that my ability to empathize with trauma and certain kinds of pain eases other people’s suffering and helps transform it into a kind of beauty, as idiosyncratic as a cracked vessel seamed with gold.

My cracks—my particular injuries and imperfections—and my ability to repair and illuminate them, are what make me such a good teacher.


Zo Newell, Ph.D., E-RYT 500, was introduced to yoga as a child by Rammurti S. Mishra, M.D. (Sri Brahamanad Sarasvati). She is certified at the 1,000-hour level through the Southern Institute of Yoga Instructors; in addition she holds certificates as a Relax and Renew trainer (beginning and advanced).  She has taught since 1991, specializing in restorative yoga, therapeutics, and yoga philosophy. Her teaching is informed by her training in religious studies (Ph.d. Vanderbilt, M.T.S. Harvard) and by experience as a mental health counselor and hospital chaplain. Zo is particularly interested in yoga’s healing potential for people living with cancer and post-traumatic issues. Zo is the author of the award-winning Downward Facing Dogs and Warriors: Wisdom Tales for Modern Yogis (Himalayan Institute Press 2006), a contemplative approach to yoga through Indian mythology and journaling.

~ Editor:  April Dawn Ricchuito

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