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January 14, 2015

Locating Sensation: A Must-Read Meditation.

walking in snow

Well-bundled, I walk through the winter morning to get to the yoga class I teach.

I’m cold. My shoulders have rigidified somewhere up near my ears.

In my discomfort, I start to pay attention: where exactly am I cold?

I begin to notice that my eyes, fully bared to the day, are indeed cold. But there, the cold feels welcome, refreshing; it’s prying my eyes wide-awake. The air coming into my lungs is frigid, but it feels as though it is cleaning my lungs out; it turns out I don’t mind the coldness there at all.

What parts of me feel unpleasantly cold?

Not my wool-scarved neck. I wonder, then, why my shoulders have drawn up around my neck the way they have. What an odd choice for my well-meaning body to have made: to protect what doesn’t need protecting.

I do my best to release my shoulders down. Nothing terrible happens. My arms are warm enough, too. Left hand: fine. Right hand: cold. Why is my right hand cold? It appears that my right arm is not swinging at all. Oh, and my right shoulder is up again, and rolling quite far forward. That might have something to do with things.

I take the shoulder down and back and encourage the arm to swing a bit. I open and close my gloved right hand. Better. My torso is a-okay in this long coat, which covers most of my legs, down to my knees; everything below my knees is fine, cozied in furry snow boots.

It’s my outer thighs, I discover, that feel cold. Remarkably cold in some updraft that this coat seems to have been designed to channel along the outsides of my legs. I begin lifting my knees a little higher, pressing down with my feet more conscientiously with every step. Taking bigger steps. My haunches are still ice. But now at least I’ve got my neck clear and my arms moving—look, I’m almost there!

I’m the girl marching in her big coat, who knows the only part of her that’s cold is her outer thighs, and who is doing something about it!

In class today, we all try to scan our sensations as we breathe.

Where exactly does the inhale begin? The exhale? Where does each end? As we begin to move, which part of us actually wants to get out of the pose? Where is this hard? Where exactly?

When examining our feelings this mindfully in a pose, we might discover there’s nothing stopping us from staying forever, I pitch. Not everyone in the room seems convinced. But all of us stay a bit longer than usual in our standing poses, our backbends and inversions. In our seated poses we try to pinpoint the precise place where we’re stuck; where is the tightness that prevents us from going deeper? From twisting more, from folding further?

We try to breathe into that spot. We glimpse where more spaciousness might one day be possible. And in the final relaxation pose I chaperone, I ask students to try to limn the limit of their relaxation. Is there an internal limit to how deep they can go in these five minutes?

Let your awareness drop, I say, a snowglobe someone tossed into the sea.

Down.

And down.

This is a special sea: the deeper you go, the warmer it gets.

Where does your awareness stop? My gaze skims the quiet surface of the students and I wonder where they are inside, how far down they’ve gotten. Which part of my mind, if I imagine it sprawled like a star chart, seems to be doing this wondering, this watching? When the thoughts come, where exactly do they come? And when we all come back to an awareness of the shore of the body, giant and good, which part of the body first makes itself known?

And when we leave the class, maybe we still attempt to locate with greater exactitude a few of our feelings as we feel them. Sometimes hunger is indeed unmistakeably present: the pit of the belly is full of hunger, dense as rock. Happiness might be more general, hard to catch as dandelion seeds; a fine fuzz that moves from the internal organs to the skin, through all the cells, from the inside out, like fire-warmth.

But sometimes a sensation might evaporate altogether once we try to pinpoint it; that loneliness we thought we felt close to the bones, that lostness, might melt away under the lens of our attention like frost under sunlight, and we might find out we are not lonely, not lost after all.

That the only thing we feel close to the bones, when we look, is the engine-buzz of our own strength helping us to powerfully piston our knees as we troop home.

And when someone asks us why we’re walking that way, lifting our knees like that, well, the embarrassment we at first think we feel turns out to be a glow, a swell right behind the globe of the heart, deep inside the rounds of the cheeks, not so different at all from pride.

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Author: Amber Burke

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Adrian Scottow/Flickr

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