A Fluid Connection Severed and United
Krista Tippett, host
U.S. culture glorifies “perfect” bodies. At the other end of that spectrum, we champion people who fight when their bodies fail. Matthew Sanford has charted another way. In his lyrical memoir, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, he describes how he learned to live in his whole body again, despite an irreversible paralysis, in part through the practice of yoga. And like every story well told, his contains lessons that reach beyond the confines of one person’s experience.
Here is the kind of passage — one of several he reads in our show we titled “The Body’s Grace” — that made me want to understand more:”
“I am forced to feel death — not the end of my life, but the death of my life as a walking person. In principle my experience is not that uncommon, only more extreme. If we can see death as more than black and white, as more than on and off, there are many versions of realized death short of physically dying. The death of a loved one sets so much in motion … Then there are also the quiet deaths. How about the day you realized you weren’t going to be an astronaut or the Queen of Sheba? … What about the day we began working not for ourselves, but rather with the hope that our kids might have a better life? Or the day we realized that, on the whole, adult life is deeply repetitive? As our lives roll into the ordinary, when our ideals sputter and dissipate, as we wash the dishes after yet another meal, we are integrating death, a little part of us is dying so that another part can live.”
The “mind-body connection” is a somewhat controversial phrase, a new-age notion to some, though it has been studied and described scientifically in a multitude of forms in recent years. I have spoken with scientists engaged in that work, but none of them has impressed me with the reality of the mind-body connection as Matthew Sanford does by his mere presence.
For over a quarter century, as a result of a car accident that killed his father and sister, he has been in a wheelchair. Yet I’ve rarely sat across from a person so alive, a body so palpably whole and wholly energetic as his. He has knitted his mind and body back together again over a quarter century, wresting wholeness through layers of cultural denial.
As we speak, Matthew Sanford makes me aware of the seamless cooperation of my mind and uninjured body, a synergy most of us take completely for granted. I stand up and walk as soon as the desire crosses my mind; I gesture with my hands to illustrate an idea I am passionate about; I shake my foot as my own engagement in conversation rises.
This kind of fluid connection was severed in Matthew Sanford. Yet as he struggled to come to terms with his body’s new realities during years of recovery and violent corrective surgeries, he encountered another kind of mind-body connection that our culture practices instinctively, reflexively. We celebrate those who battle adversity, triumph over obstacles, beat the odds. We love the 80-year-old man who runs a marathon, the injured hero who never gives up pursuing the technology that will enable him to walk again. This is the mind-body connection translated as a battle of will over matter.
Matthew Sanford heeded these kinds of images for many years. He accepted the advice that he should declare the lower half of his body dead and pour all of his energy into creating bodybuilder arms. He lived for years, he says, feeling like a floating upper torso. Then in a time of renewed pain he gave yoga a try. He was fortunate to have a first teacher who specialized in Iyengar yoga.
Iyengar focuses on precision and alignment, qualities Sanford’s body needed and could grasp. Through yoga, he came to a conviction that healing, for him, did not have to mean walking again. Yet he learned to experience his paralyzed limbs in a new way. He describes it as a subtle sensation of energy to which he has patiently learned to attune himself, an alternative to the crisp and clear sensation of nerve endings most of us take for granted. He writes, “My mind can feel into my legs.” Speaking with him about this, coming to a vicarious sense of it myself, is fascinating.
We also speak at some length about a fascinating central idea Matthew Sanford has developed in and through his disability. He speaks of the “silence” he encountered where his mind and body stopped communicating with one another. But this core silence is within each of us, only grown more evident through his injury. He describes it variously in his book and in our conversation, as “the aspect of our consciousness that makes us feel slightly heavy;” “the place where stress lands;” and “the source of our feeling of loss, but also of a sense of awe.”
This is the quality of solitary apartness evoked by the existentialist philosophers. But as Matthew Sanford understands it, this silence both separates us from one another and, in its universality, joins us together. In this I sense that he, through an experience of bodily paralysis, has put new words and a new picture to a core human truth at once both spiritual and physical.
I often feel that I will never be quite the same again after these conversations, but rarely is that conviction so tactile and embodied as this time. Through his work with both able-bodied and disabled students of yoga, Matthew Sanford tells me, he sees that the more alert we are in our own bodies, the more compassionate and connected we become to the world around us. Thanks to him, acts like washing the dishes and taking the stairs become moments of gratitude for the grace of my body and all of life.
Spiritual Nomad Finds Sacred Space
Chelsea Roff, guest contributor
The sanctity of a location is often said to be derived from its history. For some, the sacred space may be the site at which a loved one transitioned from one plane of existence to another; for others, the locale might have been the silent witness to an exceptional, life-changing event. However, for many of us, our hallowed home radiates a certain indescribable aura, a force that seems to draw in its disciples, offering refuge from the turmoil of everyday life.
The space may not even exist in a tangible respect. It may reveal itself only within the mind of the individual seeking shelter from the raging pandemonium that keeps the “real world” in constant disarray. Wherever it manifests, the discovery of such a sanctuary can be critical to the sustenance of one’s sanity in the midst of pain or suffering. As humans collectively are forced to grapple with increasingly chaotic and tumultuous circumstances, cultivating a tranquil sanctuary within is the first step to creating peace throughout the world.
For a significant period of my life, I considered myself a sort of spiritual nomad. I maintained a calm and composed exterior, but inside I was secretly a wandering traveler searching for a place to rest my tired heart. As I speak with others, I’m finding that I am not alone in this circumstance.
Dizzy with the zealous declarations of partisan faiths, we spiritual nomads are the wanderers — we long to find fulfillment and meaning in something “greater,” yet we acquire only temporary, artificial morsels of nourishment in the empty promises of dogmatic traditions. For some of us, hiding behind false idols in the house of science can pacify the intensity of our longing momentarily, but the beast always reemerges and demands more to fill the void.
For years I played this agonizing game, bouncing from elation to despair, caught in a cycle perpetuated by a need for solid ground beneath my feet. I wanted no less than the ability to turn my emotions on and off — to delegate my tears, laughter, and moments of sublimation. When I found that no denomination, spiritual guru, or uncompromising atheistic declaration could guarantee such a capacity, I decided to instead hide from sentiment altogether. I was willing to sacrifice joy, intimacy, and the very soul of life as long as I didn’t have to risk being vulnerable in a cruel and uncertain world.
At some point, the wanderer must realize that pursuing immunity from suffering ultimately leads right back to the despondency with which (s)he was confronted to begin with. In my own experience, it was only when I was finally able to admit and accept my own powerlessness that tranquility materialized. I finally broke open, split at the seams by my despair. In that moment, surrendering to my own powerlessness revealed a truth that had been previously obscured by the lens of my desire.
I looked up into the night sky — no longer searching, but just absorbing — and the brilliant beam of a single star peering through dense fog imbibed hope into my bitter darkness. A voice resonated deep within me, and I heard — not with my ears, but rather with some thought-to-be vestigial organ within my soul — exactly the message I was supposed to hear at that moment.
“It is only on the darkest nights that you begin to see the stars.”
The night acquired new meaning for me that evening. I can no longer venture out after the sun has set without taking several moments to gaze up at the stars and just marvel at them. Those effervescent beacons of light have become my idols, the night my sacred space. This experience — of acquiring a sacred place of my own — has helped me to better understand the reverence the Benedictine monk feels within the walls of a cathedral and why the Israeli and Palestinian peoples fight so bitterly over what they each deem to be their holy lands.
What I think is often forgotten, unfortunately, is that our sacred places are only concrete representations of our experience of love, God, divinity (or what ever word you use to name it). They are the grounds upon which we project the light that emanates from within, and when we forget that all-important truth we are once again forced into nomadic wandering. When we shed blood in a war over futile possession or limit our experience of divinity to a single location, we render it hollow and effectively desecrate its holiness. The sacred place exists not to introduce us to some higher power outside of our own experience; rather, it serves as a reminder of the splendor we kindle within.
True sacred spaces are not entrenched and immovable in the physical locations they occupy. Holy sites manifest themselves in manifold forms, consistently available in our moments of greatest need. As I mature, I’m learning to cultivate these sacred places within my own mind — to leave the logical, practical, relentlessly anxious intellect and find peace in the silence of quiet meditation and the gentle flow of my yoga practice. This spiritual nomad has finally found her sacred abode.
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Living with Yoga
Kate Moos, managing producer
I went to my first yoga class in eight weeks last night, and remembered that we are broadcasting our program with Seane Corn this week, which we originally produced about a year ago. At that time I was in the local Bikram yoga studio three or four times a week, sweating and smiling at the instructor’s injunctions to “struggle harder!” I love the arduous athleticism of Bikram practice.
But I had foot surgery over the summer, and am still nursing it eight weeks later, my right foot three sizes larger than the left. It’s healing nicely, but it takes a long time, and the Bikram heat just isn’t the right thing for a swollen, healing appendage. That has meant no yoga for the first few weeks, and then being restricted to some basic stretches and breathing execises at home. I miss the community, the sense of building on other peoples’ energy and strength that I get in group practice, and I was nourished to join the teacher and two others holding long, slow, challenging poses in an extended floor series last night.
During my hiatus, people told me to do any yoga I could manage — even if it was just mindful breathing at my desk at work, or listening to recordings of asanas while lying still on my mat. One tool I turned to was this video of Seane Corn, which I watched in my early recovery, when I could barely hobble to the kitchen.
Corn reminds us that the yoga we do on the mat is only part of the story, and that yoga is not only for beautiful, young bodies. That’s a message also underscored by our program with Matthew Sanford, who was rendered a paraplegic at the age of 13 after a car accident. His unique experience of the mind-body connection, and the lessons about inhabiting his entire body, is related in Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.
Even a temporary disability like the one I am now impatiently enduring has an effect on one’s sense of self, of one’s personal power, and one’s vulnerability. The “spiritual technology” of yoga, these teachers help us understand, gives us a way to be more fully ourselves, whatever our physical strength or limitation might be.
What’s your practice? How do you bring body, mind, and spirit into alignment?
I Am Not As Devout
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
I am not as devout a yoga practitioner as my colleagues, Kate and Krista, but I usually do about 20 minutes of yoga after a half hour on the elliptical — don’t ask me how often THAT happens. Actually, it is exactly 20:27, during which I go through a series of poses that I learned from a few yoga classes as well as a some instructional DVDs. I have an iTunes playlist on my computer called “Mitch-Yoga” that I put on and I know that I will start when the music starts and stop when it is done, measuring the time spent on each pose to where I am on the playlist. It is interesting to see if I am rushing through it or if I am necessarily taking my time.
Well here are the rest. The first track is Bebel Gilberto’s “All Around,” have a listen:
2. “Madman’s Honey” performed by Wire
3. “Ceu Distante” performed by Bebel Gilberto
4. “The Boy with the Gun” performed by David Sylvian
5. “Maria” performed by David Sylvian
I don’t think this is for everyone, but it does put me in a place that helps me relax and get into my body. What do you like to listen to while you do yoga? Silence?
Confessions of a Yoga Convert
Krista Tippett, Host
Kate got me into yoga — coming in day after day last fall glowing from Bikram. Bikram was too hot for me, literally, but I discovered “Core Power” soon after and was hooked. And grateful. Kate is thinking of posting a photo of herself in corpse pose. It doesn’t occur to me to do something like that, as I am incredibly word-centric. And that is part of the reason yoga is fantastically healing for me. I came off a long stretch of years of writing my book where I was desperate for a break from the thoughts in my head. Yoga has taken me out of my head. Rather, more accurately, it has helped me center myself, including the thoughts in my head, in my body. This is a relief, practically a whole new life.
As I’ve grown into this practice, I’ve experienced other intriguing epiphanies. About six months in on a very regular routine, I experienced a surge of energy. This was nearly overwhelming for a few weeks; I was sleeping several hours less than normal and waking up energized. It was as though yoga had unblocked or tapped more energy than my metabolism knew what to do with. And after about a month, that stabilized, settled down. I also went through a period a few months in of a deep, visceral, unnamable sadness. I’ve written in my book and done radio about my history of clinical depression; and for someone who has struggled with depression, sadness can be scary. But this felt natural and safe somehow. The scary part was that it eluded words and conscious analysis; I could not think it through. As it was arising in my body, I sensed it would have to work its way out of my body. And it did. I do speak about this with Seane Corn in our interview, something I’d been looking forward to.
There’s a lot of talk in yoga about taking the practice “off the mat” — letting its lessons infuse daily life. I didn’t notice this immediately, and the ways I find it happening now are quite mundane. But they’re still powerful; they are reordering some of the ways I approach what is mundane. So, for example, I’ve always been driven and goal-oriented. But in flow yoga, every transition is as important as every finished pose; and grace in transitions is as important as getting the final poses right. Somewhat to my surprise, I find that I’m able (sometimes, not all the time!) to spend more time and care on graceful transitioning and processing as on final products in other parts of my life. This is liberating — it’s like I’ve been missing whole stages of experience, at an ordinary level, all my life.
Finally, I also see the deepest lessons of yoga taking hold on me as I go lighter rather than harder on myself as I in fact become more advanced. This is perhaps the first passionate endeavor in my life in which I am absolutely content that I don’t have to be great or best or always better. I take as much pleasure in slow poses as in fast; I cut myself slack when I’m tired or distracted. I let messy, inconsistent life be what it is. I learn to delight in my body just as it is, at 47. And this does somehow translate into being easier on everything and everyone else around me. For a lifelong perfectionistic over-achiever, this is a seismic step forward into wisdom. I’m amazed to find this practice helping me literally embody many of the great spiritual teachings of my own faith and those that inspire me in others. So I’m grateful to Kate, and grateful to all the sages and practitioners who kept this spiritual technology alive for something like 5,000 years so that I and other 21st-century mortals could discover it when we need it most.
Breathe, and Everything Changes
by Kate Moos, managing producer
I am, perhaps, a yoga cliché. A mid-50s, bookish, somewhat perfectionist, slightly workaholic sort of person who had begin to wonder if that modest but persistent pain in her left hip was innocuous and temporary or whether my body was just deciding to ache, possibly forever.
Then, almost precisely a year and a half ago, I quit smoking after a life-long habit, and 4 months later I took my first Bikram yoga class. It’s been something of a conversion experience, honestly. Bikram involves a fixed 90-minute regimen of 26 asanas or postures, two sets of each posture, performed in a room heated to 105 degrees. The heat increases flexibility, and it also puts the cardiovascular system into overdrive, and creates a kind of peak experience for even a novice practitioner.
The goal of my first class, as a person who had never practiced yoga, let alone yoga in such heat, was simply to keep up as best I could and not leave the room. I succeeded at that, though I felt I might expire or possibly throw up; the sense of centered physical and spiritual well-being that came over me after that first class was so astonishing, I have gone back 3 or 4 times a week ever since, acclimating to the heat, and thriving on the yoga. My experience of Bikram yoga is almost liturgical — the 90-minute regimen offers the same Sanskrit postures in the same order, and even the same directions from the instructors — echoing the Latin liturgy of my Catholic girlhood in a powerful, almost sub-molecular way.
It goes without saying that yoga creates physical strength and wellness — I no longer experience chronic neck pain from sitting slouched for long hours over a computer keyboard, and I don’t see a chiropractor every 3-4 weeks to adjust my lower back any more. The pain in my hip went away. Yet yoga most importantly brings me actual revelations — revelations that start as a new physical experience and then seep into consciousness.
About three months in, I started being able to perform a full camel posture, which means I was greatly increasing the strength and flexibility of my back, and was also opening my chest and my hips. But on a more interior level, the effect of the camel is spiritually profound. A regular practice that includes the camel posture changes my perspective; it helps me open my mind to new ideas — the very ideas where my mind has been closed; it makes it possible to give up resentments; it occasionally causes me to express grief I thought was done and past: the death of a parent, the loss of a love. I don’t mean that I cry in my yoga class (though I have had a few quiet sobs surface after a camel pose once or twice), or that this is therapy. I don’t, and it’s not. I mean that if you engage vigorously with this “ancient technology,” as Krista calls it in the show, the yoga will in fact diagnose your imbalances — physical, emotional, and intellectual — and gently, incrementally, begin to correct them.
There have been times in my life when as a spiritual seeker and a somewhat but not entirely lapsed Catholic I have felt deeply separate from God, whatever my inchoate concept of God was at the time. The most painful and dangerous (to myself and to others) distance from God I have ever known has come through the experience of addiction. Then, at some point in my recovery I had the simple insight that I was unable to experience the love of God because I was not putting myself in the way of it. After all, if you want to feel the sun on your back, you have to stand in the sunlight, yes? At the most basic level, I feel yoga puts me in the way of God. Then, what happens, happens.
In the picture above, snapped with an iPhone after a class this past Tuesday evening, I am practicing the corpse pose. What the instructor calls “the most important posture in the series.” Being fully, deeply relaxed, focused, and cognizant of one’s body allows the teaching of yoga to settle in and take hold. This is what Seane Corne calls “mystical work.”
SoundSeen: Titling a Show on Seane Corn’s Yoga
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
In between the interviewing and scripting, the SOF staff congregates for two editorial sessions where we hash out the details of each week’s program. The first — which we call cuts and copy — can be really rough around the edges; the second — which we call the final listen — is more of a fine tweaking of script changes, music selections, Web language, and, at times, we’re still coming up with a title for the episode.
This happens to be the case for our upcoming show on yoga as conveyed through the experience of instructor Seane Corn (I dig her Jersey accent!). We regularly struggle at naming each program, especially because there are various approaches to it: an apt description of the content, a clever literary device, a poetic encapsulation, a highlight of an outstanding idea, keywords that trigger curiosity, etc.
But, the title has multiple purposes. It’s spoken by Krista in the radio and podcast; it populates the subject line of our e-mail newsletter and browser title; it complements the feature image for the program Web site and all sorts of data in third-party vendors like iTunes, Google, Facebook, last.fm, Yahoo, and so on. Can one title serve all masters? Probably not. But, in the end, we just want people to listen to the show so we’re trying to take a more direct approach in front-loading the words or ideas that will appeal to you and others. See what we came up with.
I’d love to hear where you stand on our titles, or if you have thoughts of your own. I’m open to advice. Cheers.