Yoga: Thoughts on shape, movement, and function of the body

First posted in May, 2004

Or rather, thoughts on the shape, movement, and function of my body...

I love how my torso floats when I rest in the bath, cradled in perfectly warm liquid, candlelight playing on the tiles and ceiling. As I lie there breathing, I can feel my rib cage expanding, moving fluidly beneath my skin, coaxing my lungs open to receive the next breath; I can feel my heart being lifted upward as the air enters my chest, bringing my body to the surface. As my ribs relax and the breath flows outward, my body sinks back into the warmth of the water, and my shoulder blades brush lightly against the bottom of the tub. As I breathe, moving slowly through the water through the physics of my own buoyancy, my spine flexes gently, passively with each breath, slightly altering the angle of my head and hips. My muscles embrace the warmth of the water, and the tension dissipates on each exhalation, expelled on the outgoing breath like a sickness being pushed from my body, and I am pleased. I am calm.

I release the water from the bath, towel off, extinguish the candles there and find my yoga mat in the next room. I sit at the corner of the mat and light the tea candles in the glass tower. I watch the shadows begin to dance. I turn on the fountain and feed it until the machinery is silenced and the only sound is that of giggling water. I remove the stone that rests in the middle of the tiny Zen garden, and I rake the sand: first with curves and waves, then straightening all the patterns once more because my mind prefers this symmetry. I place the stone in the center of the sand once more.

I move back to the center of the mat, and find lotus. I feel the cotton of the mat against my skin, and feel how the bones of my ankles press down into my thighs. I feel my hips trying to release so that my knees can move closer to the earth. I rest my palms comfortably against my lap, lengthen my spine, release my shoulders, and close my eyes.

I breathe.

I feel my belly swell with each incoming breath, and I imagine the diaphragm dropping downward to make room for my lungs. My mind is meant to focus upon only two subjects: my breath moving and the general sensations of my body. But a third thought is always there, an extension of this latter subject, though more concrete and intellectual than anything on which my mind should concentrate when I'm searching for the quiet. I think about the function of the muscles and the skeleton within me, visualizing how they move in concert, how they help me find the asanas. Moments creep in where I am amazed at all the things within me, how everything works. And I appreciate the beauty of how the exterior of my body finds comfort in the perfect way that the arch of my left foot rests against the inside of my right knee, or how my forearms are just the right length to wrap them beneath my knees for a lower back stretch, or how my palm is just the right size and curvature to fit against my knee... as if our bodies were evolved to move like this... and I regret that I didn't discover these things long ago, and think of how many people in the world will never realize the beauty of their own form in a way that doesn't involve sight.

I move.

I explore each movement with my eyes closed, knowing how to move through familiarity, listening to the muscles and tendons within me, finding an edge where I can stretch without force, where I can feel challenged while still letting go. It's a Sunday, I have no place else to be, and I close my mind to everything external, particularly with regard to time. Each action may take a minute or more as I move with careful deliberation, noticing how the movement of my neck or arm can be felt in my back, how the angle of my foot changes the stretch through the back of my thigh.

In my mind, I know that there are hundreds of individual muscles beneath my flesh, but sometimes when I move I visualize that there are only two: one anterior, one posterior. As I press into cobra or lift into bow, I feel the muscle along the front of my body lengthen. As I rock into plow or shift back into downward-facing dog, I feel the muscle along the back of my body release. The muscles work so perfectly together, so interdependently, that they seem as one, like a ribbon that extends from crown to toe.

I am still.

I rest against the mat, the curves of my body cradled in the cotton batting. I close my eyes once more and notice each part of my body that touches the floor, and imagine those areas melting. I relax each and every muscle, sequentially adjusting my focus from my toes up to my head so as to omit nothing. This culminates with careful focus on the muscles of my face; when I am finished, I lie expressionless and nearly still. My breathing is softer now, shallow and slow. I am completely relaxed yet still quite conscious, and so I allow my mind to focus on a place that brings me comfort.

I dream wakefully.

Today, my mind visualizes that I'm not against this mat, but rather cradled in a soft bed of warm, dry moss beside a mountain stream. Though my eyes are closed in reality, my mind believes that they are open, looking up through the tulip poplars overhead, watching the sun play in their leaves. I hear the song of the stream, the melodies of birds. I feel the warmth of the summer air, the coolness drifting off the nearby water, and the gentle brush of breeze against my skin.

And then I come back to the room. I begin by moving my hands and feet, then bring my arms overhead for a full-body stretch. I hug my knees to my chest, place my hands on the backs of my thighs, and roll up to seated. I take a moment to feel how my body has changed in the past hour or two; how it's calmer, taller, stronger.

I am alive.