Thursday, November 21, 2013

Plow Pose and Perseverance

This post has nothing to do with music, education and culture.  This post has everything to do with music, education and culture.

One of my most stereotypical qualities is that I love yoga.  I still consider myself a beginner yogi, and sadly I go through periods where I don't practice very much at all (even though I KNOW that I always feel much better when I practice regularly).  I appreciate many types of yoga, but the style in which I find the most tranquility is Yin Yoga.  Unlike active (or "yang") yoga practices, yin yoga is a passive practice that involves holding each pose for an extended period of time- usually somewhere between three and eight minutes.

The first time I went to a yin class was around this time two years ago, during my last year of doctoral coursework in Cincinnati.  I was making more frequent visits to my favorite studio, World Peace Yoga.  I had no idea what yin yoga was, and only showed up because the class fit into my schedule that day.  I was expecting a "normal" class (whatever that means) full of sun salutations and warrior poses.  I was definitely NOT expecting to hold pigeon pose for 5 minutes on each side.  I remember being very sore at the end of the class, surprised at the difficulty of that 90 minutes of life. Yet, I kept going back for more.

Usually, the final pose preceding shavasana ("corpse pose") was an inversion held for five minutes. With the sole intention of placing your body in a position where the heart is above the head, the inversion could be as simple as laying flat on your back with a yoga block under your sacrum, knees bent and feet on the floor.  It could be shoulder stand.  Or, it could be plow pose: with the head, neck and shoulders remaining on the ground, the rest of the body is inverted so that the toes touch the ground beyond the head.

A recent "selfie" in plow pose.  It's really hard to take a photo of yourself in this pose.  For a better example, look anywhere else on the internet.

The first time I tried plow pose, I felt an intense sensation in my back.  Since the teacher always warned us to never go so deeply into a pose that you feel a sharp or electric pain, I came out of the pose immediately, opting for a milder inversion to complete my practice.  This happened for weeks: I would attempt the pose, feel the intense sensation, and fearfully back out of it.

Like it always does, eventually my stubbornness kicked in.  I decided to try to wait out the discomfort. With each class, I held the pose for a few seconds longer than the last, but the sensation never went away.  However, sitting with the irritation for progressively longer periods allowed me to distinguish the difference between a powerful discomfort and pain.  I was a competitive gymnast in a former life, and suffered a back injury that ended my participation in the sport, so back pain has always sent up a giant red flag in my brain.  I compared the back pain I underwent when I was a gymnast to the feeling I experienced in plow pose, and realized they were not the same. The feeling was strong and unfamiliar, but it was not pain.  It was not sharp and debilitating. It was not harmful.

Once I realized this distinction, I decided that my next class was the class I would remain in plow pose for the full 5 minutes.  Since I theorized the sensation wasn't actually pain and therefore probably not harmful, I knew I could make it.  I turned myself upside down, prepared to face something similar to getting a piercing or tattoo: intense discomfort during the activity, followed by an endorphin-induced high.  To my delight, I didn't have to wait until the pose was over.  After approximately 90 seconds, the distress went away entirely.  For the remainder of the pose, I experienced what I can only assume is bliss.  I felt euphoric, completely at peace, transcendent.  I was the owner of my happiness, and no one could take it away from me.  This became ritual with every plow pose in every yin class for the remainder of my time in Cincinnati: coaxing myself to endure the momentary suffering for the reward of acute joy.

Then I moved to Boston for 9 months.  I went to yoga classes when I could afford them, but never found myself in a yin class.  I fell out of practice.  I forgot about plow pose.

Then I moved to Lexington.  While I've started practicing yoga again since I moved here, there's only one yin class in the entire city, and it happens to be at a time I can't make.

Fortunately, now that I'm back in the same region of the country, life takes me to Cincinnati quite often ('s possible that I help life along in that mission).  About 3 weeks ago, I was lucky enough to catch a yin class at World Peace Yoga again.  It had been about 16 months since my last yin class, but I remembered why I loved it as soon as I stepped on the mat and prepared for the adventure.  I found myself longing for the end of class to come so I could do plow pose.  To my surprise, however, instead of just craving the feeling of bliss after the torment, I found myself wanting the entire experience: the intense discomfort included.

I've been to 4 yin yoga classes in the last three weeks, and with each class I have the same desire for the pairing of discomfort and pleasure offered by plow pose.  I found this peculiar at first, but I think I'm beginning to understand it now.  I don't think the bliss is possible without the discomfort that precedes it; how would I know it was bliss if I didn't have the opposite by which to compare it?  Or, maybe the second half wouldn't feel so amazing if the first half wasn't so uncomfortable, meaning it wouldn't truly be bliss.

Whatever the reason, I can only hope that plow pose is one of my life's greatest physical metaphors.  May bliss be at the end of every torment.

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