Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Layers of Understanding

Reality settles in in layers. Something happens and you know it’s real; and then you stay with it and learn about it, and it becomes more real. And then something opens and all of a sudden it’s really real; and what you knew at first starts to look like a vague cloud of seeming and you start to think that the world you were looking at before as a figment of your own imagination. But, of course, it was real at the time, too.

I work with people who have suffered from traumas in their past, of the sort and degree that it is beyond my imagination to conjure an understanding of. I meet them and start teaching them, and they are who they are: smiling, happy, shy, innocent, giggly, with some undefined history of ups and downs that shapes their identity and brings their own set of limitations and motivations to their yoga practice; and we work with it. We work past the “I can’t do that” reflexes, or the “that movement is inappropriate for a girl” notions; we learn to hear our own voice chant without melting into awkward snickers or laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying hysterics. Together, we deal with teenage stuff, girl stuff, body image stuff, the same everywhere; and even though I know, because of what I’ve been told, that these girls have endured things that nobody should have to even think about, I have no idea what that really means. But, if you were to ask me of course I’d say I know what it means to have had these experiences and I am even designing my classes to accommodate what they might be carrying around with them. But, really, all I know is this person with this body, this name and this personality, and that we have this relationship. Their past is no more real to me than that.

As my relationship with a student deepens, two things happen: one, they get a sense of what we’re doing together, and they find ways to express themselves through the practice. The other thing is that I learn how to understand the vocabulary of their individual body. As a teacher, I engage a dialogue with these bodies, not just with the personality that inhabits it. And this is the case with all my serious students; no matter how radically different our personalities or backgrounds might be, even if we could never be friends or even connect in conversation at all; bodies speak to each other. Some bodies open very quickly, and before I’d even recognize their face on the street, we have a relationship. I was reminded of this the other day teaching a group of people who have survived acid attacks. I noticed before I started teaching that these people were disfigured, but when you lay your hands on someone with no eyes to show them what a twist is, everything that a body is sensitive to takes over, and a relationship between two living beings speaks.

It is beautiful to connect with someone at this level, before all the differences and defenses of the cognitive self; but the fact is, bodies have it rough. Bodies are innocent &mdash minds, not so much &mdash but bodies are all innocent in the way that trees are innocent; horses are innocent; children are innocent. And they suffer, sometimes from the actions of others, often from our own actions and decisions. And bodies carry these traumas innocently, and bodies change under their burden. Minds retaliate and hate and cry for justice and revenge and want, but bodies speak more quietly; bodies receive and process and deal with the world as they can.

Something that i know becomes really real to me when I become able to hear what it sounds like spoken from a body, not just from an intellect using words to describe a past event. With the young women I work with, I still don’t know what they have been through: we have never spoken about it; I have never been informed by their councilors. But now when certain topics and phrases enter conversation, they are not just bad words or ideas to me; they are faces and the personal challenges of these young women I know. It is a reality that some people make a living selling other people; it is a reality that some people live to buy other people. I know this, but those are just facts, ideas; and “human trafficking” and “sexual exploitation” are just phrases, bad ones.

But now they are not just words. The kids that come in to practice with me are bodies that speak, and they speak of energy and willingness and the commitment to make a space for themselves and each other. These are bodies that want to grow and want to love and reach out of themselves into things they don’t understand because they trust the people around them now. And they have such hurts on them, and such greynesses that I don’t see in words, that I don’t see in facts, and don’t even understand. And now when I hear those other words, those bad words, I hear them not as “real things that happen,” but as what my students live with and move through every time they move their bodies.

It boggles the mind what a burden some of us are asked to carry. It’s no wonder that we keep things safely stored away in words and sentences that we can pull out and use as needed and then put away again when they get too noticeable. It’s no wonder why we live so much in our minds, and are afraid to move into parts of the body and ways of feeling that threaten this linguistic net we spread out in front of us to catch the world before it gets too close.

The experiences of these young women are testament to the magnitude of evil humans are capable of; and by accepting the people around them and the practice of coming back into their own bodies, by growing and creating and trusting, these girls defy this same evil. They are the best yoga teachers I've had in a long time.

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