One of the surprising things that yoga has taught me is that physical exertion has effects that go beyond my body.
It seems to offer an unexpected openness and peacefulness. It puts me in a place where I can really hear things.
Recently, I had a lesson on Backbends.
My goal is to dip into a Backbend from a standing position. With hands at heart center, I want to be able to lean back and, oh so slowly, land my hands on the mat behind me.
I am not sure why. I cannot explain this!
The lesson began with the instructor stretching out my back and, in the hour that followed, we did all sorts of poses that bend the back.
Camel, Wheel, and even some acrobatic yoga with a Backbend in tandem, and me hanging upside down from my instructor’s shoulders.
Even though I got a taste of my goal with assists in Backbends from standing, the lesson ended with me realizing it would be quite some time before I could do so on my own.
I arrived home after that lesson very relaxed. I even took one of those peaceful naps where it felt like a twilight sleep.
I had walked out with that good feeling, and it lasted until I walked back in the next day.
What did you do to me? I asked my instructor.
We opened you up, he answered.
I then found myself in a yoga class during which we were instructed through many sets of Backbends, both Bridges and Wheels.
We were two thirds of the way into the 90 minute practice. The heat was intense, and so was the practice. Sweat dripped into puddles across my mat as never before, forming a true body of water over which my Bridge spanned.
In this class, for the first Bridge, the instructor counts backwards from five.
We start on the back, bring the knees up with the feet still on the ground. Hands bind under the small of the back, and shoulders tuck under. The hips hoist up, and I stare at my belly button for five, four, three, two, one.
Then follows a moment of rest while we get to decide whether to repeat the count in another Bridge or instead this time in Wheel.
Wheel is just another name for a Backbend, and I find myself lying there, floating in my puddle while the instructor encourages us to place our hands by our ears and set up for the ultimate choice of a Backbend.
I press into my hands and feet and lift my hips to the sky.
This time I cannot see my belly button.
It is looking at the ceiling, and I am looking at the back wall, my arms fully extended, my shoulders off the ground, and my heart shining through.
Five, four, three, two, one.
Splash! I gratefully submerge into my puddle where the temperature is a little cooler, and where I fantasize about remaining afloat while the rest of the class completes the sequence without me.
Set your hands. Everybody this time! Come on up into Wheel!
This is so different from my usual class where the temperature is not as high; where we only do one Bridge and two Wheels; where the counts do not begin in the third round at 10, followed by another at 15!
What is interesting here, though, is that as I try to hold the Backbend for the high count, the instructor stops counting altogether and tells us she found some interesting reading.
What? This is the most intense part of the practice, I am barely holding myself up, and now the teacher has opted out of counting and instead wants to read to us!
Surprisingly, though, I get distracted from barely holding the pose, and it is actually easy to listen. It is a reading of a poem by Ganga White called What If?
What if religion was each other?
If our practice was our life?
If prayer was our words?
What if the Temple was the Earth?
If forests were our church?
If holy water – the rivers, lakes and oceans?
What if meditation was our relationships?
If wisdom was self-knowledge?
If love was the center of our being?
As I write the poem here now, it almost seems like just words. In fact, I have to re-read it after writing it in an effort to get it.
It sounds nice, hopeful, and important.
On the third read, I get that it is about interconnectedness -- being connected to each other, to ourselves and even to the Earth.
But, when I was in Wheel at the most intense point in the pose and in the practice, sweating like there was no tomorrow, I could hear the meaning without needing a high count in the reading.
I did not even have to listen hard to get the profound message in the words. It made sense right away.
Afterward, I rolled up my mat and got ready to leave. I was almost out the door when I decided to go back into the studio and ask the instructor for the name of the poem’s author, thinking I might write about it.
I re-entered the studio and then realized that I already remembered the name. I even remembered some of the lines of the poem.
No need to ask. I had heard it.
The Backbend had opened me up. Again.