I just taught my 10th and 11th classes of the week. We did transformation work about 45 minutes into each class, working on the shoulders and collar bones and how to better align them. Transformation work is a hallmark of Eischens Yoga classes. Today, we were looking at the shoulder blades: how far apart they rested on the back, whether they were on the same plane or angled, how symmetrical their placement. Then each group worked in Prone Mountain, one person in the pose with partners applying pressure on the triceps, wrists, and crown of the head. As each person did the work and then stood up, shoulder blades settled into better positioning. The change was frequently visible to the group. But better than that, each person stood up and felt taller, or less tense in the shoulders and/or upper back after receiving tactile feedback from their group. And then it happened. The Question.
I never know who will ask it. It usually doesn't even happen after everyone is done. Someone very excited by what they are seeing in their partner might ask it. Someone feeling pretty amazing after doing the work might be the one. But invariably someone will ask, "How do I do this at home?"
I am never surprised by this question. I have been the one to put this query forth myself, back when I first started studying Eischens Yoga. (We still called it High Energy Yoga back then.) I actually usually have an answer, an approximation of what we just did that can be done at home alone, but that is to lose the point of what happened. Why we do this work with partners in class is because we aren't home alone. We take advantage of each other's presence for several reasons, and these reasons why we do transformation work move from the obvious to the subtle.
Added weight increases the impact of the work.
If you want to develop your biceps, you can do simple bicep curls. If you do these over a long enough period of time, with enough repetitions, you will tone and strengthen your biceps. But if you really want to see your biceps change in strength, you begin adding weights, lifting smaller hand-weights and increasing the weight as the biceps get stronger. In yoga, ideally you can press into your own skin for resistance. But most of us can't feel our own skin, let alone press into it. So by adding a partners' hands' pressure, you can start to bring your body into better positioning. The partner isn't putting you into alignment; they are giving you a place to push into, which in turn strengthens the muscles that then hold your skeleton in proper placement.
Seeing another in order to understand yourself.
When you begin to look closely at other bodies, you have a chance to learn about yourself. As you watch your partner and notice one shoulder blade in a different place than the other, you also begin to glimpse how we all have imbalances. You can take that image of another back and superimpose it upon yourself. Then when it is your turn, and your partner says your shoulder blades are asymmetrical in the same way as (or differently from) the previous person's, there is a clear image of your own back through someone else's eyes and descriptions, but also through your experience of looking.
Working together to create community.
I cannot count how many times I have attended classes where no one talks to anyone else, where there is so much competition as students vie for attention, or struggle to perform the best pose. (Yeah, it may be called a yoga class, but that doesn't mean we all leave our competitive nature out the door.) But when you have to get to know a few others in class, really know them, you learn who has an injury. You discover that someone is struggling to get out of their over-analytical brain, or just overcame a difficult period in life. You see what other's challenges are, and you begin to cheer on Mel whose back hurt so much six months ago she couldn't bend very far, but now she has her hands on the floor in a forward fold. You applaud Sarah who has found increased endurance and can hold poses longer without locking her elbows. And you cheer on Nicki who lifts up into a tripod headstand from a Wide Angle FWFold, even though that is not in your own foreseeable future. Class becomes intimate and supportive and the competition gets left behind.
Learning to trust your own eyes and learning to trust your partners.
Trust comes from being willing to be open. Open to change, open to failure, to loss, to love, to acceptance, to success. Working with partners in the classroom broadens trust. You begin to trust your own eyes as you learn to see. You tell your partners what you observe and they begin to trust your words, your vision. And in that moment, you and your partners begin a new path. And this path allows for deeper connections between people. But transformation work is more than just observing and stating what is seen. It is hands-on, a place where hands meet with another person's muscles; where there is such matched resistance that neither person is moving, but both are working. It is a physical connection. It takes trust a step further.
Touch is essential between humans. Everyone knows about the laboratory tests using orphaned monkeys and placing one with a metal, robotic "mother" and how damaging the lack of touch is for that monkey's development. So we know touch matters. But Americans touch each other less than people in most other industrial nations. We deprive ourselves of the healing that comes with placing hands on a friend's shoulder, giving a hug or a kiss. We deprive ourselves of human contact. It doesn't really matter whether this reticence to touch comes from fear (of disease, of offending, of intimacy) or from indifference. What is important is to increase our physical contact, to break through whatever barriers we have to touching. Working with partners is a safe way to find those physical connections. Maybe you are placing your hands on someone's shins or triceps. Maybe you touch the top of someone else's head. Maybe you help move someone's toes. And in that moment, there is possibility. Possibility for change for the person you are touching, but possibility for you to change as well.
So how can you do this at home? You can't. You can practice yoga by yourself. You can use tactile memory to find the alignment you are seeking. You can move toward physical and mental balance. But the yoga that occurs when working in transformation, that is only done in concert with others. Come to class. Get together with a friend to exchange feedback. Teach your partner how to push on your shins (or forearms or heels ...). But find a way to work with people. Transformation work is essential. It happens in community. It makes community. And it is life-changing.
I stand on my feet, relax, and begin. I check in. My weight is heavier on the outer edge of my feet. As usual. More so on my right foot. Right shoulder is rolling forward. Inhales are shallow, but the exhale is nice and slow. I start. As I move through postures, I hear Roger's voice, "Do your legs rotate as you move between downward dog and incline?" I remember the feeling of Kari's fingers on my spine, encouraging me to allow that one vertebra to soften into line with the rest of them. Periodically, I stand in Mountain again. Being, not doing. I see if my breath is easier, if I can inhale more fully. I notice my weight shifting onto the center of my heels. I feel my shoulders relax and my collar bones opening up.
I do not practice to a soundtrack because I have the soundtrack of my teachers in my head. One teacher has left this earth. I last saw him in October, 2004. One is in another state and I haven't seen her in person in over two years. But there they are, guiding me as I choose what asana to do next. Each one of their comments remains and repeats and reminds me to bring my attention to what is happening in my body.
I observe changes. These days supine mountain is my new friend. I recall how that pose used to be a place that caused actual pain. In time, it became tolerable, but hardly a pose that benefited me. And now, lying on my back with my legs engaged is not only tolerable, it is relief. It brings energy, life throughout my body. I notice how much longer I can hold postures. I feel more freedom of movement in my pelvis as I extend sideways over my leg. I can maintain energy down through my heels even when they aren't on the floor. I am willing to experiment with postures I haven't tried before (or at least not in many years) because I am no longer so hampered by injury. And over and over again, I notice these things because Roger or Kari asks me to check. Where is my weight? Is there less tension? Is there more ease? Am I locking my joints? Or collapsing into them? Am I using my muscles in a balanced manner? Where is there rotation? How am I different?
I hear Roger's bass voice and Kari's mezzo. I hear their laughter and their teasing and their praise and their corrections. It is beautiful music, and it accompanies me every time I step onto the mat.
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.