Perception, proprioception and purpose

Given the extreme cold of the past few weeks, I am a very reluctant dog walker these days. Living through twenty-four Canadian winters was plenty enough for me; I’m definitely a warm weather gal! Metta has learned to start looking hopeful only once my second cup of masala chai is finished, by which point I have run out of excuses.

By the time I head out the door I am wearing about five layers of clothing, which makes it harder to move freely and to gauge my new, temporarily puffier shape.  Muffled into these layers changes the way I perceive my body and how I relate to the world around me.

The way we perceive our body moving in space is called “proprioception”. It describes our capacity to judge how to manoeuvre our body relative to the actions we take, allowing us to move through doorways or reach out for our cup of tea without consciously needing to calculate the required distance or strength, or to really think about it much at all.

When we are in a new, unfamiliar situation, our perceptions of ourselves relative to that situation or space are less automatic, less confident, and more self-conscious. You might think back to when you tried your first yoga class or complex pose, or when you were first trying to walk again after recovering from an operation or injury. It becomes necessary, although not always consciously so, to re-define yourself according to your new circumstances.

If the doors of perception were cleansed
every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.
For man has closed himself up,
till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

~ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I noticed this amongst tourists as I recently visited my daughter at university in the UK, where many people like myself are flustered by traffic passing by on a different side of the road than what we’re used to; suddenly an urban confidence developed over years of navigating traffic and pedestrians requires a keen awareness of our body’s relationship to the world around it in the present, momentarily throwing us back to a tenuous, child-like state (a.k.a. mindfulness!).

Two years ago exactly, I was bedridden from two successive incidents that left me unable to stand or walk properly for weeks. Resulting in a serious instability in my body’s structural foundation, I became vulnerable to more accidents over the following year, including a truly freakish fall that fractured my pelvis (which I discovered months later when checking why my condition was worsening after having improved).

It became a part of my ongoing practice to work with chronic pain through mindfulness and breathing techniques. Long-term pain is not a normal state for the body, so I spent months trying to find the underlying cause, both through medical means and self-inquiry to uncover the emotional roots of the tension and resistance to healing, which was both a relief and a blessing. The other gift in this experience (there is always a gift!) is that it has helped me greatly improve my therapeutic work with others suffering from pain, whether the result of an accident or through arthritis and fibromyalgia.

Reject your sense of injury
and the injury itself disappears.

~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

On top of this, an ongoing experiment in understanding and working with my ever-changing proprioception replaced my previously ease in regular asana practice. Over months of working in different ways with my body, there are still postures that I find troublesome (and still others I haven’t dared to try again). I have great faith in the body’s capacity to heal and have learned to revise my relationship to otherwise simple poses like balasana (child’s pose) which, at the moment, is more challenging for me than a deep backbend like natarajasana (lord of the dance, or dancer’s pose).

It has taken until now to feel nearly back to ‘normal’ – a new normal, along with vastly different perceptions. Proprioception is also what allows us to walk down stairs with relative ease and confidence, and this has also been a daily discovery of both my body’s strength and my relationship to fear. My awareness of my body as well as my sense of self in a constant state of flux.

At times liberating, at others disconcerting, the challenge has allowed me once again to experience the full extent of what it means to live in yoga and to dig deep into the power and influence of the mind.

Because these events have caused me to step back (without regret) from two decades of teaching yoga classes, I have started writing about what it means to me to be a yoga teacher, both from my experience and as a concept in general. Aimed at inspiring those who teach or are thinking of teaching yoga in whatever form, it’s my way of channelling my irrepressible urge to teach, and I look forward to sharing the book with you as it emerges in parts and then as a whole in the months ahead.

Your ongoing support has been a source of both strength and encouragement to me, and I thank you for being an important part of this journey.

With much love and light as ever,