Thursday, May 19, 2011

Symmetry isn’t just aesthetic

This afternoon, I had a class on the Alexander Technique.  It’s all about doing less work, settling into our bodies – being easy.  One of the things the instructor said was, “We can balance an egg on a spoon.  Isn’t it safe to assume, then, that we can trust the pieces of our spine to balance on top of each other?  So why do we work so hard to keep them that way?”

That’s a paraphrase, but the point is, we can be easy in our bodies.  After lying on our back and sinking into the floor for a long time, feeling the length and width of the back, she asked us to release our shoulder blades into the floor.  Then, she told us to drop our lumbar region to the floor, stop controlling our neck, let the weight of our feet hold our legs.  Then we stood.  We walked. We moved, thinking about moving.  She showed us a skeleton, and asked us to think about how marvelous our hips are.

“The waist is a place to hang your pants.  It’s not the middle of anything; it doesn’t break anything up, it's not a physical feature of our bodies.  It’s just a place to hang your pants.”

With soft knees and a whole back, we moved.  We bent by bending at the knees, letting our backs remain engaged and straight.  I relaxed into my bones.  It was almost as if my muscles moved around them.  I am finding the place where my body floats, it seems.  A body can cascade off the midline, and as long as it is floating there, easy, it’s symmetrical.

I had a bit of a revelation at the end of class, as one does when one empties one’s mind of everything except for their physical existence.  In the regular world, I tend to put my weight on one leg or the other, jutting out one hip, accentuating my ass, letting one shoulder rise higher than the other.  This is how I am at rest.  Why? Two reasons:
1. it feels like I'm giving my 'regular muscles' a break, even though I'm not
2. leaning to one side makes me feel like the difference in the height of my shoulders is less obvious

I have scoliosis.  I am pretty sensitive about it, especially as it becomes more visible.  And it’s true, when I’m truly at rest, letting my back be a solid piece, floating away from my spine, I can see the difference in my shoulders much more clearly.  But my self-consciousness was founded on a fallacy – that is, that everybody sees with my same critical eye.  Indeed, what did the rest of the class see?  Apparently, they saw my midline.  They saw grace, if you can believe that.  One of them said she saw beauty when I bent into ‘monkey position.’

(Side note: ‘monkey position’ is when, keeping your knees mostly above your ankles, you bend your knees, letting your butt jut out.  But rather than arch the back to keep your chin parallel to the floor, you let your back lie flat, as if it were against the floor.  Thus, you are leaned over, naturally, like a gorilla.  When you straighten your legs, you will come to standing, straight up.  Try it.)

This led me to a few conclusions.  First, if I am the only one who sees my shoulder-osis, great.  Second, whether it’s visible to others or not, what is also visible to others is comfort in my own skin and centeredness.  Third, I am more comfortable when I stand well; fourth, I’m preventing further curvature.  Thus, by remembering to let my spine stack itself, by letting my joints do the work they were designed for, I can both mask and fix my scoliosis.  

 Except… my back is a part of me.  I don’t feel so compelled, somehow, now that I remember how good and comfortable it is to walk this way, to disguise it.  I was looking in the mirror, after class, standing there; there was beauty in what I saw.  Not because there was perfect aesthetic symmetry, but because I was symmetrically comfortable.  There was no part of me I was trying to hide.

This both raised and answered an interesting question for me: what is comfort?  When you ask someone, “Where should my neck be right now?” And they say, “Where is comfortable?” And you’re confused, that’s not good.  That said, bringing awareness of the question to the process of moving is enough to answer it – over time.  I wasn’t comfortable, using my posture to hide my curviness.  But I couldn’t have told you that until I brought enough attention to the question of comfort to experiment with answering it.

How much can we answer in our lives by bringing calm, quiet, tolerant attention to it?  In a word, by bringing empathy to it?  If intentionally kind intention can release the shoulder blades to run freely across the back, what other miracles can we make?  What can that attention help us feel?

Further, I think that though different halves of my body will require different types of attention – different exercise, different training, possibly – ultimately, the goal is to bring both sides to equity, to give them both freedom.  I think there’s a symmetry in that.

We can savor our movement, as we savor good food.  There is more beauty in the world than we condition ourselves to see.  Let's bring some attention to that, hey?