In my first Qigong class we learned that chi only flows when you are relaxed. “Though we are moving the body and engaging the muscles with intention, the goal is to be as relaxed as possible,” my teacher, Debbie, explained. For a very long time, whenever I tried to relax and engage at the same time, I felt incredibly awkward. It was a lot like trying to rub my belly and pat my head at the same time. I could either do one or the other but not both simultaneously. I had gone through my whole life athletic and strong, so inevitably, I would surrender to my habitual pattern of muscular strength and maximum effort, still confused about what Debbie was talking about. It was only after a debilitating back injury left me bed ridden for a week that I began to reexamine my relationship to my body.
Time for a Change
After the first day of my injury and being unable to move without intense pain in my low back, I visited the chiropractor. A series of X-rays showed that my L-5 intervertebral disc was mostly worn away, and that I had a misaligned sacroiliac joint. The disc deterioration was not due to an acute event, but to a chronic anterior tilt to my pelvis. After taking a workshop from Donna Farhi (Yoga for Lower Back Health: keys to sacroiliac stability + ease of movement) I learned that my SI joint had been destabilized due to years of practicing particular yoga poses in a way that didn’t honor my body’s limitations. This instability resulted in regular misalignment that further exacerbated my disc deterioration as it transferred the forces meant to be absorbed by my hip up to my low back. The information came too late to bring back my worn disc, but it was not too late to get serious about taking care of what I had left. It was clear, I needed to adjust my posture and my yoga practice.
Learning to be Kind to Myself
Luckily, I had been practicing mindfulness for many years. I began mindfully tracking my posture, my stance, my level of muscular contraction and making small and regular adjustments throughout the day. When I turned a critical eye to my yoga practice I realized I had not been kind to myself. Contrary to how I had been taught at the Kripalu Institute, I had not been listening to the wisdom of my body, expecting instead that I look like some image I’d seen on Instagram or like another teacher or student.
I Was Causing my Own Pain
Since the injury, I have employed several modalities to address the pain in my back and to bring my posture into a more supportive alignment: chiropractic, structural integration, physical therapy and therapeutic yoga. These modalities helped a lot, but even after adjusting my spine, my connective tissue, my practice and my posture, the pain always returned. I kept thinking, I’ll find that silver bullet therapy that will “fix” my problem. I finally came to realize was that underlying all my low back issues was chronic muscle tension. In a matter of speaking, I was causing my own pain. If I wanted lasting change, I needed to recognize that I was a participant in my own healing journey, and that I had a lot more power over my body and my experience than I was giving myself credit for.
The Power of Unconscious Beliefs
The thing I needed to learn more than anything else was to relax. Though it sounded simple, relaxing proved to be a challenge. It was also a doorway into understanding my nervous system and into how my unconscious beliefs shape how I experience my body. Through the work of SOMA neuromuscular integration, Thomas Hannah Somatics and Hakomi body center psychotherapy, I began to look at the unconscious attitudes and beliefs that lead to held tension in the body. I discovered I feel I have to make myself into something acceptable, something worthy of love and then hold myself in that shape. I believe my natural and authentic self is unloveable. I fear that if I let go and let my true self show, I will be rejected. These beliefs show up as tension in my body, especially in social situations.
The Body is a Gateway to Greater Self Knowledge
Using the body as a gateway to working with unconscious beliefs (called samskaras in the yogic tradition) was the original purpose of yogic postures (asana). The postures were never meant to be the primary goal and focus of yoga, they were the means to inquiry into the shadow or unconscious self, the discovery of unknown truths and the integration of what was discovered.
Trying on New Beliefs that Cultivate Ease
What my body had taught me was that in order to let go of chronic muscle tension, I needed to become aware of my trust issues. As I have gotten more comfortable relaxing I have realized that I didn’t feel the support all around me, because I wasn’t willing to let go. Now, I am learning to lean into the support I already have. I am trying on new beliefs like, I can trust my own bones and muscle. I can trust in the earth, in my marriage and friendships and in the universe itself. More than anything, I am cultivating the belief that I am capable, even and especially in the face of doubt, my own or another’s.
When I practice Chi gong now, I am able to both relax and exert effort a the same time. My body feels new and sometimes awkward, like a toddler learning to walk. And like a child learning to walk, there are moments of profound joy and exhilaration. I understand more and more what my Qigong teacher has been saying all along. Relaxing is actually a strength, because when the prana is able to flow, effort becomes effortless. We are able to go through life steadily and with ease, and we can engage in life without clinging to it.
I am thankful to my teachers:
Yoganand Michael Carrol of the Kripalu yoga tradition.
Judith Hansen Lasater Restorative yoga
Molly McManus Thomas Hannah Somatics
Donna Farhi low back and sacroiliac health
Debbie Leung Wu style Tai Chi and Lian Gong