“Yoga cultivated the flexibility and mental space I needed when I moved back to Vermont to take up a desk job, start a family, build a house, survive cancer and ultimately endure the dissolution of my marriage.”
Yoking to Change
MINDFULMARCH COMMUNITY STORY SPECIAL | 03.10.19
BY JESSE HUFFMAN
Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not as if I just left all the fear, grief and loss back in the car. Nope. That was the biggest lesson of the day: at first, yoga may give us the space to leave things behind things that don’t serve us, but one of its highest function is transformation and integration. Of yoga’s numerous definitions and translations, one of the primary is “to yoke”— in asana practice, bringing breath, body and mind together. As I found that July day, yoking could also include the darker emotions that we might want to push away.
Inside the front door, I mumbled a hello to Steph Steeves, the Sangha teacher checking us in, and laid out my mat in farthest corner, both for the sake of avoiding the windows and personally hiding out. But as the other Love Your Brain yoga series participants walked in, I could both see and feel that this would be different than any other yoga class I’d attended; venues where everyone had been doing yoga for years, and “ability” was taken for granted. Several of the Love Your Brain series students were laughing and bright. Some were quiet like me. One was sitting in a chair.
As we started the actual movements, I found that I couldn’t comfortably engage in many poses that just a few weeks ago I would have. This is what it’s like to live with a brain injury, and creating a space to be ok with my energy and ability being so transient was new to me. It’s still a work in progress. I laid there for a good part of the first class, crying on and off as I tried to focus on my breathing, the quiet of the room and the presence of the other people.
The tears really came at the end, when we sat in a circle to share. It was just a brief introduction of who we were, and if we wanted, what our injury had been. I choked up. I hadn’t spoken with anyone besides my closest family, friends and health care providers about what I was going through, let alone a circle of strangers. Yet as the group went around, it once again became clear that this was a unique community. Everyone had their story of injury and loss, grueling and hard and sometimes leavened with time and humor.
Throughout the series, my physical condition improved and I was able to do all of the poses the teacher cued us through. That kinetic memory, etched in my body across so many years, came singing to the surface. More than that, I started to feel a “yoking” to something broader than a physical experience.
At first it was connecting with the people I was in the class with. Before my TBI, I jammed my yoga classes into my work as a freelance writer/video producer, which I scheduled around chasing powder, waves and dry weather for mountain biking. In general, I’d show up to yoga having worked all morning, find a calm and clear place by the end of class, and then rush back out the door, already checking emails on my phone. “Community” was not something I associated with yoga, despite practicing with the same teachers and students for years.
Since the end of the Love Your Brain series, I’ve continued to video conference in with Sangha Studio’s Resilience class for people with TBI/brain injury. It’s become a weekly cornerstone of my personal yoga practice, on and off the mat. I’m continually moved and honored to practice with the Sangha group, many of whom were in the LYB series I took. It’s a setting where everyone just shows up as they are; sitting in a chair, having a headache, laying down, whatever. We just do what we can, and we do it together. It’s beautiful. Virtual or not, they are part of my community.
As the heat of summer shifted into the bright colors of fall, “yoking” continued to redefine what had been a largely physical practice. For decades, the combination of focused breathing, alignment and an inspired sequence of poses would let me reach a “flow state,” akin to snowboarding or surfing at their peak moments, when the ego is subordinated to the pure physicality and presence. And I sensed that yoga was different, in that I was “just” on a mat, and when my mind was particularly quieted, I would experience a deep gratitude, or what I can only describe as a radiant reverence.
My body contained this well of being yoked, a well I had feared would run dry without the physical ability to practice asana at the level I had for years. But as TBI’s go, the stamina I had found in July, and that glimmer of my former practice, was lost again as setbacks and symptom flare ups again curtailed physical exertion. Instead of giving up my practice, I adapted to a slower breath, a slower form of movement— and found more and more different states entering my practice than I’d ever encountered before. Old thought patterns, past and present wounds and feelings would pop up. Geysers of grief and loss for the life I was leaving behind. Rushes of gratitude for just being able to be on the mat at all. For this practice, so ancient but so relevant after thousands of years.
There would be no predictor if I would end up crying in despair or if I would be visited by a total calm, stillness and connection that went beyond anything material. With so much time on my hands while I was resting, I started to wonder, how could all these seemingly contradictory states be possible in the same person, in the same practice, on the same mat? Without that burning heat of energy I was so habituated to putting in physically?
Slowly, my questioning softened into acceptance. What I was experiencing was another form of yoking, of integration. Or, from another yogic perspective, of making my way deeper through the Koshas, the five sheaths that we layer upon our most basic and pure being since birth. Whatever the definition, it was life, in its rawest states, playing out through my practice. Yoga was helping me build a container of awareness to notice my shifting emotional and feeling states, and the strength to maintain myself upright in their flow.
During my first few months of working with my therapist and yoga teacher, she kept coming back to the yogic tenant that the most advanced practice is whatever is appropriate for you right now. As I thought about that, I counted myself lucky that on the whole I was never a very aspirational yoga practioner. I never traveled to India seeking enlightenment, or wanted to become an instructor. Then, I realized that I did show up to class each week with the expectation of being able to perform my asana the way I had the week before, the month before, the past 20 years before. A judgement all its own that now I was being called to transform.
Moving from that habitual expectation to a more grounded acceptance was, and still is, a radical change. Bringing that to the mat was the first step toward a new way of looking at the practice, at myself and my TBI. It opened up a way of seeing the duality in everything. Strength and flexibility, suffering and joy; all of that and so much more, contained and connected within in a singular unity. My therapist described this as the shift from being a “yogist” to a “yogi.” I’ve never been one for labels, but this one makes a lot of sense. And really, it was just the beginning.
Since then I’ve had to put it into practice.
Jesse Huffman is a freelance writer and video producer based in Vermont.
@manhuff | http://www.jessehuffman.com/
Special thanks to Shem Roose for the amazing photos!
@shemispheres | https://www.shemroose.com/