“I don’t take the bus anymore. My arthritic knee makes it hard for me to get in and out,” the woman across from us said in a loud voice to the waitress serving her.
I could tell she was a regular. The conversation was casual and familiar. The woman went on listing some of her ailments. The waitress kindly listened.
Two tables away from her, I wondered at what point in the woman’s life had she begun to see her body as ailing and old? I thought of this because I’m in my 50’s and she was probably in her early 70’s. My body, just like hers and yours, might I add, is aging as well. I feel aches I did not have before. “Will I inevitably start creating litanies of aches to share with people?” I asked myself as I sipped my green tea.
And then I remembered the old and quite trippy Funkadelic song, “Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow” and this morning’s yoga practice and how achy and good my whole body felt as I sat eating green papaya salad at my favorite neighborhood lunch spot. I thought about the work I do and realized that the primary work I am interested in is not really about writing or fitness but about personal growth, and social liberation.
Coming back to the lady two tables away, at one point in time she began making lists of her ailments. Maybe her lists go back to early in life. But usually these lists develop later. And although I see absolutely nothing wrong with her list, I realize that her practice of reciting her litany is not purely biological. It’s mental. Her pains are real but the stories she creates (the lists) about her sensations are malleable, optional, and fictional. (Fiction does not mean false. It just means that any story we tell has been shaped. We include certain details and leave out others.) The lists have something to do with the kind of training she received not just now that she is older but way before.
I was grateful for catching the bit of conversation I did. It made me think about the kinds of lists and stories I carry within me. Like her, I’m mostly unaware of these. We tend not to realize our own storylines. But I’m curious and somehow intend to free myself as much as I can of the limiting lists, those stories that I inherited, developed, and live out of.
Much of what I have understood about yoga in the past couple of years is that the practice is really about noticing and noting the habitual mental and physical patterns that limit the fullest expression of my humanity. The way to work with those patterns is not necessarily through an aggressive 10 step program but primarily through noticing and working with the breath while engaging in very patient movements that help me back into myself rather than away from the body.
Yoga is about reincarnation, not in some distant future but right now. Every practice is an invitation to re-incarnate, to become more fully aware of the wonder of the relationship between mind and body, matter and soul. I’ve seen how many times a challenging pose breaks open and becomes accessible not through forcing myself through but as a result of noticing the habitual movement pattern in my body that I had not questioned before. These little breakthroughs often translate in me realizing some habitual thought pattern in other areas of life.
Many times when coaching people through personal renewal, I see people with a desire for something healthier and better for themselves but with an inability to develop sustained transformation. The problem in many cases is that the plan for change these folks have often engaged in was often one that has been forced and formulaic: stop doing this, do that, read this book, try harder. Seldom does anyone go back into the stories that are the framework for the dissatisfaction and overall lack of wellbeing they may be experiencing. Seldom does the person find ways to reset their nervous system in order to become less reactive and more in control of thoughts.
Transforming one’s mind is no easy feat. It does not happen overnight or even over a year’s time, or even a lifetime. Instead, transformation is moment by moment. It is a daily patient practice that requires not just knowledge but ultimately wisdom and persistence. It also happens more easily in a supportive community rather than alone.
“Sometimes we need a story more than food to stay alive,” Barry Lopez writes in Crow and Weasel. Taking time to work with our stories, to notice them, and drop or modify the ones that no longer serve us is the beginning of transformation and the essence of personal growth.