March Yoga Story: Sandra Needham
Written by: Sandra Needham, Member of Pilgrimage of the Heart
The Space Between
I try too hard. My parents were more casual about saying, “Just do your best” when I was young than I was about hearing it. ‘Doing my best’ has always involved tension. Earnest effort needs to show!
My girlfriend in Brazil was trying to straighten her posture. Her personal trainer told her: “Pretend you are holding a pencil tightly between your shoulder blades.” I pictured the pencil each morning with my usual fevered effort to form a new “muscle memory” for countering my own rounded shoulders.
The determined muscle spasm inside my right shoulder blade that resulted and accompanied me to San Diego is an aggravating metaphor for me.
Pilgrimage of the Heart Yoga emphasizes a poetic version of the pencil as “opening the heart.” I’ve consulted several of the wise and articulate teachers after classes. One suggested imagining the inside of my spine, rising from the base and flowing up through the whole torso, not isolating the action in the shoulder blades; helpful. Another said that instead of tensing up to flatten the shoulder blades, imagine a gentle waterfall down the back coaxing the opening of the chest. Also, helpful. All classes express the idea of feeling comfortable, unforced; of being compassionate towards ourselves, blocking out the voices in our heads that disparage our attempts.
The studio offered a workshop on non-violence. You can guess where non-violence starts: with ourselves. Only then can it spread to our personal relationships, our communities and to the world. The leader said, “Sometimes we even violate ourselves on a yoga mat with wrenching postures and self-criticism.
We want to strive in a sustainable way, not a destructive way.” Ironically, this was the opposite of the cultural message I, as a girl, received: be self-effacing; try to please others; smile, even if suffering.
Soon after the workshop, a class teacher was encouraging us to energize the extended leg on the mat as if we were standing on it. I couldn’t see her, but she was near me when she followed with: ”Energize that leg but don’t over- energize it. The space between those two is where freedom resides.”
That is a truth for all of the arts; for all we do, engaging with presence.
There is a happy ending to my muscle spasm problem: I had, by happenstance, two consecutive yoga classes where the teachers emphasized that the front lower ribs counter chest-opening and back-bending actions by floating downwards, resisting the sprawling and tilting upwards that these actions suggest. I even asked the second teacher if the studio had made this the ‘topic of the week?’ No. I was shown a solution, and I had the chance to concentrate on that solution the very next class!
The difference is a fraction of an inch downward that the lower ribs maintain, but upon lifting the rib cage “from the sides” – as another teacher puts it and as I now understand it – an entirely different part of the upper back is engaged with the “opening of the heart.” The shoulder blades remain tension- free. Another brilliant teacher responded to my jubilant news: “When you’re ready, the message to the body comes through.” You excellent teachers know who you are! Thank you all. In the meantime, I’m trying, but I’m trying not to over-try!