Long ago, in the dark backward and abysm of time, I and Martha took a six week Modern Dance workshop, an "intensive," as they called it. This was some twenty-five years ago, and I don't remember a lot about it, except that it was fun and I was not very good at it. But one thing I do remember is how we were taught to divide up space and classify movement, according to the system of someone named -- I think -- Laban. I remember it because it involved a number of exercises for identifying the space around ourselves that we habitually used and avoided using. The variation was surprisingly wide -- different people had very different spaces that they "inhabited." I lived in a small space directly in front of my chest, about where you'd hold a book to read it, and in order to attend to something, or manipulate it, I would always try to move it into that space. And my body had grown huddled around that space, my head bowed forward and my shoulders moving forward around it. Exercises that made me put my attention in other spaces, and to move into them -- especially into the space behind and above my head -- were disturbing. Liberating, but disorienting and dangerous-feeling.
Movement was likewise broken down into different categories, which I remember less well; but I remember that form I was most comfortable with was called "bound flow" -- movement against one's own resistance. Some people found this very difficult. It's characteristic of various kinds of detail-work -- writing, painting, and so forth. Muscles and their antagonists fire at the same time. Mime slowly lifting a dumbbell, with your biceps pulling and your triceps resisting the pull, and you'll get the idea. This motion came naturally to me. What did not come naturally to me was letting my limbs swing free, with no resistance whatever. Again liberating, disorienting, dangerous-feeling.
Well. Twenty-five years passed, without my doing much to disturb either of these habits, beyond maybe forcing myself to learn and practice the backstroke. But always in the back of my mind I thought that my most frustrating limitations -- my inability think on my feet, or to speak freely under stress -- might be eased by practicing moving my attention out of that little box in front of my chest, and learning to move freely into all that space around me that I habitually deemed too dangerous to occupy.
And now I've taken up yoga. I'm going very slowly, with a book (of course, what else?). I'm doing a total of six asanas right now, which are supposed to be very basic and easy. Poses like standing up straight, or kneeling and lifting my arns over my head. The effort to do these, mental and physical, is embarrassing. But illuminating. Just to stand and straighten my spine in the way described for ten breaths requires continuous attention and astonishing exertion by my back muscles -- the erectors, either side of the spine, and also various accessory breathing muscles; virtually every muscle that attaches to my ribs has to scramble to keep up. They all object to this outlandish activity.
But they love it, too; they're grateful to me. And I to them. It's an odd business, inhabiting a body.
People remark often about how hard I am on myself. I'm always a little baffled by this. I don't quite know what they mean. I wonder if partly they're responding to the habitual "bound flow" of my mind -- I'm usually resisting myself, one way or another. It's a way of doing mental detail-work, I suppose. But I don't do it out of self-dislike. I do it mostly out of interest in fine distinction. The free flow of my mind is not usually very interesting to me; it's not till it's pushing against some resistance that interesting things happen.
But it is a habit, and it's always worth turning over habits to see what's growing underneath them.