It’s Time to Remember:
The Somatic Amnesia of Tree Climbing Vampires
Looking back on my first 200-hour teaching certification feels like going back in time and watching myself become a vampire. I was bitten by the yoga and my teacher became my maker. I no longer lived in the unconscious world of humans; my senses had become alive. I was changed. I think that many yoga teachers share this feeling when completing their first 200 RYT. You might notice when describing their experience, they will abstain from the name of the teacher and just say “my teacher.” We yoga teachers love to say this: “my teacher” this, “my teacher” that. We love our teachers in a way that is different from any other love we experience in life. It’s hard to put into words. Truly.
My first teacher was a senior Iyengar teacher who studied directly with BKS Iyengar. He was almost 70 years old. In true Iyengar fashion, proper form was instilled in my training...intensely. It was everything. Postures were meant to be held and held and held. When I began teaching yoga, I presented a strong and intense practice to my students. In the shadows of my intensity, my insecurity lived. I felt insecure about my teaching. I hoped that if I worked my students hard enough, they would be distracted from ever questioning me. I spoke with conviction. Every cue was assertive and confident. It was absolute. As a yoga teacher, we grow. Ideally, we change the more we teach and the more we understand. And, hopefully, we continue to learn more and more. From the time I did my first RYT 200, there was always this deep nagging feeling that I was missing something. I completed another 200 RYT; the feeling remained. I tried to find another teacher; I did a 50-hour training with Tiffany Cruikshank. I thought she would be it, but the feeling remained. A teacher needs a teacher.
I think there are a few times in life when you get a direct message from the universe. It’s a knowing, a feeling that you’ve hit the nail on the head. This is how I felt when I discovered Simon Borg-Olivier. In 2014, I found him and I followed him. I knew this person was my teacher. It sounds cult-y and creepy, but sometimes life is like that. If you are on the right path, doors will occasionally open. The universe will say, “hey, I know you have your doubts, you’re broke, and everyone thinks you’re crazy for pursuing this dream. But it’s all good...keep going.”
When I got to Bali, Simon talked about how he wanted to try and help everyone restore natural movement from the core, the kanda, the dantian. I had no idea what he was talking about. Like everyone in the west, I had cultivated a somatic amnesia of natural movement. One thing you learn as a longtime yoga student is that you rarely absorb information when you hear it. With yoga, it takes weeks, months, sometimes longer. And then, suddenly...it’s just there. You finally understand.
For a little over a month, I was with Simon for 11 hours a day. He never tired; he never lost passion. 11 hours a day for 35 days. His voice was completely gone by the end of the training. Reflecting back, I now understand his need to convey his message. He needed to inform us about how yoga has derailed from moving naturally. He emphasized that returning back to this natural movement is the missing piece to the puzzle of yoga. My feeling of guilt that I carried for so long disappeared. That lack of “something” in my practice was filled. While I am still learning, I know (without a shadow of a doubt) that this element is the missing piece. How do I know? The feeling is no longer there and understanding has replaced it.
Remember when you were a little kid and your body existed for one reason? FUN! You were able to do things and try things because you moved your body naturally. By that I mean, you didn’t break your body apart into pieces. This systematic breakdown of our body is what we do in the West. We take something and we pull it apart. We systematize it; we change it from its natural habitat. We cage it and seek to control it. This is the Western way. I think about the book, Light on Yoga, and I wonder about the Westerners who helped in creating that book for Iyengar. I wonder if they told him, we need in-depth descriptions so people can understand. You need to describe each part of the body, what it is doing, and why it is doing it. Don’t get me wrong...it’s an incredible book. And we cannot be naive and not explore both sides of the outcome. While we have this amazing guide to posture, it feels as if we have ventured too far off in one direction. We are unbalanced. We are obsessed with this idea of breaking the body into pieces.
Stick with me...I’m getting to the point. I’m going to call this concept: “tree climber amnesia.” I like to use the comparison of tree climbing to yoga because I think (most of us) climbed on something as kids. Whether it was a tree, a fence, a house, or a dumpster, we explored our environment by climbing. The movement related to climbing a tree is yoga. Is it not? You have to move through the branches in a three-dimensional way. Twisting, folding, inverting...we climb those branches to our destination.
When you were a child and you climbed a tree, you had this trust with your body...this connection to it. You had a goal in mind (to climb) and you trusted your body to get you there. Think about this. When you had a harder branch to try to climb, did you think to yourself, “okay, I need to externally rotate my front leg and internally rotate my back leg, move my navel this way, take an inhale, and wait… don’t move until I get to the exhale.” No, you would just wiggle and wrangle your body however you needed to in order to do the thing you wanted to do. You were connected to your body through the process of not knowing what in the hell you would need it to do next. You were connected in the curiosity and the exploration. I like to think about the traditional creators of yoga...how they came up with the shapes, how many different directions they must have moved, the connection within the creation. Now we exclaim, “cool flow!” We have framework; we won’t step outside of it. Wherever we begin, we are starting from an “idea” of a “starting point.” We don’t know. We don’t really know though, do we? We don’t really understand how it all began. We have Iyengar and Ashtanga. Our Westernized yoga experience branched out from from these two styles.
Within the vast amount of information given to us, I wonder about what is happening inside our bodies during each asana. Are we focusing and bringing our attention to the wrong side of the coin? What would yoga look like if we put a bunch of yogis in a room with no mats, no music, and no talking. We all just went to town trying to get ourselves in and out of our own created shapes. I feel that the environment of that room would be closer to the true feeling of union. What we have now is limited...constrained. However, our movements are designed to be limitless. We can create new experiences within these shapes of yoga. In reading this blog, take any posture that you’ve done a million times and think about the most absurd way to move your body from that position; allow your body to do something that is not a “yoga” posture. Allow yourself to think about making a shape that is new. It will stimulate the muscle of natural movement, which starts with curiosity.
How about this? Picture yourself in pigeon pose. Someone comes to you and ties your hands behind your back. You need to stand up. How would you complete this task? Would you not be fully in the moment...trying to figure out how to move your body in order to stand up? This is natural movement. This is what we have inside of us: this ability to connect. We have the ability to figure it out...IN THE MOMENT. This part of yoga has been buried under the framework of Vinyasa flow, under the idea of order.
Don’t you think it is odd that we are supposed to be “exploring” our bodies inside of the rectangle shape of our mat? We must stay in the box! Don’t allow yourself to venture outside of it. What in the f*&% is happening to us while we are containing ourselves to these limits? Yoga is wild because we are WILD. We need to break out of this box and do things organically. We need to climb trees inside of our bodies, inside of our minds.
In our effort to make yoga safe, accessible, and anatomically sound, we have lost this very sacred element. We are missing the spontaneous connection of going into and coming out of something. No matter how you spin it, we are following. We are not creating. We are copying movement. We are not exploring our bodies and our abilities...not truly.
I have stopped using a yoga mat now. This adjustment has changed so many aspects of my practice. I am no longer restricted by the rectangle. Also, I no longer practice with my eyes open. There have been more times than I can say that I have spun, twisted, and somehow ended up smacking into the wall because I was so immersed in the movement. I had no idea how I even got there. I think of my practice before Bali...how I wanted to cry because I felt so lost and no longer enjoyed practicing. The movements felt dry, blocked, stagnant. I think of my practice now; it feels like endless possibilities.
As a longtime teacher, I have plenty of students who I have known for years. And here I am...a teacher who has completely changed her tune. I’m no longer drilling form into their brains. Instead, I’m telling them to relax and move like a “sea anemone.” This is something that Simon said to which I really related (mostly because I am pretty sure that I was a mermaid in my past life). My old students are like, “what…is…happening?” For my new students, I have a totally different way of approaching yoga. It’s all fresh for them. I also carry this guilt about my students who refuse to allow their bodies to let go with Synergy because they have attached to the way I trained them to be. I created vampires who may never know the joy of natural movement.
When my friend Tangkao came and taught Yoga Synergy to my students at Namaste on Williams, there was no talking. The students were allowed the space to feel their own bodies with no verbal cues. At the end of the practice, I looked around the room. Many of the students looked emotional...as if they had found something they had forgotten they lost. The feeling of remembering a part of yourself that is primal, that is natural. We remembered the part of how we were created to be on this planet. It is one of the most powerful things to experience.
Written by Lauren J. Fields,
Owner of Yoga to You PDX and E-RYT 500