January 9, 2013
A Lesson in Touch, Fear and Acceptance
Every once in a while, the teacher in my Sunday morning yoga class directs us to pair up with another student for a "partner pose."
I always recoil at the idea, and apparently so do many of my classmates. On a recent Sunday, the teacher, Linda, wanted us to do a partner pose that would involve one person reclining back across another, crouching beneath in what's known as a "child's pose."
Linda acknowledged people's reluctance to get with someone else, probably a stranger, and put themselves in a situation that would involve close physical contact and a need for trust that, for one thing, no one would get hurt. "Say hello to the person to your right or left, because that's who will be your partner," Linda said.
"It happens in all my classes when I say it's time for a partner pose," Linda continued, "People get uncomfortable. I'm not sure what that's about. Being in someone else's space?" Linda, in an encouraging voice, explained how the pose would allow for everyone to enjoy some really nice stretching.
I looked to my left, and a tall, slender woman, dressed in stylish, body-contouring yoga pants and tank top smiled at me. She was probably in her mid-40s, attractive with softly applied makeup and short cropped hair. "Sure," I said.
My theory for why people resist partner poses suddenly hit me. Here was this woman, well-put together, well-coiffed and well-pedicured, offering to be my partner. I looked at her and thought of my boring exercise pants, grungy old T-shirt and self-pedicured toenails (as in, I cut and filed the nails myself), and I felt inadequate, slightly ashamed.
Since I showered before class, I wasn't too worried that my feet or other parts of me smelled. But a feeling flashed within me, for even just a half second, of just hating everything about myself at that moment. Sure, I felt a little weird touching a stranger, but I felt even more awkward about her touching me, because I was wondering why such a decent looking, successful example of humanity would want to get near me.
Nonetheless, being the good student, I pretended I wasn't swimming in a bath of embarrassment and got on with the assignment. "Do you want to be top or bottom," my partner asked cheerfully, and I tried not to giggle at how vaguely sexual hat sounded.
I said she could be "bottom" first, which meant she would crouch on her mat in the child's pose. You know a child's pose, right? You pull your legs up underneath you and bend your torso down and forward, trying to get a relaxing stretch in your back, especially in your lower back.
So, my partner got into her child's pose, and, per Linda's directions, I gently sat down on her lower back, not too high up and not too far down. "Is that OK," I asked. "Yes, that's fine," I heard her say from beneath her crouched position. And then I let myself fall, one vertebra at a time, on to her back, with my shoulders and head eventually touching hers. I then stretched out my legs, raised my hands over my head and let them fall out where they would.
Before I sat on my partner, I wondered, was I too heavy? Linda assured us that, uh, size doesn't matter -- that a very big, tall man can safely lie back across a small woman and not crush her.
I checked in with my partner, and again asked if she was OK. She said "Great." I, too, felt relaxed in the gentle-back-bend-like stretch and the sense of my arms and legs falling away. There was almost a sense of floating in space.
When we switched, and she got on top of me, I felt a nice pressure in my lower back--a real release of tension--as well as a good stretch in groin muscles of which I was barely aware.
"This feels wonderful!" my partner exclaimed about her experience of being on top.
Linda talked about how partner poses allow us to get outside of ourselves, our own concerns, and help someone else feel better. She also mentioned how, in this pose, the two partners become positioned in such a way that their hearts are close to each other. Maybe even our breathing became synchronized.
Getting out of our own concerns: Yes, focusing on making sure my partner was comfortable while I lay on top of her, or helping her get a good stretch by letting her lie back across me, certainly got my mind off my own concerns about being scruffy. I ceased to feel shame or embarrassment or that I wasn't good enough. After my partner rolled off of me, we both raised ourselves up, smiled at each other and commented on how good we now felt.
We strangers had made a connection. We touched each other, we trusted each other, and, I presume, we didn't judge each other too harshly, or not even at all.
"Thank you!" my partner said as she returned to her mat. She said it as if she really meant it. I had done a good turn, and so had she. I wasn't disliking myself anymore for the time being. "Thank you," I said back.