Waking

Part One  – Trauma and Separation

Part one has not been what I have expected it to be. Matthew Sanford’s “Waking” was supposed to be a story like so many other “overcoming tragedy” stories. From the outset the book’s cover was intriguing enough. After completing Part one: Trauma and Separation, I know with certainty that the journey traveled by Matthew is very real. I say real because that’s what I feel through every page of his words. He doesn’t attempt or pretend to have met his ordeal with some sort of new found bravery or determination. He lays out all his emotions, from humiliation to the deathly fear that slowly becomes a quiet hopelessness. Among the details, the two things Matthew points out in his introduction as being significant to his story have been two things which have stood out to me – healing stories and the silence.

I didn’t understand what a healing story was. Intuitively I think of something evoking comfort and consolation. On one level the name sounds superficial, something for little kids who don’t know any better. After reading part one, I’m struck by how much the healing stories meant to Matthew during his stay in the hospitals. To write, so many years later, (and with surprising detail) of the vivid stories that the doctors and nurses told him must mean that they had that much significance in his recovery and care. He mentions in the intro that the healing stories are a source of guidance and shaping. This idea makes sense when I consider the frustration he felt at the lack of stories when switching hospital units and thus switching doctors as well.

I was also surprised that he spends a very large portion of the book talking about the first stages of his care in hospitals. I expected this to be a book that was start- to- finish about yoga. I understand that more than just talking about yoga, Matthew is talking about his life and everything in it, yoga being one of the most powerful components. This also makes the story more real.

      When I try to imagine what it would be like to be paralyzed, I simply can’t. Matthew describes this experience so well, that it actually makes me uncomfortable. Initially I thought of paralysis as just “not feeling”. The “silence” that Matthew uses to describe his mind and body disconnect makes the experience much more vivid. When he talks about not feeling the “warmth between his thighs” or the comfort of the sheet over his legs, I began to realize that it must be as if his lower body is simply not there – which is exactly how it must have been considering Matthew’s completely serious proposition to have his legs amputated. I tried to imagine my legs not listening to my mind, tried to not feel the air on them or the clothes covering them or the general sense of them being there. I quickly stopped trying because it was an uncomfortable enough of an experience just imagining such a scenario.

 

Part Two – Initiation

The story has yet to take a sharp uphill turn for the better – I’m still waiting. I think I’ve formed a permanent wrinkle from constantly frowning at all the unexpected and continuously saddening occurrences. I’m wondering if the story will ever start becoming less about the tragic sadness and evolve into something uplifting. Just when I start thinking this I remember the part of the wheelchair proficient role model that Matthew didn’t want to be like. I guess the memoir is that much better for not being what we’d expect – that Matthew would follow in the footsteps of that paraplegic with the “high-tech” wheelchair that let him zip through the world.

I’m enjoying the level of detail though. I feel like the author is taking me through every step of this process – making me develop an even more emotional connection to his account. It’s like knowing him without knowing him. I was absolutely horrified when he broke his neck again. You would have thought that things couldn’t possibly get much worse. I was ready to throw the book out at the thought of Matthew becoming a quadriplegic because of a mere tickling incident, until I remembered the very beginning of the book when he uses his arms to lower himself to the floor to practice yoga, so obviously he does not gain paralysis in his arms too – I was absolutely relieved.

The running theme seems to be Matthew’s disinclination to want to accept what medicine is telling him – that his lower body is gone. That would be my natural thought if I were paralyzed – accept it and move forward and I’ll be better off rather than dwell on what’s not there. When Matthew describes the pity the doctors must feel for him when he first gains hope over his phantom feelings of limb sensation, that was exactly my emotion as well – I felt bad that this little boy was hopeful about something that was impossible. As a neuroscience major, I was thinking simply along the lines of what level of spinal cord injury occurred, and the impossibilities that would be the result for Matthew’s future. It never occurred to me that thinking along these terms could be detrimental rather than helpful. I am interested to see where this is going. I did sort of pause in understanding when Matthew used a rocking back and forth technique on the floor to gain momentum and get himself into a sitting position. I thought of the yoga pose we did Tuesday involving this method of rocking back and forth.

Even into his college years Matthew describes being suddenly wrought with tearless sadness at his situation. This honesty that even years later he struggles with accepting what happened, again, makes the book real. I guess he can move on functionally without having an official closure or final grand understanding of what happened. What I found upsetting was learning that someone didn’t do his job the morning of the accident. Someone didn’t sand the road. Someone could have very likely prevented what happened to Matthew’s family, yet this section of the book is a mere paragraph. There is no anger in this part, no tone of regret or wondering “what if”. The anger I felt at this was not reflected in Matthew’s words. He said it like a fact – someone overslept and didn’t sand the road.

Part Three – Yoga, Bodies, and Baby Boys

            How can Matthew begin to feel something that isn’t there? Even at the completion of the book I’m struggling with understanding how he could feel when the possibility for this couldn’t have existed. I’m probably stuck in the confines that he describes. The confines of thinking too one dimensionally, of thinking too much about what I already know and not letting the possibility of something else transpire. I’m caught between understanding his new sensations as his changing mental outlook, or as an actual energetic sensation. Maybe it doesn’t matter, it’s amazing enough that he was able to “feel” in any sense of the word. I’m also wondering how someone who isn’t supposed to feel lower limb sensations describes his experience more vividly than I can say for myself and my yoga experience so far. Not that I haven’t felt better or different, but I haven’t reached any level of profundity, least of all not in a way that Matthew describes it. At the beginning of starting yoga this semester, I kind of understood that the talk of chakras and energy centers existed to explain things, not to explain something literally present. I thought of symmetry and alignment of the body and mind as being more metaphorical and philosophical rather than literal. I’m not so sure anymore. For someone to have written an entire book, traversing (and thus remembering in stark detail) from start to end the painful existence that was so much of his life, to convey that yoga allowed him to feel again must mean that something amazing really happened. If anything it makes me wonder what could happen to someone who already has sensation in their body – what further level of feeling could be attained? I don’t think I have ever really given enough importance to the body being a supplement to the mind. I’ve only ever been told about how there’s nothing without education, and while this is true, I’m just beginning to learn that the “good feelings” (I have no better descriptors for it than that) that come from yoga can help in everything else I want in life – including the mental aspirations. Apparently they don’t have to live in isolation of one another.

Applying his words to myself, I think I have been too aware of trying to reach something. I didn’t think that trying too hard could be considered violent. I realize that in Matthew’s case trying too hard literally was violent in the sense that it broke his femur, but I’m understanding that this can be applied in the sense that that focus can be disruptive to seeing what just comes. This made sense after I read it. I know we’ve talked about this before in class, about not being caught up in the fruits of an act, but it’s much easier said than done.

I’m wondering what kind of blue velvet chairs I overlook in my life. I love the point Matthew makes that being able to get from the floor to his wheelchair may have seemed daunting, but only until he realized another use for something that was always there. I think this especially applies to me because I tend to overdraw things out in my head. I will make a huge plan for something then take centuries to execute it for fear of it not coming out the way I planned. I don’t have to make such a bid deal of things. Matthew realized that there was an effective alternate route – it got the job done. I think I need to be more aware of what’s available to me. How many times have I not seen that something was possible if I had just looked at from another angle?

If there is no such thing as an injury as a result from yoga, maybe the same is true for everything else. When Matthew describes injuries in yoga as having some foundational roots in bad habits, I wonder if everything that may go wrong (within our control) is just the result of bad habits that need to be refined or extinguished. On some level it’s obvious this is the case (like getting a bad grade being the result of a habit of not studying properly), but what about for other things? Maybe sometimes we don’t realize something is awry. I don’t think I would have thought about yoga being something to improve my life. I’ve been so taken by it, and feel that this could really be going somewhere. I hope that it could eventually improve many mental things – my general confidence in myself, in my abilities, in my awareness of the one body I’ve been given. What I find hopeful is that Matthew demonstrated a process. Even years after the accident, he was still making human mistakes and learning from them.

My overall impression of Waking is kind of a sense of wonderment. I enjoyed the read, a lot actually. It’s one of those books that you think about even when you’re not reading it. I wonder to myself, since this is a real story, what it must have really been like – words in a book can only convey so much. Most of all I wonder what it must be like to experience everything Matthew experienced – losing his father and sister (I can’t fathom this), becoming paralyzed (can’t fathom this either), having to live everyday without certainty of health or the future, having a single event at age 13 be entirely consuming in every sense years and years after its passage, the list could go on. I can’t begin to imagine that kind of tragedy. After reading the book, every stress, worry, and concern I’ve ever had seems ridiculous. I can sit here and talk all day about how inspirational the book was (it was actually), but at the end of the day I’m not a paraplegic with 2/3 of bodily paralysis. I can’t further understand Matthew’s experience, except for understanding what he says in the way it applies to me.

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More headstands and shoulderstands

This past week I have really been doing a lot of practicing the headstand and shoulderstand. I’ve never been so involved in any of the yoga poses so far. Usually I will strike a pose every so often, but I’ve really been wanting to do these stands. In class last week I was surprised that I was able to get up on shoulderstand when we used the tactic of being a short distance from the wall and rolling back. That was the first time that I had gotten up, and I had tried several times, all fruitlessly. That was especially encouraging because I compared that shoulderstand to the very first try when we had used the chairs in class. Over the span of about two weeks I feel I made a lot of progress. I’ve been able to do the shoulderstands at home practicing now too, and I’ve been doing it after the headstands. I didn’t realize it until I started practicing with both shoulder and headstands, but I do maybe feel more calm after the practice than when I just did headstands last week in my practice. I do remember an instance last week of not being able to find my keys and feeling particularly agitated at this, which is not my usual response. I don’t know if it had anything to do with only practicing headstands or not, but it’s something I noticed. I’ve also been pretty good about practicing breathing exercises, especially since I know they will eventually make a difference in my health. Even though seeing results years from now seems like an extremely delayed gratification, any prospect of not needing an inhaler is motivating enough.

Niyamas

Of the limbs of yoga, the Niyamas struck me as most descriptive of the place I feel I am in now at this point in my life.
The idea of contentment is what I think everything I’m doing is ideally going to lead to. I think this idea stuck out to me because it is exactly what I think I’m lacking. Sometimes not having a definitive direction fuels my feeling of anxiety and discontent. I try to understand the idea of santosha being something we allow ourselves to embrace regardless of the material possessions or the external circumstances, but I think many of us have come to expect a something for every effort, and I relate my sense of happiness and contentment to that. “Cultivating opposites brings positive fruits”. I didn’t really understand this at first until I continued reading that it’s referring to cultivating opposites of those bad tendencies we have. When I try to improve myself, I think in terms of stopping doing certain things. I like the idea of not just ceasing the bad habits, but focusing on the opposite of that – the good habits. I was asking my boyfriend about bad habits I have to get a perspective of what the opposites would be. I kept rejecting his suggestions until he finally said that my bad habits are not going to be things I like or agree on, they just are there. I realized that maybe there are things I don’t accept as flaws because acknowledging them would mean I’d have to do something about it and change them. While I don’t do it often, I think self-reflecting would be a very revealing practice to take up.

headstands and breathing

During class on Tuesday, after accomplishing the headstand, brief as it may have been, I felt pretty good. I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to do it, even with the help. I was happy with myself for just getting upside down. It was interesting to perceive things from literally another perspective. I don’t feel like I was too successful at the shoulderstand in class. It actually seemed harder than the headstand. While practicing at home, I have been practicing the headstand more than the shoulderstand. I’ve managed to get upside down against the wall (though I’m still not very balanced and usually need to come back down almost right away), but I imagine that being able to do the headstand without the wall as support will take much more practice. One of my favorite classes so far has been the breathing exercises on Thursday (and not just because a lot of the time lying down). I liked becoming aware of how I breathe, because it’s not something you think about. I’ve practiced the techniques we went over, especially the one about kind of pausing in breath. It’s a conveniently discreet part of yoga to practice.