Yoga from the inside out

Chapters 1-2

The first two chapters have not struck a chord that resonates with me quite strongly – at least not yet. I mean, what the author is saying makes sense, but at this point I’m still left with a lot of questions. First, the things I have noticed and enjoyed are the pictures. The pictures are of women who don’t have the typical “ideal” size 2 body. The pictures are apparently of ordinary women who have adopted yoga – this aspect of the book is inspiring and goes well with the message Sell is making about body image being less about cultural acceptance and more about a connection with the self.

I appreciate Sell’s description of her struggles with eating disorders and body images, but a lot of this is hard for me to relate to. Female body building is something I have no familiarity with, nor do I understand the feeling to eagerly want to be sculpted and full of muscle. Of course though, as a woman, body image is a highly relatable topic. Wanting to be ideal and work towards a perfection is something I completely resonate with. What struck me was when Sell mentions that at the point she had actually attained a perfect body and everything the ideal would dictate her to have, she also realized that other aspects of her life were lacking. She mentions being unhappy and frustrated, and her husband even commented to this effect. I guess the next question would be asking if working towards perfection would be worth those losses. The obvious answer is no, but how do you stop caring about the ideal?

This brings me to my next confusion – how to dissociate. Maybe the book is not advocating dissociating altogether, but rather with the “Sleeping World”. If the sleeping world is all you’re familiar with, then dissociating with it seems very daunting and maybe even impossible. This is the point I am at right now. I understand Sell’s statements about the artificiality of the world we live in that is guided by superficial obsessions and unrealistic and commercial guidelines. I get it. I just don’t know what would fill a world without some of the superficial things we worry about. Maybe Sell would say that this concern of mine is all part of and perpetuated by the Sleeping World, but nevertheless, I picture a very empty world. When I am reading this book so far I am reminded of my first encounter with learning about Buddhism. How everything is suffering, and ultimately we should want to leave all this suffering behind. I initially loved this concept of everything around us meaning nothing. However, as I’ve grown in experiences and in relationships, I realize that having these things that may cause suffering may be better than having nothing and therefore feeling nothing. I look forward to reading where the rest of the book is headed, because I am on the fence right now regarding the good/bad of this Sleeping World.


Chapters 3-4

Alignment is what I have decided is the take-home point in these two chapters. I like the substance of what Sell talks about, but I still feel like she is talking from the perspective of someone who has had these wonderful revelations and conquered so much and become this yoga genius of sorts who is fully in tune with what yoga is spiritually and physically – and yes, obviously these traits do probably describe her otherwise she never would have written an entire book about yoga and her thoughts on it. I guess my point is that it’s hard to converse with someone who is not at that some point of epiphany yet. They can agree with what you’re saying, and it can make sense to them, but the significance of what you’re saying may not really hit them at that moment. I am kind of that person right now who wants to learn more, gets what the spirituality is about, but I need to experience it for myself to really appreciate it.

But still there were things that stuck out to me and just made sense. There is a part in one of the chapters where the I Ching is quoted. This quote talks about how we should focus on replacing the bad with something good instead of focusing on how to battle the bad. I think this is an excellent idea and something I never thought about. I have mentioned before that part of my problem of getting the ball rolling in situations has to do with wanting a perfect plan as to how to proceed. If I just focus on positive changes, then I never have to worry about devising a battle plan for the bad habits, because they will inevitably fall by the wayside. I’m going to try to implement this idea, it seems very simple. Something else that provided clarification was one of the passages talking about finding your way inwards, not trying to find a way out. I think I may have initially interpreted the first couple of chapters as pointing to yoga as a means to ignore and stay away from the things in the world that are misleading. I am beginning to understand more and more that yoga is actually a tool to see inwards. I know in class we have talked about finding our true selves, and all this is beginning to make more sense. The personal stories that pepper the book make the application of all the philosophical talk more understandable.


Chapters 5-6

I laughed when Sell commented that some people would think it was ridiculous if they heard the teacher say something like “lifting the skin below the kidneys upwards”. In class when we are in corpse pose and Dr. Schultz says to release the back of the throat, or something that involves movement of inner organs, I never thought how funny it actually sounded. I actually like being led through these instructions because it makes me more aware of my body at that instant. Like when we are instructed to release the tongue from the roof of the mouth, 9 times out of 10 my tongue was clutching the roof of my mouth, and I hadn’t realized it until that specific instruction.


I like the idea of yoga not being about the physicality or the intellect in understanding every single philosophical tenet behind each pose. I like Sell’s description about simply opening your heart as being sufficient to practice yoga. I don’t know if I have done this yet, because I am still full of skepticism, but I know I am trying to. Speaking of trying, I did not know that trying in yoga isn’t desirable. Sell talks about her instructor saying that we shouldn’t try, but we should just let our bodies be as we are doing the pose. I am not really sure about this statement, because I perceive any effort to adjust my pose, or being aware of my correctness/incorrectness as indicative of trying. Can you really practice without trying? I think of someone who doesn’t try as someone who doesn’t care. If anything, “trying” describes my entire semester experience with yoga so far. I have tried to understand what I’m doing wrong, tried to correct this, tried to practice enough, and tried to not focus on the fruits of yoga. The hardest part is trying to not focus on the improvements I want. When I feel more flexible one day and then regress to feeling less limber the next, I am more frustrated than I was before the initial improvement.

I need to accept my starting point. I thought the analogy of the roadmap was hilarious. It’s true – if you don’t accept your starting point, you’re going to get lost and will all the instructions will be irrelevant. I find this idea especially relatable. When I don’t like something, I do everything but accept its existence. I go so far as to lie to myself so I don’t have to deal with whatever ugly situation is at hand.


Chatpers 7-8

I’m leaving this book much happier than when I entered it, because it’s given me something to guide myself by. A lot of the things Sell mentions are good ideals to work towards, even though some of the means she describes are not very “everyday” (like having a guru relationship, or a kula). Compared to Waking, this book was more spiritually oriented. I think I would have loved this book more had I read it a few years ago, when my head was still floating up in the clouds somewhere. I think the past few years have grounded me and made me a little more wary of spirituality, but ironically this wariness has still made me more desirous of being a part of spirituality. I actually feel tired after reading this book. Sell described a hundred and one things she did to find herself, and a lot of the process involved a lot of crying and anguish. I doubt myself in terms of ability to go through this, but when Sell comments on the deathbed as being a place where we are remembered for things beside material obsessions, I realize that this is true. I don’t think many people think that far ahead and plan for how they’re going to be remembered.

In general I felt less captivated by this book than I did with Waking. They were both totally different and took different approaches to revealing what yoga can do. Maybe it’s that Sell proposes a path that seems more difficult. I acknowledge that being worried about weight and looks and fashion is silly, but I don’t know if I’ll stop caring about those things. Maybe finding a balance is more important than eliminating those concerns altogether. I do think we live in a world where everyone tends to be centered on themselves, so the idea of being God-centered seems relevant. Then again, finding myself and focusing on my inward journey sounds self-centered too, but in a good way.

When I further compare it to Waking, I think that Sell learned a lot of her philosophical reasonings through practice over the years, whereas Sanford may have kind of “figured it out” because of the situation he was in. Sell provides a lot to aspire to and for that reason alone the book was worth reading. There were a lot of idealistic ways of thinking, and  a lot of it seems impractical, but maybe seeming impractical just shows how much I am dependent on this sleeping world. Obviously the things Sell describes are attainable – she attained them herself.

The last day of class

I wanted to write about practice on the last day of class. This particular day was significant because it felt like a LONG time since we had been in class (as I wasn’t there on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving). While I enjoyed the movie and what not, I think I should have been practicing more than I had over those few weeks.  I’ve commented before on how I’ve noticed myself doing favorable poses more than those that are more trying, but I really noticed the effects of this on this particular class day when we did both headstand and shoulderstand. Over the semester I’ve been practicing headstand frequently, probably more than any other pose. Even though I’m determined to master shoulderstand in the same way that I feel I’ve improved on headstand, on Thursday the last day of class I felt that I may have actually backtracked in my improvement. I had gotten to the point where I could get up sort of quickly, even though rolling back and starting with my feet against the wall is still necessary. The last day of class, however, I had more difficulty rolling back to the wall and getting up, and staying up. The whole time I had even managed to get up I felt like a skyscraper ready to topple over. I was definitely disappointed at realizing that my shoulderstand felt sloppy and not improved in the way it should have been at that point. I was happy, and surprised, that the poses we did (triangle pose?) where we spread our feet out and turn to one direction, bend that knee, and then reach down while extending the other hand and looking up  – were much easier. I did not have nearly the same magnitude of difficulty balancing as I did the first handful of times we did that pose. Also, afterwards I realized that I probably should have added breathing exercises as one of my favorite poses/exercises. These exercises are something that I am genuinely excited to continue and see how they change my respiratory health. Until this class, I never even thought of the concept of posturing myself in ways to “open the chest”. I am more aware now, (for example when lying flat) of the difference between feeling like my lungs are kind of crunched in, as opposed to being opened up outwards.

Practice blog – Thanksgiving week

To catch up on some of my practice blog, I thought I’d write a bit about how practicing yoga was over Thanksgiving. This particular week I did not find myself rolling out the yoga mat much during the middle of the week, but rather I spent some time doing headstands and some balancing poses at the start of the week, and then poses towards the end of break on the weekend. I noticed that the days in between this start/end period of yoga showed made some changes in my abilities. Doing a head stand seemed more difficult at the end of the break, whereas at the start it was not. I’m not sure if the combination of eating and taking “thanksgiving break” too literally produced this effect, but I was a little disappointed that only a few days of not even merely stretching made me feel almost lethargic when it came to practicing yoga again. Another disappoint that particular week was when I was trying to show my parents all the wonderful yoga abilities I’d acquired..trying being the key word. I didn’t think tree pose or mountain pose would be quite as impressive as standing on my head or shoulders, so I tucked in my shirt and manuevered myself on the floor assuring my family I knew what I was doing. The only problem was that I couldn’t manage to roll over to the point of getting my feet against the wall and getting upright from there (into shoulder stand). The first few failed attempts frustrated me into making further attempts even further from success. The most annoying part was that my parents seemed to think that I’d never really learned to do the pose to begin with. I guess yoga doesn’t necessarily work on demand like that. The only thing I gained that evening was a threat from my dad that he wouldn’t pay my hospital bills if I fell over and broke my neck.

more headstands

This last week I practiced doing the headstand without the wall support a few times. I wasn’t successful in getting up and keeping my balance, but I had a friend kind of “catch” my legs as I ungracefully flung them up, and then I told her to let go (but to stay close by since I was probably bound to topple over) once I felt like I had gotten my balance. I found that I could actually manage to stay up for a few seconds. I found that I’ve gotten too comfortable with the wall. It’s hard going from something you’ve become good at doing to going back to square one. Even though moving away from the wall means progress, it’s still frustrating to feel like I’m not close to doing the pose, when I felt much more accomplished when I was against the wall. Funnily enough my little puppy actually did a yoga pose of his own this weekend. He was climbing on the couch trying to look out the window when he sort of lost his balance and teetered over, almost doing a cartwheel over the arm of the couch, but he caught himself and instead ended up doing a full arm balance for about a half second. I guess all his head tilting and confused stares over the last few months while I’ve been contorting on my mat on the floor was really just his way of learning.


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.

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.


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.

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