The Wisdom of Women, Part 2: On Connecting Deeply
Christine Marie Mason is one of the most extraordinary people I know and one of my favorite humans. She has been an entrepreneur, CEO of 6 different companies, BA and MBA graduate from Northwestern University, organizer of nine TEDx events, a yoga teacher, artist, musician, mother of six fantastic kids, grandmother, and most recently, a prison peace mentor. You may also know here from the wise, eloquent and empowering piece “Love Your Body Now” included in The Tao of Dating (Ch 7, p143).
We met 15 years ago at a yoga retreat, so I thought I knew her pretty well by now. What I did not know was that when Christine was 12, her young mother was murdered and left in a cornfield. Her body wasn’t found for days. She had her first child at 19, then again at 20, and still finished college and the MBA program. Her first husband eventually had a schizophrenic break and ended up losing his job and squandering all their money. Her second husband got cancer, then proceeded to cheat on her in spectacular fashion even while Christine was helping him recuperate.
These stories of violence, trauma, setback, recovery, triumph, betrayal, even greater setbacks, and the tools she’s been using for overcoming it all and continue growing are some of what Christine shares in her remarkable new personal growth memoir called Indivisible: Coming Home to Our Deep Connection (ebook and paperback), to be released Sept 12.
Christine’s been kind enough to share the piece below about re-connecting to the body: how she discovered yoga, the initial effect it had on her, and what yoga taught her before she started teaching it.
I’ll be having a conversation with Christine on Monday, 12 Sept 2016 at 6pm PT/9pm ET entitled “The Art & Science of Deep Connection” and would be thrilled if you could join me. Click here to sign up for the talk, get the call-in number, and receive automatic reminders to make sure you don’t miss it, ’cause I believe it’s going to be most excellent. Here’s the excerpt:
The Poise of the Soul
After a particularly long day in this spell of dot-com craziness, I was walking down a crowded street to catch a commuter train, when I saw my old friend Daniel. Daniel always had a ready smile. He was self-contained, a loving husband and father and accomplished professionally—at that time he was CEO of a public company, making all manner of kitchen gadgets.
That night, he was shining. It looked to me like he had shed layers of himself; he was carrying no burden.
“What happened to you? You look fantastic!” I exclaimed.
He responded in an instant. “Yoga happened, and you look terrible. You’re coming with me this Friday.”
That’s how my “way out” presented itself—as a way in.
Yoga is sometimes called “Poise of the Soul.” Poise is equilibrium, readiness, balance, steadiness, stability, suspension between states of motion. Poise does not freak out over laundry, talk too much, go 90 miles an hour to make it to a meeting, or accidentally break things due to inattention.
I went to Daniel’s yoga class. After a great struggling 75 minutes of a vigorous athletic form of structured postures linked together by the breath (we were practicing a form called Ashtanga yoga), the class arrived at Savasana, corpse pose, where we lay on our backs, arms outstretched, palms up, legs extended, letting all of our muscles relax, allowing our bones to sink into the floor, in a sort of half-state between sleeping and waking, a state of deep aware stillness. Through the breathing, the rhythm, the turning inward of yoga—through the not turning to an external thing like whacking a tennis ball or working into the night —I found my first peace in long memory.
I kept going back to class, initially just for that Savasana.
Connecting to the Body
Yoga, as it has been popularized in the west, is often practiced with pumping music. People move fast and sweat and detox. It’s good exercise for the body and mind. But that wasn’t the kind of yoga I encountered that Friday evening. Daniel’s practice was deeply mindful – it made me take notice of things that had never before occurred to me. It was a practice that made me say, “Hmm…I can’t feel my feet. If I can’t feel my own feet, the connection from my brain to my feet isn’t working.” The eventual extension of that thought was this: If the connection between my feet and brain does not work, how am I going to connect to other people?
Before I found yoga, I couldn’t feel my feet or even spread my toes—they were just down there somewhere. Nor did I know where my organs were in my belly. My insides were like a black hole between my ribcage and my knees. Can you feel where your liver is, unless it is in pain?
After a while, I found that I could lift my arches and run an energetic current up my shins and thighs and ass and heart and right out the top of my head and back down again. The power I used in previous forms of athletics to release energy was something that could be channeled and leveraged inside of the body, to heal it and balance it, and restore equilibrium and clarity to my whole organism.
The yoga practice that was handed to me started a new kind of self-inquiry: Am I aware of my breath? Where am I looking? Where are my feet? Are all four corners of my feet on the ground? Are my arches lifted away? Where are my fingers? Are they evenly aligned or evenly spaced? Am I standing tall or leaning forwards or backwards? Where am I in space? How good is my proprioception: the receiving (receptoris) of one’s self (proprius)? Am I aware of my own body’s parts in relationship to each other, to the floor, to the vertical line? What am I actually feeling? What is actually happening? It was a straight line to hyperawareness.
I began to learn that the body has rising and falling energies, that when it gets certain inputs it releases certain chemicals, that there is a virtuous loop between the actions of the body and the chemicals that are released, and that this cycle is autonomic until we intervene and override it. We can start to use our breathing and our thoughts to restructure which chemicals are getting released from our minds and into our bodies. We can reprogram ourselves, literally. I didn’t know what this meant until I found yoga.
Once I began, it was rapid-fire study. I went to my first class, and I knew I was going to return. Eventually, I found a connection to divine source on that quiet, meditative, sweaty little mat, something I never quite got in any traditional church. That tiny studio, with a purple Om symbol painted on the wall, above a pizza parlor in the middle of Chicago, curtains blowing in, sirens and car horns below, became a holy place. It was there that I discovered a sense of having a permeable body: my skin was always interacting with the environment, and I was always connected. I was made of the same stuff as everything else in the universe.
I wanted to go deeper. In 2002, I went on a retreat led by power yoga founder Baron Baptiste. His easygoing introduction to yoga philosophy, musical open laugh, softness, strength, humor and accessibility just made me happy.
Baron’s yoga was hard – a demanding fast flow, coupled with long holds in deep postures. For example, once we stayed for a full 20 minutes in a hip opener known as frog: Somatic theory says we hold our painful memories in the body, and holding this position for this long had people in the room (women especially), letting go and weeping at all the things held in the groin and hips. I took his teacher training in Tulum, just to keep growing.
Then I stumbled, or was led, into a month of teacher training in an intense, academic program that honored a deep Indian lineage, with Yogarupa Rod Stryker- and that training has continued apace for the last 15 years – from the yoga of sound, to contact yoga, to extensive breath and tantric energy work, to studying Sanskrit texts – it is an unending investigation. But mostly it’s a living experiment into how to have the happiest and most authentic experience in a human body.
Who is thinking these thoughts?
By investigating the body, I began to investigate the mind also, and then even deeper into relationships.
Once, early on, I was holding a yoga position called side plank for a long time. This position requires the body to form a long, firm, extended board, placing one hand on the floor, the other to the ceiling, and balancing between the side of the bottom foot and the palm of the hand, holding the belly snug and the hips high. It can be rigorous. My arms started shaking; my balance was challenged.
At that moment the teacher said, “People… you’ve held this position for a long time. I invite you to look at your reaction to that. Are you gritting your teeth and tensing your jaw and toughing it out, even though you’re beyond your capacity? Are you collapsing and quitting because your conditioned mind is telling you it’s too hard, even though you probably could stay longer if you wanted to? Are you feeling proud, or maybe the inverse: inadequate?”
“However you are meeting this posture on the mat,” he continued, “I guarantee you: That’s how you are meeting your life off the mat. How can you be kind to yourself in this moment, play your edge, and take responsibility for your experience? How much are your own thoughts and reactions responsible for your own suffering?”
How much? Maybe one hundred percent.
If side plank was hard, the other big practice, seated meditation, was harder. Sitting still, harboring a quiet mind, initially felt impossible. Even two minutes of meditation felt interminable. Every part of me resisted. It felt unproductive, and wasn’t burning calories. To make it easier, all kinds of techniques were offered: Watch your breath right where it enters and exits the nostrils, imagine a flame, say a mantra. But it was all just practice to do one thing: to notice the workings of the mind, and to let thoughts just pass by. To become a watcher of my own thoughts.
But if I am watching my thoughts, who is thinking the thoughts? If I am witnessing them, they can’t be the essence of me. These thoughts must be separately constructed. HEY! I am not my thoughts. And if I am not my thoughts, I can un-identify and manipulate them to a better outcome. Lo and behold, this was true. By watching and stopping unhelpful patterns of thinking, I learned that I could change the day-to-day experience of life in my body.
I still haven’t met a single person who has been able to overcome really bad wiring without some kind of meditation practice. Well, maybe one person.
For example, I learned to not judge a rising emotion or thought – just to see it as neutral energy. If all thoughts and actions are only energy, neither positive nor negative, I can transmute it. I can remove the negative element, and just use the energy. If an unsettling thought would arise, I would ask myself, what can I do other than sit here or numb out through work or busyness or sex or distraction? What can I do to not numb out, to really feel and then leverage the emotion? Can I channel it into awareness, creative force, or even just let it pass through me?
Most of the productivity and creativity in the last decade has been the result of having learned to transmute whatever intense emotion is coming up into an activity or action that is in touch with experience, rather than pushing it away.
Now, if I have disturbing thoughts, I can choose to be matter of fact: “Here is what it means to be in a human body; these are some of the liabilities.” Or, “I’ve been here before, it will pass.” I can realize, “Oh, that’s just my misperception talking; it is not my highest self.”
With yoga, the recovery time from these disturbances, delusions and illusions and suffering is shorter. It takes hardly any time anymore to come back, maybe a minute or two of breathing and —there it is! This is especially useful in navigating the daily kind of potential offenses in traffic or in the supermarket parking lot – is this my best self acting here? Or something else?
Yoga roots me in a life-giving and life-affirming place, rather than the old soup of pervasive inadequacy. It has made me strong, mentally and physically.
The yogic ideal is strength and suppleness, being rooted yet able to reach, the perfect combination of grounded and flexible. There is an Indian fable that puts it sweetly: the serpent Ananta, an incarnation of a deity, is coiled up. Resting on his coils is the lord Vishnu—while on the top of Ananta’s head, the Earth is balanced. Ananta is strong enough to support the world, yet soft enough to be a couch for the gods.
That’s what I aspired to be. Strong like that, and equally soft.
I started going to class to feel better, and fell in love with the practice, and it gave me back my life.
Do you know that saying “Lift while you Climb”? That translates into bringing others along with you. Whatever you know, you are obligated to pass on: Those who know must teach. If you know, you owe.
Teaching yoga, helping one person at a time find the tools and technologies to achieve the Poise of the Soul, is a great gift. I sometimes teach Vinyasa flow classes. Sometimes, I teach extremely stiff people, and witness what it means to grow old without being connected to your body—it is not for the faint of heart. But I also see the relief they get from a single new insight or opening into a joint or the breath. It makes me recall my very first practice, and remember each time a teacher gave me a new posture or an insight. It reawakens gratitude and it gifts me with joyful learning. The teaching and the learning are cyclical, and the look on people’s faces as they come out of Savasana is like Christmas morning for me, every time.
If you enjoyed what you just read, download a 16-page excerpt at
http://xtinem.com/dr-ali-binazir-guests/ and use this password: DRALI1
All the best,
PS: Remember that the interview/teleclass with Christine is at 6pm PT/9pm ET on Monday, 12 Sept 2016. Click here to sign up and get automatically reminded of when it happens.