How Big Is The Container?
Recently, I saw Frank Stella’s lifetime retrospective at the Whitney and was struck by several of the wonderful quotes that explain his work.
One in particular: “The essence of freedom…is something that is able to overcome its own boundaries. The question is not only to be able to define things, but also to have the boundaries be felt in the proper way—they are defining, but not limiting.”
In many of his early paintings Stella cut canvases that leave open the question of where the painting ends and where the wall begins. Much of his work contemplates the inability to contain a painting on canvas or in two dimensions. His Moby Dick series is layered with different materials and ideas. Many of his paintings were longer, wider, and deeper than any paintings that had been displayed in museums and galleries before.
Stella sought to overcome a painting’s boundaries. Similarly, in yoga, we seek to overcome physical, psychological, and spiritual boundaries. So often we define ourselves by the jobs we have, the relationships we’re in, the injuries or diseases that afflict us, the religions we practice, or the skin we’re contained by. And these definitions limit our freedom.
In the Yoga Yajnavalkya, the sage explains to his wife, Gargi, that the pranic body is twelve finger-widths around the physical body. Since the body holds its own proportions, you can take your four fingers—excluding the thumb—and then, by placing the next four fingers beyond that, and then another beyond that, figure out how big your own pranic body is.
In this way you can see that while you may be defined by your skin, you are not limited by it. This week, while practicing and teaching, I’ve been working with the concept of widening, deepening, and lengthening into those twelve finger widths, or angulas as they are called in the text.
I’ve also been contemplating where my pranic body intersects with someone else’s, making a merged being that is no longer me or the other. Where my little self becomes part of a bigger Self.
Sure, I’m a middle-aged, grey-haired mother, wife, friend, publisher, writer, and teacher. But, what both Stella and the Yoga Yajnavalkya say is that I am so much more. And, in order to find real freedom, I have to think beyond the ways I’ve defined myself and find my broader potential.
I walked away from both the exhibit and my practice understanding that true freedom is finding the you in me, the me in you, and for us all to find ourselves in all others.
—Painting by Frank Stella