I do my daily walk/run/skip in the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Garden and I wonder why I am skipping. Why do we skip, if we do—and why does it feel so good? What is it about skipping movements? And/or leaping and jumping? Why do they feel so good, if they do? And if they don't—why is that? Skipping is a fun form of locomotion usually associated with children, and if adults do it—they are most often dancers or athletes. However I find skipping an especially delightful and fun form of locomotion. It is both invigorating and uplifting and is a good form of plyometrics (jump-training) which helps keep the body’s tissues resilient and elastic. It puts a swing and spring in my step, and brings a sense of light-heartedness to my mind.
Some movements are like that. They look like fun and doing them is infectious. As I watch the golden gibbons swinging on their makeshift vines and branches in the zoological garden, I too feel like my body is swinging on the bars and branches along with them. Yes, I played on the monkey bars as a child, but I never did anything close to what they are doing, which looks a lot like the trapeze arts in the circus! Yet the potential for these movements is in us, and the memory of doing these movements may be in us too, even if we never actually did them as children. Our human ancestors spent a lot of time in the trees, swinging from branch to branch—a form of brachiation (or arm swinging), which is a precursor of the reciprocal arm movements that occur in our human gait or walking. I can literally feel myself swinging in those branches as my ancestors did eons ago. Can't you? We primates love to swing!
These curvilinear, circular movements are evident whenever animals, including human animals, play. Our bodies, with their various tissue types, brain even, and especially our joints, need these types of inputs. It isn't necessary to swing from tree branches—though if we were conditioned to do so it would probably be really good for us. However we can explore circular and curvilinear movements with various parts of our body and with our body as a whole. What happens when we allow ourselves to explore these types of movements? What happens when we explore roundness, and occasionally sway, shift, bounce, and swing? I think these types of movements can provide different types of inputs, along with the dynamic and variable loads that help our bodies and minds stay strong and supple. Perhaps these types of explorations can help bring an increased awareness and presence to our moments of rest and stillness.
I see a dynamic stillness in the movements of the Tai Chi and Kung Fu practitioners who practice their forms every day in the parks of Hong Kong. They are people of all ages. They move fluidly and easily. They are focused, but relaxed. They look happy, at ease, and content in their practices. And yet very focused. I watched one elderly man (as in a lot older than me) teaching another elderly man and both of them looked peaceful, joyful, and at ease in their movement. One can't help but notice these people and their movements. There is something very powerful going on here.
In Tokyo I observed two young people in a park. They were still, with arms outspread in a pose of openness, standing before a beautiful tree. They were like the very tree that stood before them, their palms turned upwards like branches, their elbows softly curved as if to welcome the birds and blossoms unto them. I stopped, even stopped breathing for a moment because it was so unusual, so striking and breathtakingly beautiful.
As I bring these observations to bear on my yoga practice, I am experimenting with incorporating more curvilinear, circular, and spiraling movements. The spiral forms are especially fascinating. And by spiral forms, I don't mean just twisting deeper and deeper, or going for that arm clasp, no matter what. This is different. This involves a letting go of the rigid adherence to outer forms imposed on the structure and looking into the inner form. There is a consideration of the innermost feelings and sensations as they present themselves. And there is an exploration of how to use the tensegrity of opposing forces that might bring greater harmony and balance to the unique structure that each of us moves and embodies.
Variable forces (and feelings) can form or reform any given structure the way wind or water helps form and reform the earth and its vegetation. In yoga, as in life, we are as we think. We are as we breathe. We are as we move.
Within our practices lies the potential for each of us to find the deeper connections that we as a species have to pretty much everything! I want to plum these deeper patterns and connections, because as I travel the globe, and I watch people from different countries and cultures move, or observe nature more closely, there are certain patterns that seem to be consistently presenting themselves. We might have to look beneath the surface of our given discipline, or culture, to see into the depths of ourselves as living organisms, and into the connection we have with all living organisms, and with the planet as a whole.
This year my travels to Australia and the Asia Pacific have included a bit more time for introspection amidst the work of ongoing yoga practice, teaching, and the related movement explorations that I love. There has been more time for observation. More time to tune into bottom up experience (from the senses) as well as top down categorizations that come from the part of our brain that constructs language and ideas. I am trying to make sense of what I am seeing, sensing, and feeling—and also simply enjoying the seeing, sensing, and feeling.
Clearly there are many paths, and many ways to cultivate mindful awareness and embody presence. I like the description of mindfulness given by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. She writes that mindfulness is presence, and that it is a process by which we actively notice new things. I like that—a process by which we actively notice new things.
Travel can be quite fascinating in this regard. There is so much to notice, both around and within oneself. In Hong Kong, I felt both uprooted and rooted—simultaneously, if that makes any sense. I felt like I belonged, though this place was not my home. Actually, I felt like some of the trees you see growing on out of the cement walls and slopes in that city. These trees reach down and establish their root system wherever they are—connecting to whatever is there, finding their ground—just as it is. And these roots can establish themselves in the most improbable places! Nature adapts, it is resilient. We are this nature. And we are an extremely adaptable species.
I also feel that my somewhat nomadic life of late has given me a sense of perspective that goes something like this: the sense of isolation and silos (what our governments and peoples seem to be grappling with on a global scale at the moment) is a huge illusion/delusion. This has never felt so palpable, so crystal clear. We simply cannot build walls high enough to stop our minds from expanding and our roots from connecting, or our spirits and imaginations from flying toward and into one another. And like the trees of Hong Kong, the mind and its consciousness will find ways to go around or even through the walls that others build up to contain it. There is a force, a life force (prana, perhaps) that is limitless and will find a way to live through us. It will find a way or a means to express itself.
Maybe that is one of the reasons I still skip!
"Yoga is the art of getting rid of borders. Do not cut yourself off from the infinite with too narrow ideas. Leave always the possibility of saying, "I shall try, I shall see." Create in the Infinite. Do not be limited beings." —BKS Iyengar.
To read more of Carrie Owerko's work, go to her website here.