Of all the bodily sensations that we as students usually notice when we begin yoga practice is asymmetry or imbalances between different parts of our bodies; one side of the body may be weaker, less mobile and less flexible. This may be due to illness, pain, injury or habitual movement patterns that favor one side of the body over the other. Whatever the case, we quickly understand how prana, chi or energy flow in our bodies is inhibited by persistent imbalance.
Take a sprained ankle for example. I’ve sprained my right ankle six times starting when I was about four years old; most recently it was a minor sprain walking in uneven rocky terrain. As it has healed, I’ve noticed residual immobility or congestion around the Achilles tendon. Like any injury, or damaged muscle or joint, it needs extra attention to return to full function.
Symmetry is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is feeling comfortable in our bodies. Uncomfortable bodies make for uncomfortable minds; there’s no getting around that fact. Hosting a constantly disturbed state of being will lead to any number of obstacles to reaching our full potential.
Asymmetry can affect the mind as well as the body. Emotional trauma, whether its source is war, physical/sexual abuse or severe injury can also damage our ability to cope with life as fully participating, engaged beings.
We regain our balance by caring for ourselves. We develop loving kindness toward ourselves. We give ourselves the extra attention necessary to become fully functioning individuals again.
One place this happens very effectively is on the yoga mat. The yoga mat is a veritable flying carpet for our highest intentions. When we step onto our mats, it can be like walking into another dimension, a dimension where the outside world can no longer impinge on our freedom to be who we really want to be regardless of its expectations of us.
As we step onto the mat to address our pain and limitation, we begin with the breath, our most powerful healer. We practice what I call the root to crown connection. We breathe from the pelvic floor or perineum to the crown of our heads. Articulating the breath deliberately from root to crown guides our breathing through all the major chakras, massaging and purifying these energy centers (and their associated organs) of physical and emotional debris.
Today after class one of my students told me the story of a young girl she knew who had been sexually assaulted by her classmates. She became withdrawn, fearful and disengaged as she tried to grapple with the horrible violations against her. Victims of assault often assume a compressed physical posture with rounded shoulders and collapsed chest in order to protect themselves. Trauma lives in our cells and tissues and shapes our physical and mental posture toward our lives. The aunt of this young girl is a yoga teacher. The aunt led her to the yoga mat and began helping her restore her physical/emotional and symmetrical connection to life. Just a year after her assault, this girl is once again moving forward as a confident, full participant in her life rather than a victim stuck in her trauma. Intentional movement and breath is restoring this child’s balanced posture and attitude toward life.
Likewise, when we injure a muscle, joint or some connective tissue, the injured part atrophies or shrinks in response to trauma. We must first rest and treat the injury with appropriate measures. When the acute phase of the injury subsides, we can begin working to restore full function with intention, breath and asana. With my sprained right ankle, I began doing twice as many standing poses on the right side to rebuild my strength and endurance. I also worked to flex and extend the ankle to stretch and compress the tissue to encourage healing circulation and relieve the congestion caused by inflammation.
After we recover 90% from an injury or trauma, we’ve reached perhaps the most challenging part of our recovery. This is where we can end up with a “nagging” injury that will be with us for the rest of our lives. This will forever be a vulnerable part of our body or mind that is susceptible to re-injury. Vanquishing that last bit of infirmity takes determination and persistence.
This is the time to work with a yoga therapist or physical therapist or both, to achieve full healing. Once you have received a treatment plan from your health practitioner, work consistently and gently to achieve full recovery.
One of my favorite ways to practice is to repeat postures two or even three times on each side of the body. A great yoga teacher, Susannah Bruder, in Oakland, California, used to say that “repetition, is the spice of life.” Repeating poses lengthens the muscles, conditions the joints and tones the nervous system. Our bodies become juicy, lithe and at ease.
As we achieve symmetry in our bodies and align our attitudes with the universal principles of goodness, life becomes a joyous adventure bound for the desires of our hearts. A healthy body and mind running clean and clear serve the path of reaching our full potential as human beings. Let us all take the next step toward participating in the great Mystery of human experience by healing ourselves so that our bodies and minds can receive divine prana through pure food, water, air and sunlight. With this health of symmetry and alignment the highest achievements will be ours.