(Note: I write in first person not because I think these experiences and thoughts are exclusively mine, but because I dare not impose them on the rest of humanity by saying “we” and I do not know who I am talking about if I say “one”.)
An asana seems to me like a landscape, and when I enter it I try to open my perception to everything that is taking place, be it physical, mental or emotional. Recently, I realised that I was actually looking for the resistance I felt in certain muscles. One thing is not releasing into the asana. What I noticed was different. Reaching the point where I felt resistance, the limit, was actually part of my orientation in entering the asana. Was I looking for difficulty? What was so enticing about it? Later, I carried on thinking about the nature of limitations.
I have experienced limitations in all three realms. Physically: muscles straining to stretch or too weak, tendons or ligaments being pulled, bones which have not found the appropriate lodging in the joint, blood pressure dropping, dizziness, losing balance. Mentally: shopping-list distractions, tunnel-vision obsessive concentration, projections into the future, misty going through the motions, boredom, self-demands. Emotionally: anger or rejection associated to what I can not do, attachment to what I can do, desire to do, fear, vulnerability.
Writing this list makes me surprised that I keep insisting on dating my mat. Indeed, practising is like looking at myself in a very truthful mirror day after day. And coming to terms with what I see. I get a snapshot of myself within specific time-space circumstances and I have the perspective of practice days behind me that allows me to notice processes too. Of course, I do not only perceive limitations, but the obvious truth is that I can only go into the asana as far as my limitations allow. Trying to make them move by pushing through only generates more friction. Resistance increases the more I fight against it, sometimes on the spot, sometimes injuries or altered emotional states appear later. In my experience, limitations move as I learn to recognise the moment to advance and the moment to remain still, and when I practice with a combination of will and acceptance. Not the will to progress, but the will to be what I am to my full extent, which implies meeting the limit, perhaps tasting frustration, and accepting. Movement comes on its own. It is the nature of life, only sometimes it is not in the direction I desired.
Ganesha is the Hindu deity that is invoked to remove obstacles. I understand this in two ways. First, if it is difficult to overcome an obstacle, an easier approach may be to go round it. Is the limitation preventing me from feeling harmony in a pose my shortened muscles or my rigid mind projecting a picture? Perhaps I can approach the situation from the other end and work on the flexibility of my mind. Second situation: I try to move forward in one direction and I am stopped by something or somebody else wanting to move forward in the opposite direction. Who is the obstacle? So sometimes I find that the difficulties I encounter are only pointing out the obstructions that I am generating with my lack of acceptance to the flow of life around me.
Limitations imply containment and safety. The bones, ligaments, tendons and fascia restrict the movement of the joints protecting them and holding the body together. On the other hand, mobility allows us to function in life and if we had not gone through the dangerous business of toppling over, we would never have learnt to walk. So there is a continuum between stability/immobility and risk/mobility. There is not one best point on this continuum, but different possibilities which permit something at the cost of something else. I think it is stimulating to explore choice along this line. My aim is not to stretch my ligaments so that my joints become unstable and the cartilage wears down, but rather to move everything that can be moved safely in order to keep it working healthily to its full potential. Psychological limitations are subtler but, likewise, fear can keep me away from something dangerous or it can stop me from doing new things and developing. One possibility is to become aware of where the limitation lies along the risk-stability continuum so as to choose consciously to go for preservation or risk.
Limitations tell me who I am here and now. The ultimate physical boundary is the skin: everything that is out of it is not me. In psychological terms, identity, character, ego, subjective perception, the left hemisphere or however I call it is also the result of dividing reality into that which I believe is me and that which I think is not. Expanding my boundaries means opening my awareness to the experience of being more than the handful of characteristics that I call me. Expanding my boundaries means letting go of the known and venturing into the unknown. I am happy to say goodbye to certain elements of my identity. Others pose more of a problem. In either case, I suppose encountering certain limitations, whether I like them or not, can be reassuring in the sense that it draws out a silhouette of the home I dwell in. Wanting to go beyond them implies being willing to redefine or un-define myself to a certain extent, being prepared for feelings of loss, confusion, vertigo or fear, because, without boundaries, the self is at stake.
Limitation is also a characteristic of creation. The undifferentiated, the limitless, the infinite possibility is not material. In the I-Ching, hexagram 2 – Kun, represents the yin principle, as opposed to the yang principle represented by hexagram 1 – Qian. Kun materialises in time and space the unbound possibilities of the spirit inherent in Qian. Creation takes place when something of that which is possible becomes real, and this materialisation takes place through restriction of all other possibilities. As materialised manifestations of the whole, we are finite expressions of the infinite potential. Accepting my limitations is to accept my human nature bound to what is concrete and the quality of yin. Trying to transcend them is to remain connected to my spirit and the quality of yang. Integrating yin and yang seems to me a journey in which I revisit, time and time again, both aspects of being. Every instant, every breath, opens up new possibilities. As it passes, a certain combination of them takes shape and others are left unrealised. Awareness of this dynamics is also awareness of the never-ending cycle of life and death.
An attentive dialogue with my limitations is an opportunity to investigate the role I play in resistance and difficulty, how I relate to potential and action, how I negotiate between safety and risk. Encountering my limitations sheds light on the distinction between what I know and what I do not know, between the finite and the infinite, between my human and my spiritual nature. I discover all this taking place on the mat but, after all, the mat is but a portion of life, and I find that all these discoveries spread like ink in water and continue to colour my view even after having rolled it up.