Today paschimottanasana, the deep, seated forward fold, is the final pose of my asana practice. I’ve been practicing warm standing poses, twists and folds today, so when I begin in dandasana, I don’t need to fidget to arrive with my pelvis tipping forward, sit-bones standing on the floor. I begin at the base, flexing my feet and toes, pulling inner and outer feet toward me equally, pressing my heels away strongly enough to bring the backs of my knees to the floor, but not strongly enough to lift the heels off the mat. I contract my quadriceps, firming my kneecaps. With my kneecaps pointing straight up to the ceiling, I internally rotate my thighs, which minutely broadens my seat and my lower back. I raise my arms overhead, lengthening my sides, and I press my sacrum forward as the front and back of my heart lifts. I fold forward as slow as I have to in order to maintain the lifted heart, the active legs. The movement is not completely smooth; as the muscle-groups hand off the work of pulling my torso forward, I feel a slight tremor. I gaze at my big toes, and when my feet are in easy reach, I clasp the outer edges of them, resisting the pull of my hands by pressing my feet slightly away from me now. This closing of the loop of my body makes me feel steady and sturdy. My shoulders slide down away from my ears. Everything is working. The muscles on the front of my body are contracting, pulling me into myself, strengthening. The muscles on the back of my body are also engaged, but lengthening. The back of my neck is long, but my gaze is up past my eyebrows toward my toes. These opposites, face down vs. gaze up, torso down vs. heart up, toes back vs heels forward, demand physical awareness in every corner of the body. These are not general or gestural movements, they are specific movements, described down to the very limit of one’s perception. The instructions don’t end, just as one’s capacity for perception grows, slowly but infinitely, with practice.
The real limit to how deep I fold isn’t the length of my hamstrings or my back muscles, it’s the compression of my breath. I find a depth where my inhale presses my belly into my legs, but where I’m not moving drastically in and out of the pose as I breathe. My ujjayi is quiet here, I’m aware of it more as a sensation than a sound. Inhale, cold in my nostrils, fills my chest and expands the front, sides and back of my ribcage, bringing my front-body in closer contact with itself. Exhale, warm in my nostrils and on my face as it reflects back from my legs, is supported by an abdominal contraction of navel toward spine. I feel a slight hollowness below my ribs. My hips move almost imperceptibly with my breath, backward on inhale, forward on exhale. If inhaling in this position is a little strenuous, then exhaling is a piece of cake; my whole form presses air out of my body. The action of lengthening my front-body against my legs presses air from my lungs as if I were a tube of toothpaste. I lengthen the exhale gradually until it’s twice as long as the inhale. I smooth out the quiet sound of my breath, using as little muscular effort as possible to control the flow of air. Between the inhales and exhales there is a moment of peace, not a retention but a pause, when my thoughts are momentarily quiet.
At first my mind is occupied with the infinite checklist of physical cues and body-parts. I move from toes to crown and back again, telling myself to do things, to stop doing other things. I’m pleased with myself as I fold deeply, give myself praise until I realize that my head is way back, my neck compressing. I make the correction with embarrassed humility, my awareness never as complete as I imagine it to be. As the physical movements become smaller, my mind starts to wander quicker. For a relatively passive pose, the urge to bail out is pretty strong. I feel vulnerable and exposed, like my head is in the sand. I find my eyes wandering, looking at the cuticle of my right baby-toe in an inquiring, critical way. I start to consider the meaning of bringing my brain so close to my feet. I am halfway to a thought about my future, more impressive paschimottanasana when I stop and press my gaze back to center. I iron my attention onto my breath, the shape of my attention a kind of internal triangle formed by my eyes/gaze, and the bottom, outer corners of my lungs. Holding the thoughts in this formation of breath and gaze is akin to holding the body in an asana; it’s damn near impossible to sustain at first, but effort over time lets it come easier. There are fluctuations from day to day, and from pose to pose; today is challenging, and this pose is challenging. I occupy my mind by counting my breath, and I have the passing impression of my Self being in my entire body, rather than in the driver’s seat of my head.
There’s a settling that takes place, even in a more active pose, a baseline awareness that This Is What’s Happening, a totality of awareness. This state of being is outside the scope of language, can only be gestured at, although it’s not too rare or mystical. As I work to integrate my sensory experience with my steady physical and mental effort, and my breath circulates, I gain perspective. My perspective is as present in my legs as in my arms as in my head. It has contradictory characteristics; I feel still, but I can also feel myself humming with life. My awareness feels continuous and unchanging, but it’s accompanied by an awareness and acceptance of constant change. I feel alive and very much myself, but the particulars by which I define myself are never farther than at this moment. It’s by looking at my particular toes and holding my particular feet, etc., that I sense my specific self, but I also sense an emptiness to these particulars, or to my perception of them. These contradictions would trouble the thinking mind, but that’s not the level at which they are occurring. This pool of awareness is where contradictions can float side by side without troubling the surface.
If I spend any time in this warm pool of total awareness, there follows euphoria and a rush of love. This is another state that language can only gesture at with cliché, but it’s important to characterize it a little, because I’m motivated largely by a desire to return here again and again. This isn’t just the body high of exercise, this is the sense of being (part of) an infinitely complex system in which for a few moments every part is actively in harmony. It’s the sense of being porous to the rest of the world, of generating and freely exchanging compassion with the world around me. I don’t believe in God, but in these moments I feel a connection and a hunger for more connection. This feeling is amplified in paschimottanasana as I bow down as deeply as I can and surrender.