Some people are just born human. The rest of us, we take a lifetime to get there. –Chuck Palahniuk-
It’s March 8 as I write this. I will turn 50 in nine days. I’ve never before witnessed my mind perform quite so many circus tricks as it has this past year, bending itself into indescribable contortions in an attempt to stave off this birthday. Needless to say, resistance was futile. It has come anyway. And you know what? I think I’m ready.
I am … oh, so many things can follow those words. I am. Fifty. A yoga teacher. A daughter of ageing parents, a sister, a mother of wise and ancient kitties. I am a writer, an author, a business owner, an entrepreneur. I am healthy. Tall. The grandchild of immigrants. A decent cook. Often ebullient. Highly sensitive. Occasionally resistant. Extremely intuitive.
I am … sometimes in pain. We yogis are just now learning how to talk about that. After all, yoga is supposed to be healing. If we’re in pain, we must be doing something wrong. And it sure as Shiva couldn’t be the yoga … could it?! I had been practicing yoga for 12 years and teaching for eight months when the grinding pain in my hips began. It was March of 2016. At first I pushed through it, continuing to teach and demo, continuing to practice. But my hip joints soon began to feel unstable, the cracking and crunching constant, and I found myself stepping gingerly, turning haltingly, straightening slowly, and pivoting not at all. The pain woke me in the night and doubled the length of my morning routine. Soon, I was teaching yoga but not practicing, and certainly not demo-ing. Feeling like a hypocrite, I wondered whether this gift I’d found for myself and was sharing with others was something I would have to give up entirely.
By summer—after x-rays, doctors, chiropractors, physio appointments, prolotherapy injections and osteopathic procedures—I was desperate for respite and answers. I found myself looking at women using canes and walkers and thinking, So this is how that starts. I felt way too young to be feeling so old. I couldn’t fathom living out my life with this level of restriction and pain.
Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory. –Bruce Lee-
I met Chris in the summer of 2015, when she served as one of the guest teachers in my 200-hour yoga teacher training. Truth be told, my first impressions of her were not stellar. In fact, her quiet presence barely registered on my radar. Though the practice she led us through was simple, I struggled to do it. But I discounted this experience, reassuring myself that I had no problem with our usual morning practice, which was much more complex. The way Chris herself moved seemed unremarkable—no rippling muscles, no visible effort, in fact—and her style of teaching struck me as better suited to a class of seniors than a roomful of teacher-trainees. By day’s end, I’d labeled it old-lady yoga and dismissed it. Never mind that Chris was just 48 at the time—and so was I. Never mind that I was the oldest student in my cohort. Chris could be “that kind of ‘middle-aged’” if she wanted. Me? I was going to be different.
You see, I was training daily under a 30-year-old male athlete whose practice looked like the regimen of a warrior-god preparing for battle. I’m a performer, and I wanted that practice. I strove to embody his way of moving and teaching, his way of sequencing and cueing. He’d taught 18 classes a week after graduating? No sweat. Teaching six on top of running my communications business should be easy-peasy. He practiced alone at 6 am and then demo’d our two-hour classes at 7:30? Cool. Then I could practice and demo my classes, too. So embody him I did, with my ectomorphic female frame and my 48-year-old female hips. Eight months later, I was looking at medi-scooters and seeing my future. The message from my body was clear: change my practice, or quit yoga. Not ready to give up, I scanned my memory for a female yoga teacher who was practicing in a way I thought my body could sustain. There was just one: Chris Clancy.
Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. –Pema Chodron-
I showed up for Embodied Biotensegrity that first hot July morning to find I was one of the youngest in the class. That in itself was a little disorienting. So was discovering that those silver-haired yoginis, longtime students of Chris’s, were stronger, fitter, more flexible, better balanced and far more inversion-fluent than I was. I grasped that this workshop was about to offer me a whole new model for “50.” Thanks to pain, my eyes were finally open enough to see it.
Between movement practices, Chris introduced us to the principles of biotensegrity, a model for anatomy that locates our power in interconnectedness, within and without. Biotensegrity says that we’re made up of tension (fascia) and compression (bones) elements, that tension forces flow primarily through our muscles and fascial structures, not through our bones, and that our bones are under compression and do not touch one another but float in a continuous web created by our fascial network—a network that functions not only as a force-distribution system but also as a conduit for communication throughout the whole of the body-mind. For those of us who grew up conceiving of our skeletons as load-bearing structures like, say, the frame of a house, biotensegrity represented a major conceptual shift. For those of us who also grew up with the world-wide web and under the influence of eastern spiritual thought, though, it felt a lot like coming home.
So within five days, I had a new model for “50” and a new mental model for my own anatomy, one that focused not onbones and joints (and genetics and age)—parts—but rather on the interconnected whole of all-that-I-am. I felt whole, and part of a benevolent greater whole, for the first time in months. Old-lady yoga was starting to look pretty good.
Where focus goes, energy flows. –Anthony Robbins-
American life coach Anthony Robbins says the three most important decisions we make in life are:
- What am I choosing to focus on?
- What does it mean to me?
- What am I going to do in response?
For the first time in months, I wasn’t focusing on the pain, but on the time and space around the pain. I wasn’t focusing on the cartilage I’d lost, but on what still remained, and on its essentially fluid, mobile, regenerative and microcosmic nature (think of a thick handful of soap bubbles moving, expanding and reconfiguring between your fingers). For the first time in months, I wasn’t focusing on the years behind me but on the still-limitless potential that lay ahead of me. Those changes in focus changed everything.
And so, almost two full years after dismissing her practice, I joined Chris’s five-week Road to Mastery training.
The easy way is also the right way. -Bruce Lee-
Taught in the Vijnana style, the RTM classes are four hours long—six with Chris’s mentorship component—and include a sit, pranayama and asana practice. Chris cues in such a way as to allow each participant to find the full energetic expression of each posture from the inside out. She guides students through her sequences slowly enough that words, silence, breath and movement become integrated in the body at a level that’s impossible to achieve in the standard 60-minute class. Three weeks in, and your understanding of what ‘yoga’ means is transformed. It’s no longer something you do, but something you are. Five weeks in, and the words It’s your practice—words you’ve heard and said hundreds of times—come alive for the very first time.
But two weeks in, I was struggling mightily. My biggest battle? The ease I was finding in this practice. Yes, you read that right. A staunch no-pain-no-gain adherent, I was still looking for the effort and the struggle to validate me, to legitimize my choice to practice and teach yoga, to qualify the practice itself as sufficient and effective. How would it do me any good if it felt easy? How—oh, now, here’s some honesty—however would I justify the six hours a week if I was enjoying myself, for goddess’ sake?! If it wasn’t so much remedial or therapeutic or instructive … as pleasurable?
There was some kind of connection between the capacity to love and the capacity to love running. Both depended on loosening your grip on your own desires, putting aside what you wanted and appreciating what you’ve got, being patient and forgiving and undemanding …. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that getting better at one could make you better at the other.” Christopher MacDougall, Born to Run
How we do anything is how we do everything. What we discover on the mat, we have the choice to carry with us into the whole of our lives. I soon found myself allowing “mundane” household chores and “difficult” work tasks to be pleasurable. Even when no one but the cats and I ever knew I’d done them, I enjoyed them, the performer in me finally giving way to the person. Chris’s quiet cues—to feel into the tips of the fingers, to feel the touch of the feet on the earth, to stay engaged with the so-called extremities and to move not as though along an assembly line of postures but as though in an out of an endless ocean wave—led to my noticing pockets and edges and nooks in my life that I had neglected, for the simple reason that they did not sit at the centre of things, Times Square-like and neon, where I have always preferred to live my life. As a result, I found I suddenly had more life in my life. I began to discover joy in quiet things, like the four-times-daily ritual of feeding Sadie and Frances. The pop of the pull-tab lid on the can of food. The nub of the fabric of my duvet cover as I made the bed. Bird calls over the Fraser River in early-morning darkness before the sky train started to run. The strange little emails from my mom, who no longer remembers or understands what it is I do, but who knows I’m someone she loves.
And then there was watching Chris move into an arm balance and inversion sequence that seemed to flow on forever, each posture evolving seemingly effortlessly into the next—still no rippling muscles, no bunching skin, no bulging veins, no pushing through. Just that same confounding ease, the whole of her body-wide web recruited to the act of being fully present and engaged in every cell, crown to tailbone, fingertips to the tips of her toes. And I knew at last by the way I felt in my own body as I watched her that I was looking at my own [scooter-less] future.
We’re all just walking each other home. –Ram Dass-
After five weeks on the Road to Mastery, and for the first time in a year, I am no longer in pain. I’m teaching with a new confidence in the long-term sustainability of what I’m offering, and I’m practicing regularly on my own. My students range in age from mid-20s to late 60s, all of us clear in our desire to be able to move well and practice yoga for the long haul. L, one of my 60-something students, spoke recently about her gratitude for the amount of physical pain she endured for so much of her life, because of the transformation she’s undergone and the spiritual opening she’s experienced in the process. “In a weird way, I almost miss it,” she said to me sheepishly a few weeks ago. “I’ve come so far and learned so much because of it, and I’m afraid I’ll stop now that it’s gone.” I nodded, understanding completely. “I guess …” she was thinking out loud now, “I need a new question. Like, ‘How do I grow without pain?’”
It struck me as the kind of question a grown-up would ask … the kind of grown-up I hope I’m becoming. I asked her if I might adopt the same question for myself. She lit up, a shock of purple hair sweeping back from ageless bright blue eyes, and hugged me. “We’ll figure it out together!”
Gratitude to Diane Haynes for this glimpse into your process with this fabulous blog post. I feel happy and humbled to read about the impact of this work on all levels.