The guesthouse I stayed at in Pai hosts yoga classes on occasion. They’re word-of-mouth affairs, not advertised. You see, there’s a Thai yoga teacher in town with horrifying reviews and she’ll stomp down on any competition with a call to the immigration officials. Few migrant yoga teachers are legal so this keeps her monopoly as the only place for yoga in Pai. Which is a shame because Pai is just the kind of place where you’d expect a yoga mecca.
Because of this secrecy, no one but me showed up to this outlaw teacher’s class and I got a private lesson. The lesson included some restorative yoga for some of my tighter spots.
That got me thinking.
These tight spots are familiar to anyone in the West and particularly anyone working at a desk. A tight posterior chain: from ankles to lower back, all the muscles are shorter than they should be. Unlike the Thais I see every day, Westerners give up squatting as children. They learn to sit still in chairs. Eventually the struggle against this unnaturally fixed position is pacified; children’s natural restlessness and their bodies’ need for varied positions are hushed. After many years of being told to sit still, they finally sit still. Their bodies yield to the inevitable and adapt by tightening ligaments and muscles to make the daily ordeals of sitting at school, at work and in front of the TV bearable.
And so it goes for the upper body too. Hunched over a desk, the head moves forward, pinching nerves. The upper back rounds, pulled by its tottering load. The lower back lengthens and gets strained. The abs weaken in response. The chest caves in and the shoulders rotate forward as if to further wall off the heart from an unkind world.
We replace natural acute stress with its severe shock and long recovery with the chronic stress of daily shocks and no time to completely relax. We become used to anxiety and our minds become adept at finding things about which to be nervous. The stress makes us too tight-hearted to open to people and we become lonely.
Our bodies, feeling that the environment is insecure, start hoarding resources. Store them as fat. Insurance against a cataclysm which is perpetually just around the corner. We never see that cataclysm and we’re left daydreaming about zombie apocalypses.
All these changes moulded me thoroughly in the beginning of my adulthood. I adapted to them, body and mind. Then I worked hard to fight against them: gym to strengthen the body. A better diet to give it the nutrition it needs without excess. A standing desk at work and home. Meditation. Chiropractic to sit my head back on top of my shoulders. Laser eye surgery to fix years of peering at fascinating but empty words and not enough time spent gazing at the horizon.
And so with some luck and some hard work I’ve emerged almost 40 in great physical shape. Others aren’t so fortunate. I’ve met many with severe medical problems coming from their work.
Or maybe they are fortunate. Their bodies raised a wake up alarm with no snooze button. No option to continue adapting to this broken way of life.
And though I became healthier even in the old desk-job career lifestyle, the constrictions in my heart never relaxed much. The anxiety was still an ever-present warning that the world and its people are to be feared. Meditation helped, but it wasn’t enough.
Which brings me back to the yoga in Pai. In restorative yoga, as distinct from Yin yoga, there is a recognition that sometimes the body, either through injury or maladaptation, is too far out of balance to respond to the normal postures. They exacerbate the problems rather than fix them. Therefore more support is needed. There’s a need to proceed more slowly with the changes and use props to bring the body’s alignment closer to a natural one to enable to usual postures to have the right effect.
This trip is what I consider a restorative lifestyle. Maybe traveling is what I want to do and maybe it’s only the space from which my purpose will emerge. But for now I don’t think I can assume the full postures of life, including work, and still relax the unnatural adaptations.
So for now I’ll keep the space open to travel and live, and have faith that eventually I’ll be able to take on a fuller sense of contribution in the world, including meaningful work. When that time comes I’ll take work on freely as myself and not as a tight and constricted version of me.