In Vanda Scaravelli’s book Awakening the Spine she writes about the significance of the heel in Greek mythology. Many of the characters depicted in the stories were damaged in their heel, which is symbolic according to writer and psychologist Paul Diel. Scaravelli quotes Diel’s analysis: … “the foot represents the state and destiny of the soul, an infirmity in the foot may be interpreted as a disconnection between man and the universe.”
Oedipus was once such character of myth to be inflicted with a wound to his heel, by his father. And in fact the name Oedipus means ‘he who limps’, a literal translation being ‘swollen foot’. The story of Oedipus is one of psychological fragmentation – a disconnection of the workings of an intelligent mind from the rest of the body, leading to a neurotic cycle of catastrophes. We could say that this is reflected in our culture, and often in ourselves as individuals, as we are driven by the stories of our minds. And increasingly the narratives we create and consume about our and others lives are in the disembodied realm of the computer screen.
One analysis is that we have lost our ‘earthing wire’, which according to the Scaravelli understanding of yoga and posture is located in our heels, and is the place from which we establish a relationship with our spine, what holds us in ground and space, and therefore is the context from which we move. Quoting again from Awakening the Spine:
“Without that essential, magic flow of life from the heels to the top of the head, a flow that brings energy and order to our brain and heart and, consequently to the world around us, our brain becomes disconnected. It moves in a void. Connection is crucial, connection between earth and sky, matter and brain. It links the human with the divine and heaviness with lightness in our body. It is produced by gravity, which is in trees and plants, corresponds to the movement from the roots upwards, towards the sun.”
In this we experience what yoga defines and is set at the heart of human longing – the experience of oneness, which contains within it a fullness of meaning for existence and our belonging in it.
I recently attended a training weekend with my yoga teacher and Rolfing therapist Giovanni Felicioni. The weekend was entitled ‘Dynamics of Movement and Perception.’ One of the main explorations was examining how in our posture we inhabit space and weight (the earth and sky Scaravelli speaks of) through the front and back of our body.
In the womb we occupy a place of no space or weight or time. We are curled in a deep forward-bend as our frame develops. Then we are ejected into the world and we find we have a front and a back, space, time, weight and movement. We have a lifetime to then navigate these dynamics, which are profoundly complex and influenced by the forces of everything that happens to us, everything we touch, bring towards us, or push away.
For the Greek hero Achilles this meant being dangled from his heel by his mother into the river Styx so that he would acquire such strength to be invulnerable to life. However his heel missed the water, and this vulnerability would later be his downfall. Within our own human vulnerability we develop a perception of our experiences, which are how we build a back and a front, how we orientate towards our spine, heels and everything that holds us in a place of belonging to the earth. And everything that moves us forwards and upwards towards space and sky. It is in the gaps, the shadows, in our ‘achilles heel’ that we can potentially find healing.
The exercises we did as a group were for me a fascinating inroad into understanding how I make posture, find resource, make gestures, form habits, move, do yoga; basically how I perceive my life and experience through a certain lens based on my primal patterning. In embodiment practice we bring to this investigation a level of questioning that is non-judgemental and does not seek to solidify experience into a fixed form or ‘problem’.
From here I gained some insight into my the dynamic of my own movement and perception. An essence of my being it would seem is to resist time through the back of my body, like a sense of being pulled back (can develop a rigidity and preoccupation with the past) and a very active frontal kinaesthetic which is creative but also over-compensates and propels me forwards; characteristically I’m always looking for a new vision or venture. These patterns also play naturally into the way I will come forward to connect with others; how I reach out to life, allow myself to be touched, and where I withdraw or push away etc. When part of a balanced system these are complimentary; out of balance they can cause inner tension and frustration, a feeling of being pulled or fragmented by my experiences.
Interesting though this was, the other aspect of the weekend that really opened my curiosity as a yoga practitioner was learning that our perceptive field, and therefore how we move between out ‘back’ and ‘front’ (ie how we then build our embodied world), is not only influenced by but is totally interconnected with the way we perceive and support others and feel ourselves being perceived and supported. Our receptivity within this relational field is also affected by primary experiences, which for many can reveal embedded stories of inadequate holding experiences which store in the body and can then dictate unhealthy posturing and relational patterns. But it is one which, within the right container, can be changed and healed.
“We work with observation. That is the beginning of change. If the exploration is supplied with meaning, imagination, breath and attention to sensation, we will have accidents of perception that allow the body to do something new.” (Kevin Frank and Caryn McHose – How Life Moves).
This points towards another aspect of yoga practice, one that may take our modern Westernised concept of body-related practices time to orientate towards. One hugely beneficial tool I’ve become acquainted with through the work of Giovanni and other Scaravelli-yoga-based, Somatic Experiencing, Focussing and Body Psychotherapy practitioners is how my embodied movement in the gravity field (in Scaravelli’s understanding, my finding of my heels) can come into being through the perception, wording, kinaesthetic sense and touch of another. And, like wise, as a teacher and practitioner myself, this is mine to give.
The traditionally advaitic understanding of yoga as a path towards unity is something that will resonate with our longings for reconnection, for an experience of oneness. But the embodied relational understanding enables a revolution in the way we practice and teach yoga, and its implications in evolving change in the world. This re-orientation is a path beyond self-referencing our body experiences and how yoga can serve to heal us or restore us to a low level of health we have labelled as ‘normal’. It moves us beyond towards an ‘otherness’ where any deepening self-understanding is naturally translated into a new level of resource for helping others, and relating more fully, with greater joy and freedom.
Practical tools for offering this in a class session can be multi-faceted, from postural work in partners to encouraging students to see and listen to others in the room as they absorb and follow instructions. Allowing time for students to observe others doing postures and being adjusted. Coming into felt-sense experiences over and above creating shapes with the body. Observing what students bring to a class, both bodily and verbally, and how they interact and listen to others as part of a group. And linking yoga practice to Western art and physicality is also part of the process of integrating yoga into the life of the student.
Another exploration of the weekend was with story. In pairs we were invited to dialogue with our partner around five questions: names, place of living, what we do, how we found Rolfing, feeling in the body pre and post orientation exercises. We then turned back into a whole group and presented to the circle the ‘story’ of our partner, as closely as we could remember. How we tell our own story, how we receive another’s, then how we hear our story being told by the other and present the story we have heard is all a fascinating exploration; another angle of investigation into what holds us, and how our getting to know ourselves and another is borne out of threads of contextualization embedded in bodily experience. When we bring judgement or pre-conceived ideas to the dialogue, we fail to really know.
… “the why and the story are not so important. This can take off into ideas…The where, what, how, when are important because they bring things back to the body inside the body and the body outside the body – back to the embodied person.” (Giovanni Felicioni) From here we can enable ourselves and help others to live in a context where ‘accidents of perception’, or in another language ‘divine intervention’ can really occur.
“The disconnection Oedipus represents might perhaps have been restored by divine intervention. Our lives, our actions, as well as the motives behind them, should be dedicated to others. Only this ‘otherness’, as Krishnamurti called it, ‘can correct us and save us from an unhappy destiny.’” (Awakening the Spine p. 100).
This could easily lead to a whole new set of ‘shoulds’… as Iyengar says …“ the ‘art of yoga’ implies a severe austerity, yet at the same time a joyfulness in each day of life”, a liveliness reflected in all spiritual traditions and in the West expressed through Christianity as ‘E qualunque cosa facciate, fatela con animo‘ – ‘And whatever you do, do it with joy.’ (BKS Iyengar and St Paul as quoted in Awakening the Spine p.102). But it carries a truth, one that points again and again back into relationship.
Ida Rolf, the founder of Rolfing, was a pioneer in bringing this relatedness, this ‘otherness’ into the the transitory, ever-changing nature of the body. Unlike strains of modern psychology, in which self-enquiry through spiritual practices has pointed towards an easily-adopted concept in the West, where security exists in self-reliance, this revolutionary German practitioner states, “Your security comes only from relationship.” She says this because, like the body, relationship is insecure, ‘as uncertain as a water-bed’, cannot be fixed or solidified like a wall.
Our path as yoga practitioners and movement therapists and body-workers is to ‘get secure in an art where there is no security’ … ‘recognise the security of insecurity’ … find that place in our heels where the gods exist, where we find ‘(our) only secure ground in a body is to establish relationships’ (from Rolfing and Physical Reality by Ida Rolf, quoted by G. Felicioni).
Into the land of otherness I’m headed, and I invite you to join me. Get on your heels…