Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What would Stephen Hawking do?

Last week I saw the movie The Theory of Everything, the biography of Stephen Hawking. As most of you know, Hawking was struck with ALS when he was twenty-one years old. The syndrome eventually rendered him wheelchair bound, debilitated to the point of essentially living in paralyzed body with virtually no effects on his mind.  Now Hawking, in his seventies, has defied all odds in surviving this long with ALS.

My family went to see this film at the request of my 10-year-old daughter Lucia who is all about math right now. My partner Nancy, Lucia, and I sat in the movie shoving popcorn in our mouths between bouts of sobs. Even Lucia cried throughout the movie.  After dinner, over sushi, we talked about Hawking and how clear his mind was, how amazing his long life has been. In our iPhone research at the sushi counter, we learned that the average life span of someone diagnosed with ALS is 2-5 years, with five percent living twenty years or more. Hawking has surpassed even the small number of people who survive longer than a handful of years. Why?

There was, of course, the deep deep love and commitment of his wife and family, the energy and support he received from his academic community, his motivation to learn more about time and space. But even with all of this love and support, I am astounded by how much mental and emotional strength Hawking must have to have lived and worked for as long as he has.

Whether I am practicing or teaching yoga, I am aware of the inherent conflicts that exist between the body and the mind. Sometimes you feel ready mentally to kick out in Standing-Head-to-Knee; you've made your plan for the day's practice and kicking out is on the docket. But when you do it, your body says no to balance or your stamina disappoints. Other days you are completely unmoored mentally and/or emotionally and, even if your body is ready for it, you can't muster the motivation to go for the kick. 

My advice to myself and to my students when conflict in practice arises is to "be where you are", to make space for all of it. If you can't balance, it's not because your body is failing you, it is because, in this moment, you can't balance. If we can accept that moment in time and move on from it, let it go, then we step away from the conflict that comes from wishing we could balance or hold the posture. Ultimately it's not imbalance that creates the conflict; it's the unmet expectation. Solution- get rid of the expectations.

Stephen Hawking slowly, consciously, painfully watched his body succumb to limitation after limitation until ultimately, his physical body was rendered useless, just a shell to house his brilliant mind.  When I think of him, I imagine much of his long life has been an exercise in reconciling the conflicts between his body and his mind. While his body was shutting down, his mind was thriving, vibrant, brilliant. If Hawking had spent his energy fixating on the evolving presentation of limits to his body, could his mind have grown as it did? I imagine not.

Yoga practice is a place where we can learn and grow, physically and mentally, ideally a space where we can be at peace, free of conflict. It is a time where we enter into a different space. Leave your expectations at the door. As you lay down your mat, make up your mind to open your mind to whatever comes to you that day. And, as Stephen Hawking tells us, you might "really appreciate what [you] do have."

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