on the time i saved someone’s life after a backbending class with genny

or at least his leg

Yoga asanas are generally broken down into categories: standing poses, backbends, forward bends, twists, and so on. Backbends are poses in which the spine is extended. Spinal extension is the antithesis of the laptop hunch we’ve managed to perfect, which is but one reason they can be so hard.

Somewhat lost in all the online info on backbends (opening! exhilarating! fear! freedom! energizing! anxiety! open heart! nervous system! courageous! vulnerable! uplifting! grace!), I walked to the bookstore. I regularly consult Light on Yoga and Yoga: A Gem for Women by the Iyengars, but I wouldn’t mind having a few more solid books on asana. Not just the anatomy and alignment, but the energy around them. It can be hard to judge yoga books online.

Out of the 250+ books on yoga (many were multiple copies), I found only 7 worth browsing. My favorite books on yoga were not even there. Only 3 had something to say about backbends. Though the editing was a little tighter, they didn’t really offer anything I hadn’t read online. Exhilarating! fear! freedom! energizing! anxiety! open heart! nervous system! courageous! vulnerable! uplifting! grace!

This is totally true, no doubt. Posture and pelvis are two that I don’t see mentioned often, and think of immediately, especially in my own backbending practice.

Painting on limestone, Egypt, c. 1292 – 1186 BCE Museo Egizio of Turin

It’s not simply lazy posture that makes us curl over ourselves. Kyphosis can be a result of protecting the heart. A turtling attempt at body armor. We all hold and protect ourselves in different ways, and this is one of mine. And it’s pretty deeply held. Unlike my cranky hamstrings, which I feel groaning in stretch, my upper back is so locked into place that I don’t feel it stretch or move.

I now practice backbends daily, but years back it was more sporadic. When I studied with Genny, one week a month was (and still is, I imagine), dedicated to backbending. These were my favorites. After these classes I felt like a sprite. Awake. Happy.

Just wait, it gets happier still. I’m speaking about energetic experiences in the body, and the felt experience that comes with them. While some of this sort of thing has been studied scientifically, it’s generally frowned on by academic communities. As Christopher Lasch said back in the 70s, “Academic psychology retreats from the challenge of Freud into the measurement of minutiae” (not that he would have approved of this endeavor. But never mind). There are many reasons for this. One being that there isn’t much economic gain in people feeling good, unless a drug is involved. In pomo America, our God Science is as economically motivated as any other. Another reason: the Descartian insistence on rationalism and the mind-body split. What is missed here is that other, non-verbal experiences and ways of knowing do not preclude rationality. They enhance it.

So, after my backbending class at Genny’s, I waited for the train at the West 4th Street station in the Village. It was a bit past rush hour, busy but not crowded. While I waited for an express, a local train came in. Then shrieks of terror. I turned to see a man of about 55 had fallen while getting onto the train. There was a wide gap between the platform and train, and one leg was stuck in it. His other leg was up on the platform, and upper body as well. He made a horrible barking type sound, obviously in total shock.

I looked around. Everyone just stood staring. Without thinking, I went over to the man and put my body against the door so it couldn’t close and the train wouldn’t move. I put my arms around the man but he was too heavy for me to pull up, and his awkward split rendered him totally immobile. His pants were stuck in the wheels. It was horrifying. I held his torso against me and said over and over, breathe, just breathe, it will be okay. The train won’t move. We’ll get you out.

That set people into motion. Someone in the car asked me if he should pull the emergency break (“Yes!”) and then two men came over and lifted the man out. He disappeared into the train, refusing further help. I realized then that everyone on the platform had crowded around, staring. A conductor finally came by, cursing the fool who pulled the emergency brake, unaware of the entire episode.

I walked back to the other side of the platform, shaken, in disbelief. That man’s leg was caught up in the wheels of the train. It could have been grisly. I knew, was 100% sure, that the only reason I had the presence to help him was my state after Genny’s backbending class. Maybe I’d have helped another time, but maybe not. I’d like to think so, but I’m not so sure. It’s not that I wouldn’t have wanted to, but that my thoughts would have interfered.

Whenever I read about people who jump onto the tracks to save a stranger’s life, they always say, “I didn’t think about it. I just did it.” They don’t think of themselves as heroes, and after sometimes ask why themselves why they took such a risk to save a stranger. They do it because we all have a human instinct to help each other. Our culture of commodification and greed does everything in its power to teach us otherwise, but amazingly enough, it’s still there.

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