Slouching Towards Oblivion

(published in “Mary Journal”)

The bell rings. We shuffle in to the classroom. Coach allows us to sit where we want and we gravitate towards our own kind. Long-haired freaks slump low in the back; muscular, jacketed jocks slouch over their desks in the middle of the room; the socials knot up front, sitting primly. Others, harder to categorize, scatter, cutting various figures, at varying degrees of attention. Our eighth grade health class understands this much: posture operates as a signal, external manifestation of an internal state.

The future might be divined by reading these piles of bones. Jocks know the importance of precise bodily alignment, but cultivate a selective awareness. On the field, where they are executing a draw play or lay-up, their pose dazzles. But in the classroom, who gives a damn?

The stuck-up socials’ bodies proclaim, People judge you by your posture; and, A first impression is so important.

We slumpers in the back row supposedly have no future: we’re losers, curved forever into the going-nowhere-fast present. But in fact our pose speaks volumes: rebellion in the face of unearned authority, an instinctive subversion of the norm. Now that I’ve grown up, it reminds me of Marlon Brando in The Wild One, black leather-jacket collar flipped up, cigarette dangling from a lower lip, knee cocked, back curved against brick alley wall.

What are you rebelling against, Marlon?

Whaddya got?

 

The crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain. – Ezekiel

 

A fickle axis upon which we plot points of health and rectitude, the spinal column is composed of twenty-four knobby vertebrae, plus sacrum and tailbone. Through each vertebra threads the spinal cord, a supply line from the metropole of smarts to the colonies of sensation. Ganglial nerves shoot in and out of these nexi, controlling sensory and motor functions, sending urgent reconnaissance messages to the hands and feet up at the front. This Tinker Toy alignment shapes all our physical efforts, whether they be to slug, tickle, or kiss.

 

The metaphor of the spine, like the spine itself, bends many ways, and it’s not amiss to say that the sight of an erect backbone can be thrilling. Think Gary Cooper, towering in his saddle, stirruping his palamino into town in “High Noon,” the orange sun framing him in an aura of manly composure. The language of credibility leaps from such images. He or she’s a straight shooter, we say. A straight talker, straight as an arrow, we say.

Posture describes political stances, too. Give me your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights. Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.

And there is, of course, that image forever vertically emblazoned into our late 20th century consciousness: the lone Chinese student, standing amidst the teargas and smoke of Tiananmen, rises up before the swiveling gun turret, before the armor-plated tank, before the intimidating red star.

 

Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.  – Isaac Newton

 

I teach yoga. My students learn to elongate, and thus strengthen, their spines. We lie on our backs, gazing skyward, lining up comfortably atop the world. Legs roll through air as we perform slow, grounded backflips, our torsos sketching question marks in the air. Toes float past ears, grazing the ground, and our bodies become ploughs, furrowing grooves in the carpet. Gently, gently, but with increasing range, the spine stretches towards its full potential, which lies just around the next curve.

There is an important difference between stretching and straining, I tell them. One is supported, the other reckless. It’s all about balance.

After some practice, my students remark that they’re becoming aware of a new aspect of their bodies. They feel taller, more in line with things, more expansive. One woman cannot restrain her enthusiasm. She bursts out, “This is better than sex!”

 

No doubt, before we learned to do any of the things that mark us as a species, we had to learn to sit up straight. I picture homo erectus shuffling into an early Pleistocene morning in his relative rectitude long before homo sapiens appears on the scene. He takes a first step, sniffs the air, stretches, yawns, swivels his neck. This feels fine! The longer the backbone, the more guts can be held in place. Form does determine content. On the savannah horizon, giraffes graze complacently against the tallest of trees. Erectus peers over his shoulder where he spies in the mud the spineless worms from whom he evolved. Then he gazes ahead of him at a world full of potential, the morning sky brimming with stars.

 

The backbone’s connected to the – huh – headbone.

 

I was sprawling lazily on the grass in the park, basking in the sun, my black Labrador sniffing around in the woods behind me, when a beautiful woman strolled by with her two dogs. I sat up, we exchanged dog pleasantries, I was witty, she laughed. Gorgeous long auburn hair tumbled down her back, and as she walked away, tracing the park path beneath a dark canopy of beeches, I strained to peer after her, my spine ranging to where it had no business being. When I stood up, my back spasmed so agonizingly that I was forced to stay in bed for the next two days.

 

Thousands of muscles attach themselves to the spine, like tiny hands buoying up a body in a crowd. I lie on my massage therapist’s table, and she makes long brushing movements with her elbow along these ranges of muscles, as if smoothing out wrinkles in a piece of fabric. My spine sighs and shimmies, and knots of muscles relent, giving way with a little shudder. I practice yoga, I tell her; this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to me. Hey, she says, you’ve got a back. Then she tells me to exhale, and applies great pressure to the stubborn latissimus. Relief and pain arise in equal measures. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

 

No force however great can stretch a cord however fine into an horizontal line which is accurately straight: there will always be a bending downwards.  –  William Whewell

 

I understand we’re all getting taller, smarter, our spines longer, all those Japanese youth devouring all those McDonald’s hamburgers and shooting up like pine saplings, all those brainy Silicon Valley technocrats clicking away over their computer keyboards. Yet back pain is the most common complaint in general practice clinics across the country. It’s as if greater opportunity, greater reach, greater longing bring with them more complication, more ambiguity, the possibility of more suffering. We’re evolving, getting closer to the stars, but we incur more pain. Is the lesson here that we should be content with what we have and not strive for so much? Or is it simply one of paying attention? Of grounding our reaches.

 

Doc, it hurts when I do this.

Then don’t do that!

 

The name of the 10th century Indian sage Astavakra meant “eight curves.” His body was bent, painfully, in eight places, but he was big on non-attachment. He may not have been physically erect, but on another plane he was like an arrow: simple, straightforward, his longings under control. Nothing seemed to faze him. He understood that there are things worth stretching for, and also that some desires carry too high a price. When someone described him as crippled, Astavakra calmly responded, “I am not crippled; my body is crippled.”

 

Perhaps there comes a time when we must leave the poses and passions of youth behind, rise up, and attempt to express a spiritual grace in our posture. I suspect that energy percolates through the spine, riding the backbone into the physical world, and that this energy, like electricity, flows most freely in a straight line.

Consider monks in a monastery, sitting deep in zazen on the tatami mat. They wrap blankets beneath their legs in front and their butts in back, so as not to fall over, like the round-bottomed Japanese doll that always returns to its center. A scent of pine lingers in the air. The only sounds to be heard are the chippering of wrens in the eaves, and the occasional measured intake of monksbreath.

WHACK! The abbott’s bamboo stick cracks across a pair of shoulders. Someone has begun to doze off and slump over. Whack! Sit up and take notice, the abbott’s stick says. To slouch is to lose the battle between distraction and stillness; it is to engage with the wrong metaphor.

 

The Hebrew prayer of 18 benedictions refers to the number of vertebrae we use when we kneel to pray.

 

 

Sometimes I slouch, other times I straighten. Sometimes I am as detached as Astavakra, other times my spine anchors me in the world and colludes with my desires. I bend many ways. It seems to be all of a piece.

Slowly my back heals. I try to keep limber, and have found the mountain pose helpful. Breathing quietly, I plant and square my feet – tibias touching, little phalanges stretched forward – and note the space that appears in the muscular draws between thigh and trunk. Then I tilt my sacrum forward and allow openness to flow into my chest. The beautiful long slight S of the spine elongates from the bottom-most bone, the coccyx, all the way to the top vertebra, which is called “atlas.”

In this moment my body is a pictograph, a semaphore. It is a Chinese character with multiple meanings. In this case it signifies hope.

You can get your copy of "Curve of the World" at the following outlets: Direct from the publisher, Bottom Dog Press, or at Amazon.com