Bibles and Bodies

Some people know the body chapter and verse. They’ll quote it for you any chance they get.

“My neck’s sore.”

“That right? You mean the SCM – your sternoclediomastoid? Or you talkin’ your traps or scalenes? Scalene posterior, I bet. Origin’s C4-C6, inserts down there on your second rib.”

I recognize that patter.

Once, I went to meet up with a piano player who gigged in a local church band. By accident, I stumbled into a Baptist congregation when I was meant to meet him at a non-denominational one.  Before leaving, I got to experience the preacher in action, calling out passages from the Gospels and from the Hebrew scriptures like an auctioneer collects bids. It was entertaining on some level. I wasn’t buying his theology but I was impressed by his dexterity.

I remembered what a friend once observed: “naming something’s not the same as knowing it.”

Rattling off chapter and verse – whether the text is one’s body, the Yoga Sutras or the Gospel of Matthew – is a skill. Whether it’s a laudable skill or not is in the eye of the beholder/memorizer.  I’m not saying you can’t learn from people who have this skill – I certainly have – but for me, I hope I don’t become a body-parts patterer.

The people I like working with are ‘open book’ teachers/learners. They don’t have all the answers memorized in their head but they have processes they rely on to search them out.  If they had it their way, all tests/quizes would be open book ones.

T.K.V. Desikachar seemed to be a teacher like that.

At a conference in Rhinebeck years ago, he asked a participant to explore something “simple” – like whether it felt easier to exhale on a forward bend or inhale during it.

Duh.  Those of us watching knew what the answer was going to be (exhale). How could Mr. Desikachar, heir to the great viniyoga tradition, not know this?

And yet, when the practitioner reported, “Exhale,” he seemed genuinely surprised.  He commented that others had reported similarly in the past and thanked her for her observations and for investigating that for herself.

Since meeting Mr. Desikachar, I’ve met other “world-renowned” researchers and educators. In the days leading up to my visits with some of them, I had anxiety-plagued nightmares, afraid of being called out for what I didn’t know.

When I actually met them, it was incredibly disarming and actually endearing to hear them admit, time and time again, “I don’t know.”

Of course, I’ve also experienced times when an “I don’t know,” offered up by an “expert” is completely unsatisfactory.

“You don’t know? How could you not know? It says so right here in the book that…”

“The” book on knee rehabilitation. “The” Bible. “The” Body. “The” protocol. As if there’s “one.” As if they’re not all texts, all with authors, all with points of view that are open to interpretation and debate. (Which, by the way, is not the same thing as saying “it’s all good” because multiple perspectives does not always mean there are multiple truths. There are many ways to represent 2 + 2 = 4 but that’s not going to make 2 + 2 = 5 any day soon.)

As much as I appreciate the open book learners/teachers I’ve met in my life, I know I still rely too much on my ‘get the right answer’ muscles (perhaps I’m not the only one who does that).  I always appreciate it when someone gives me permission to rest them.

A few weeks ago, I was co-teaching a workshop on pelvic floor biomechanics with a physical therapist friend. We included a slide that quoted a leading medical textbook which admitted that much was not known about what the pelvic floor muscles did, despite all the time and energy spent studying them. Everyone laughed. And then picked up their pencils to take notes on what little we had to offer them.

Finally, my colleague, a therapist for almost thirty years and one of the most skilled I have come across, observed:

“Don’t worry about memorizing this stuff.  I don’t remember it half the time myself.”

“For real?”

“Yeah, just know where to look for it and you’ll be fine.”

Amen, brother.