I used to do a lot of yoga. I’m not a naturally flexible person so yoga was a particular challenge for me. Not only was it a challenge to reach for my toes in a forward bend, but it was also a challenge to avoid looking in the mirror to see just how far I had to go. I hated that feeling of stretch, of being unable to do something I set out to do.
But I stuck with it. I kept pushing that edge, easing into it and sitting with the intensity until it subsided then easing into it again, this time a little farther, playing that edge of pain and fear, not quite going straight into it, but just pushing the border. Once in a Yin Yoga class we held a hip opener for a million years, and I felt my right hip relax beyond any relaxation point it had reached before, and I suddenly thought that this relaxation might be boundless and therefore my body might be boundless and then what did that mean for me? Panic rose up through my chest along with the urge to run out of the room, and I might have had my leg not felt like it wasn’t a part of me anymore.
Stretching changes things. It changes me and my idea of myself. It opens spaces in my body that I didn’t know were closed.
Instead of running out of the room that day, I sat with that feeling of opening and survived it and sought out Yin Yoga classes for years afterward, trying to re-experience that sense of boundlessness. I learned to crave that feeling of stretch, that feeling of opening, but I’ve never stopped fearing it. That’s the edge I walk now, between craving and fearing the change.
A couple of weeks ago, I started a graduate level course on the Qur’an at a nearby seminary. It’s an online course, and I thought it would be relatively low-stress and a good way to see if I might want to apply to a degree program. Before I began, I was giddy with the prospect of Serious Reading and Intellectual Discussion but also nervous that I would be rusty after nearly twenty years out of academia. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up or that I would look stupid or that I would find out I’m really not as intelligent as I would like to think I am (and I would like to think I’m quite intelligent).
It turns out, this class is so beyond what I expected. It has forced me to confront assumptions I didn’t know I had, not so much about Islam or the Qur’an because I was so under-informed about either that I’d not formed much in the way of assumptions, but it’s unearthed assumptions about how I learn, how people experience and develop spiritual beliefs, the role and value of intellect in perceiving the world, and what makes a person “smart.” Every time I log onto the class website and read through the discussions my classmates have posted about the readings and try to craft my own responses, I feel the stretch. In this space, I don’t know who I am or who I will be when I leave it, but I know that I am being changed. The stretch is a visceral sensation, like the top of my head being lifted up so that the inside of my skull can expand. It’s like that hip opening stretch only in my brain, and it’s just as scary. The sense of opening and expansion feels boundless and inspires the same urgency to flee.
These limits have shifted before, but never so quickly and so dramatically. And as much as it scares me, I crave it, too. I want more expansion, more change. What else have I been missing?
Everything. I’ve been missing everything.
Along with this fear and craving comes a profound sadness. No matter how much expanding I do, I will always be someone born and raised female and middle class in the United States, someone whose first language is English, someone whose feet don’t touch the floor when she sits back in most chairs and all sofas, someone whose voice gets lost. I will never be able to experience the world from another skin or even from another cultural paradigm. Not really, anyway. I can visit, I can learn new languages, but this right here—this combination of genes and experiences—is my native perspective. This I can never change. These boundaries shape my sense of myself and the world’s sense of me, and they are very practical for daily living, but they don’t do much for transcendence.
So here I am. Stretching my body, stretching my mind, stretching my spirit. Pushing that edge between comfort and panic, order and chaos, ease and disequilibrium. Pushing the boundaries that both keep me safe and keep me locked inside.