Archetypal vs Personal
by Abbie Galvin
September 16th 2015
When I was six, our piano - that island of sitka spruce and yellow birch regally inhabiting a third of our living room and echoing through our entire neighborhood - called to me. It was large and gorgeous, and I wanted the alchemy of its majesty and the richness of its sound to be mine. I wanted that big sound to come through me, instead of through my siblings. My first piano teacher told me that I had a good ear, which I assumed meant that, as a six-year-old, I was already a virtuoso. In reality, I knew nothing of technique or skill or of refining whatever gifts I had started with. What a buzzkill when I was asked to play, for protracted hours, every scale to "Mary Had a Damn Little Lamb." When would I get to play a Beatles song or Beethoven? My music book, Songs for Tots, had sailboats and stars on its pages. I was ready for the kind of music my parents took seriously. It took 10 years of scales, repetition, studying theory and revolting recitals where all the kids were playing "Moonlight Sonata" -- most of them better than me -- to feel as though I had developed any technique at all to finally play Chopin, Debussy, or Bach. At that point, I was ready for college and all I really wanted to play was Joni Mitchell. Even though she wasn't playing classical, for which I was trained, I had technique which allowed me to expand my repertoire. I had formulas and codes, I could sight read and I had dexterity from hours of practice. I knew how to approach a piece of music. I knew how to read signatures, timing, notes and rhythm. I had become familiar with the archetypes for playing music, and this is how I was able to grow as a musician.
It is the same with yoga. To use an archetype as a reference is the foundation of a well-informed yoga practice. An archetype can be a number, an animal, a geometric shape, or any pattern in nature like the pattern found in wood, in jade, or in the seasons. An archetype represents an ideal and an ideal yoga pose has a specific measure, a shape, a fit. An archetypal dog pose, for example, is a 60 degree triangle, which sets up the conditions for strength, structure and stability. Lungs and liver come forward while kidneys fully open in the back. Arms are shoulder distance while feet are hip distance and knees are bent, enabling the hips to rise in order to find the zenith of the pose.
Following the formal patterns of a yoga pose puts you in a position to cultivate a deeper physical awareness, as you must override your own propensities and transcend the personal. These techniques are your recipe, your musical score. Whether it's a dog pose, a warrior pose, or a wheel, real technique provides a template to embody, rather than stretching or feeling our way into a pose, or imitating a teacher who is demonstrating. We can use archetypal technique everywhere in our lives - brushing your teeth so that your teeth won't fall out, making a souffle by recipe that won't collapse, or following a business plan that promotes success rather than mere survival. Having techniques is what it means to develop real skills, which, when faced with a challenging class, will be exhilarating to deploy and use rather than surviving by the seat of your pants.
The effort to embody a physical archetype employs the imagination to achieve a form, the pose at its optimum. By working consciously, we open up a field of experience previously unknown, which in turn helps us grow. For example, all twists require a 180 degree turn to each side, a revolution on a plumb line (axis mundi), and breathing on the side that your head is facing, so that one is flushing a kidney and opening up the opposite lung. By doing the twist formally, you are opening your entire body to the experience, something you don't normally do. If you only go halfway around without completing the 180 turn, you won't get the goodies that referring to the archetypal 180 degrees offers. Opening up a lung is like ope ning a window, which opens up a vision to see more, smell more, perceive more, and access a new field of imagination for greater capacity and exuberance. In th is way, you can participate in your own health. And if you are a musician, you can play with other musicians, or play for grandma, and even alternate between Elton John and Bach.
If one does yoga without a reference (a recipe, pattern, formula, map), the practice is less conscious, measured, and articulated. Your practice will only go as far as your unconscious habits, imagination, and personal effort can take you. I recently attended a yoga class where the well-intentioned teacher instructed us to stretch, reach, have an open mind, and imitate the way she performed. While she demonstrated beautiful poses, we weren't instructed to orient ourselves within any archetype. Much like reading a map, knowing how to orient oneself in time and space helps us understand where we are going, how to go there, and maybe most importantly, why we are traveling there at all.
Often, new students come to class with past injuries and request "modifications" in order to make their efforts less arduous, to allow them to alter the practice and for the poses to mollify their wound; to their dismay, I tell them that in order to renovate or re-inform whatever is damaged, torn, pulled, or bruised, the trick is to use the piece of the puzzle that popped out with better information so that they can heal. We diminish ourselves by trying to protect what is compromised or injured. Not using our trashed shoulder, knee, hip, or wrist the way it's designed to be used will eventually do us in. If your heart is broken by your last relationship, you don't stop dating, you use the information from your emotional wound to refine your technique. Maybe next time you won't be such an emotional lubber and you might make better contact. In other words, reframe yourself.
Meanwhile, back in the doghouse, in our struggle to conform to this ideal dog pose, we shed the effort that comes with adapting personal style and instead reference the archetype which tells us where to go. One doesn't alter the practice to fit oneself - one alters oneself to fit the practice. I explain to a student who is in pain from an injury to use a formula to renovate their damaged structure, rather than to use a personal technique that allows them to avoid pain. When we surrender our struggles to the formality of the practice, we are given the opportunity to supercede our personal techniques that damaged our knee or torqued our ankle in the first place. When we shed our investment in the personal, and do poses formally - in referencing an archetype - we can make contact with the universal, gaining insights that weren't available to us before. In this way, we become aware of how to specifically re-direct our efforts to rehabilitate, straighten, correct, and restructure our body's frame. This is the process by which we reinform our organs, glands, bones, and body chemistry to function more efficiently. So that rather than working harder, we work smarter, with techniques that measure up.
This is the work in a yoga pose. A pose is never static, it's dynamic. A pose is a channel for energy to move through you, waking up every fiber of your being. Referencing an ideal pose becomes a therapeutic technique for re-informing a deformed form, for straightening out a crooked wrist, for rehabilitating a torn shoulder. And because the wonky wrist and the torn shoulder house the lungs, by adjusting the shoulder and the wrist, one is actually addressing the function of the lung. So in renovating the wrist and the shoulder (the frame), the stability of the whole person is ultimately altered.
Within our practice, the information found on the right side of your body is pragmatic, while the information found on the left is esoteric. Information found in the territory of lungs (grief, sadness, exuberance, expansiveness) is different from that of the liver (creativity, vision, neurology). If your shoulder hurts, for example, and you know how to rotate that corner so that your collar bone sits properly, you might discover that not only are you using your wrist and collarbone incorrectly, but the lung housed underneath it is being compromised. If you reposition the shoulder, so it works as a real frame, it becomes a better vessel for the lung. Now you are in territory that will give you real information, which can lead to an actual reformation. Doing what feels good or what is painless, when all you have are your feelings, is information that is personal and only referenced from habits and personal damage. If you reference the archetype of a pose rather than your own feelings, your practice has options beyond that which you already know or think you know.
"I'm trying" is often uttered in a yoga class, but rather than working harder at something you are already doing, the first step in getting an insight is giving up the habit of your compensatory skills. If you can let go of your yoga tricks like clenching your butt, using your flexibility, muscling the pose - no easy feat - you'll probably begin to discover that your poses aren't holding up without them. Don't despair. The next step is to use a formula, like a recipe for baking, a score with which to play music, a map to find your way, in order to develop techniques that not only hold up better, but that will promote stability, ability, and imagination.
When we're not getting what we want in our practice, or anything else in life, we are often loathe to find another angle, pierce a new veil, develop a new skill, and re-direct our efforts. The familiarity of how we have always performed our work is often confused with what is correct or safe, when in reality it only perpetuates habits. It often takes profound self-awareness to change the way we practice. Most of us suffer an injury, a crisis, some form of wake-up call before we are willing to alter the way we were trained or to shift away from what comes "naturally".Rather than finding one's way by feeling or intuition or imitation, the skill of orientation tells you where you are and how to redirect yourself so that you can get where you want to go and be who you want to be.