Reminder: Don’t Be a Painful Case

“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” This line came into my head the other day while teaching a yoga class. I don’t recall the first time I read it, but it is a line from a short story called “The Painful Case,” in James Joyce’s Dubliners.

It’s staggering how many people don’t inhabit their bodies. Even seasoned yogis show up to their mat and settle into themselves with a big sigh as if to suggest they’ve been out for a long morning of running errands and are just now arriving back at home. Or worse, they never even settle in, and after 90 minutes of intricate movements they leave class just as consumed by the thoughts in their head as when they unrolled their mat.

The thing about really living in our bodies is that it requires us to feel, and as we all know, opening ourselves to feeling in general puts us at risk of feeling things we’d rather not feel. Feelings that are confrontational. Even devastating. Feelings that, if felt, would require so much to change.

And so, most people lock the door to their body and go back to the interminable and self-imposed chore of running mental errands.

Yet what is so inspiring to me is how students show up at yoga class, whether consciously or not, with the longing to come back home to themselves. It happens slowly at first, tentatively, and usually only during the poses that feeeel reaaally gooooood. There is a deep and sweet exhalation that indicates they are really there and that they are really feeling it feel good. And that’s great. That’s the place to start—the place of support and softness.

And then gradually a student will choose to stay with a challenging pose without going back into their head and hardening physically (as those two things always happen together). Instead, they’ll stay in their body. They’ll remember what it felt like to soften and to be present when in a pose that felt good and easy, and they’ll apply it here even though it’s hard.

This is one of the greatest skills yoga offers—practice in how to be with the hard stuff without running away. It’s a life changing skill. It’s a skill that’s required for being the best kind of human you can be.

Lately, as I’m coming up against my own edge in this place of learning how to stay in my body, feel and be soft even when it’s hard and uncomfortable, I am touched by how truly revolutionary it is for a classroom full of strangers to transform into a community of people at home in themselves. Meaning, it’s remarkable to experience the depth of connection and intimacy that is available when people are inhabiting themselves without pretenses or masks.

For those of you who don’t teach yoga, I will tell you that sitting in front of two dozen adults all groggily pulling themselves out of savasana (the relaxation pose at the end of class) and back to sitting is a astonishingly touching moment. There is a way that it is so intimate that I almost feel like I’m surreptitiously getting to experience a part of someone they usually reserve for only their closest loved ones.

That’s what the Mr. Duffy’s of the world don’t ever get; in addition to saying that he “lived a short distance from his body,” in the short story Joyce also describes Mr. Duffy as meticulous, ordered, and—not surprisingly—as isolated. I believe we come to class not only because we want to feel at home in ourselves, but also because we long for the intimacy and authentic connection with others that comes only when we are at home in ourselves.

So this is at once my letter of gratitude to everyone who goes to a yoga class willing to feel and to do the courageous work of arriving in your life, inhabited and open. This is also my invitation to you to come back home to yourself if you’ve been living elsewhere for awhile. I don’t just mean by going to a yoga class, but by coming back to your body right now where you are. And now. And now.

Finally, this is my challenge to you: The next time you come to the community of a class, if you find yourself being in your center, soft, and open, really take in how extraordinary it is to be that way among a group of people. Feel it so that you can know yourself well in this place of strength and vulnerability and so that you can access this off your mat among the people in your life. Feel it because the world needs fewer “painful cases” like Mr. Duffy, and more courageous, embodied yogis like you.