While you may have smelled hot chocolate a million times, that smell might just trigger one specific childhood memory. For me there is one winter day: coming inside from playing in the snow, shivering, my mom wearing that welcoming smile, the chocolate smell filling my senses as I quickly peel off my wet clothes, and run to the kitchen for that cup of childhood heaven, warming my body and spirit. Deliciousness floods my senses. There’s the sweet warm taste, but most importantly, the thoughtful caring it implies, knowing I am loved just the way I want to be loved.
Of the hundreds of times I’ve smelled hot chocolate, that essence is what comes up for me. Not that specific memory, but that quality of YUM!.
Conversely—if the smell of asparagus reminds you of coming home in a terrible mood after a fight with your best friend, eating it under protest with a scowl on your face, then being sent to your room for spitting it straight out, you would be left with a negative memory of that smell that could prevent you from ever even trying its bright clean succulence, and perhaps even subtly souring your experience of meals where asparagus was served, untasted, on your plate.
Aroma’s ability to trigger memories is well known in our culture, and it may be lesser known that our sensory-memory connection works with all the senses.
My mind has literally every single second of my life’s worth of armpit information to draw on, but that one time I was tickled until I couldn’t breathe stands out. That event left me resistant to people touching my armpits, even incidentally. That “never again” life-or-death memory lives on as if it were yesterday—and that’s just a tickle.
In the realm of raw physical danger, imagine yourself tumbling down the stairs, striking a vertebrae on the edge of a step. Your body’s amazing automatic self-preservation system automatically kicks in to grip that entire area, just in case! If your back is broken, that stiffness can protect you from spinal cord damage and paralysis. Even if you are OK, the gripping can linger for years and years. Further, if that fall down the stairs happens clumsily in front of people, that area of your back might also store deep embarrassment, psychosomatically joined to a story of you being dangerously uncoordinated. If you were accidentally pushed by a loved one, it could store a complicated mix of love, resentment, and mistrust. The possibilities are endless, but the result tends to be a reluctance to move that part of your back ever again. Luckily, there are many vertebrae, and you can get around pretty well without allowing flexibility in that one joint.
It’s hard to say whether tension in moments like that are useful at all in helping prevent injury. In many circumstances going limp and allowing the impact to be distributed throughout your system can reduce the chance of injury, which is why the passed-out drunk passenger can fare better in the same accident than the panic stricken passenger next to him. Either way, once the risk of physical injury has passed, we are technically free to begin moving that joint again. The hard part is telling that to your subconscious. When people re-live stories like this, without even noticing, they tend to brace the very part of the body most associated with the horror, sometimes issuing an incongruent laugh for their audience.
More subtly – when we cringe in embarrassment or shame, the emotional layer of embarrassment tends to distract us from the physical clenching happening in our bodies. This distraction drives the association into our subconscious, where we associate the memory of that shame with the specific areas of our bodies that tightened. Shame is a social mechanism to help us remember not to repeat an experience: “You pushed your little brother over?!?! He’s much smaller than you! You should be ashamed of yourself!” Cringe. Never again. Never again do I want to have an experience that feels as bad as this – risking the safety of my brother and the love of my family.
Mortified (shame is almost like death), we decide consciously never to repeat that action, and subconsciously never to put ourselves in any experience that reminds us of feeling that bad. The subconscious aspect is the tricky part here. When ashamed, we are so wrapped up in ourselves that we don’t notice the way we are cringing. This physical cringe gets mapped to the emotion of shame. Later on, In our avoidance of re-creating shameful experiences, we also tend to avoid feeling the parts of our body we associate with shame. Our self-preservation mechanism will slam on the brakes when we seem to be putting ourselves in danger, not necessarily distinguishing between a real physical threat, or simply exploring a posture mapped to the “mortifying” experience.
Try it – take a moment and remember a horrifying incident you survived, and notice where you cringe. Notice that the cringing was not consciously chosen, and can be consciously released. The way we brace ourselves to get through stress becomes the way we hold on to stress.
Regardless of whether the bracing was useful in the first place, chances are if you’re able to sit down and read this far into an article, you’re currently out of immediate danger, and unless you’re haging from a cliff or something, you can probably relax at least a little bit.
Fortunately, our lives contain more than just that one experience, and our bodies more than one joint. As we go through life, our subconscious is continually mapping parts of our bodies to both lovely and horrible experiences.
Most injuries contain a subconscious layer of regret, embarrassment, mistrust, or shame. This layer itself becomes a “never-again” experience. Not only do we not want to repeat that particular shameful experience, but we don’t want to experience any shame, or any reminders of that shame, and again we brace ourselves against that experience. The more reluctant we are to re-live our experiences, the fewer the options we have left in our joints to move our bodies. We are subconsciously steering clear of our past, while wondering why we feel stiff!
So we have this yoga practice. On the surface, it’s a great way to become more strong and flexible. Yoga’s ancient roots are as a spiritual practice, created to clear karma/samskara—the unresolved actions from our past. The hatha (physical) practices are to clear our physical cringing. The key to flexibility is to be willing to feel the parts of your body you’ve subconsciously patterned your every movement around. The way you do just about anything: climbing out of bed, putting on your shirt or pants, anything, all the complicated movements you can do without thinking are patterned to function without touching on physical or emotional pain, so you can complete the task efficiently and move on with your life. They key to liberation is to be willing to invite our minds back into the joints we’ve locked ourselves out of, and resolve the fear and avoidance of the memory.
For example: back pain. You go into a shape that requires you to move the joint in question: a backbend for instance. Go in far enough that you can feel the tension, but not so far that you risk damage. Double check your structural safety. Then actually feel the sensation. Get to know it. Savor it like a fine wine. Learn from it. Discover how long it’s been there, what incident initiated the tension, whether there was physical damage. Breathe deeply. Breathe so deeply that even if there were permanent damage to the joint, at least the space around it would feel more open. Let yourself feel. Sometimes in our past we stifled scream or cry or laugh. Let that out too. Keep feeling until either you know you should seek professional help, or until the tension dissolves in the light of your awareness, leaving you spacious and happy.
Repeat at a pace that works for you: weeks, months, years – until you’ve cleared every joint that can be cleared. Then look at your body, and notice how beautiful it has become, not because you were seeking beauty, but as a wonderful side effect of wanting to know yourself and liberate yourself from the clutches of the past.
Practice yoga to reclaim your body from a past that no longer exists. Practice yoga to liberate your subconscious fear of your past. Practice yoga so you can actually enjoy this amazing gift of a body that you were born into.