Oct 20, 2012

Face Yoga

Ever since I first read Eric Schiffman's Yoga: the Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness a few years ago, I've thought of my practice—on and off the mat—as primarily an exercise in identifying, being grateful for, and organizing prana. This is a very different approach to things than when I first started practicing and thought largely in anatomical terms about things like alignment, symmetry, pressure, torque, and so forth.  I still think plenty about those issues, of course, but now I also try to sense where I feel energy—however subtly—streaming, swirling, bunching up, or (on bad days) simply spilling out of me. Practicing on both the gross (physical) and subtle (energetic) body levels makes my physical yoga practice far more engaging because there's always something to do. When working with an injury, for instance (as I am these days, in the plural, but that's another—long and sorry—story), or whenever my body is simply at its limit and I can't budge another millimeter, I can still observe myself energetically.

Over time, I've gotten better at identifying the presence and patterns of prana in my own body, so much so that recently I've made a somewhat disturbing discovery: pranic-ly speaking my face is kind of vague—just sort of... numbly....

Maybe this isn't so surprising. After all, faces really are kind of weird. I mean generally speaking. How strange is it, for instance—how puzzling and backwards-seeming, ironic, and slightly cruel—that the face is our most public feature and yet it's something we never see ourselves unless we happen to be standing in front of a mirror? Ultimately, I know my husband's and children's faces much better than my own because I look at them all the time. My own face I study—with a kind of clinical ambivalence—a few minutes a day: whenever I brush my teeth (why do I look in the mirror when I brush my teeth?), put on make-up, or check for general presentabilty before heading out the door. Ah. That's not quite true. To be honest, I'm usually checking for something more than simple "presentability" when I look in the mirror: I'm clocking myself somewhere on that infinitely calibrated scale—the one girls learn about in grade school, internalize in high school, and sometimes start (but maybe never quite finish) dismantling in adulthood. The beauty scale.

Men, no doubt, grapple with a scale of their own. Maybe the manly scale or the tall-dark-and-handsome scale, or the jocky one. The long and the short of it is that we learn early on our face is an important signifier of a certain kind of social worth, and as a result—maybe quite unconsciously—create for ourselves a sort of mask so as to look "a certain way."

the mask in formation:
vintage photo of a child in a beauty pageant

Proust, in Remembrance of Things Past, writes that
"The features of our face are hardly more than gestures which force of habit made permanent. Nature, like the destruction of Pompeii, like the metamorphosis of a nymph into a tree, has arrested us in an accustomed movement."
In a sense, this "arrested . . . accustomed movement" is a great relief because it's fixed and you can hide behind it. The mask is often considered desirable—you see it all the time on TV and in fashion magazines. But it's essentially a method of stilling one's features, of carefully honing certain facial expressions and eliminating others so that, in the end, one no longer has expressions so much as arrangements: anatomical still lifes, a form of micro-muscular paralysis without the Botox. Ultimately, the mask makes the free flow of prana—of vitality, exuberance, and energy—impossible.

Batak mask dance at a funeral feast in the Dutch East Indies, 1930s.
Studying the pranic patterns in my body has made me aware of the frankly disturbing presence of my own mask. I say "disturbing" because, despite the fact that I love and value honest and spontaneous expression, cherish imperfection and vulnerability, realness and authenticity, whenever I actively try to trace the flow of prana in my own body, I bump into this weirdly abstract feeling in my face, this ancient mask, the purpose of which (I know deep down) is to hide these very things in myself. I believe this calls for an emoticon.


I have, of course, experienced similar sensations of low, blocked, or disorganized prana in other parts of my body. My hips, for example, sometimes feel like solid bricks of stopped-up energy—no flow whatsoever, particularly after long drives or stints at my desk. And my thoracic spine, on certain days, can also feel completely inaccessible—somatically invisible. I'm familiar with the fix for these things: breath. Find the pose, relax into it, breathe evenly, breathe deeply, breathe slowly, send the breath into the block, and, above all, observe.... It's a great method because it works, especially with repetition. So this is precisely what I'm trying to do with my face. I think it's working, although quite frankly, I find that relaxing my face is the most challenging part of my practice these days—even with my various injuries—but in a way it also seems like the most important.


And now, an amusing (if only tangentially related) video titled "Electro Stimulus to Face Test 4" (Daito Manab's Friends)":

Daito Manabe: direction, programming and composition
upper left: Muryo Honma
upper right:Setsuya Kurotaki,
lower left: Motoi Ishibashi
lower right: Seiichi Saito



Laura said...

Ah the most difficult pose of all! the relaxed face, smile even, when practicing ashtanga. Nice post!