The Joys of Absorption

On the value of reading, writing, and power yoga

Parker, my yoga instructor, told us last night, while our butts were in the air, that without concentration there is no peace. The mind at loose ends is a mind without serenity, she said, and one must be disciplined, through mental effort, into calmness.I used to be snotty about yoga. Oh, how I would make fun; upper-middle class capitalist white people seeking restoration through an ancient Indian practice. Mindfulness, what hooey. I still make fun of yoga, actually. When I tell people I have become slightly addicted to power yoga, I have to make fun of myself at the same time. "Can you believe it? Me, doing yoga? But I don't do the whole spiritual schmiritial stuff," I disclaim. "None of that silly chanting," I tell them, lighting up a cigarette. "I do Power Yoga."What I most love about going to Parker's class is being at her mercy. Before class starts and after it ends I am unsure about a zillion things-what to to write my next column about, what to make for dinner, whether Al Franken will be too funny for the Senate. During class, though, I know what I have to do. Every. Single. Moment. Parker bosses me around for 90 straight minutes: Air chair pose; Twist; Spread Your Wings; Downward Dog; Rag Doll; Turn over and lie on your back; Bridge; Fish; Plow. I am obedient. I follow her sweetly cruel commands. I put my hands hip distance apart. I move my butt higher in the air. I unlock my knees.Even better, in between orders she tells us what not to think. "Evict whatever is renting out space in your head," she tells us as class starts, while we are humbled in child's pose. "Focus on the mat."Therein lies the key to my love of Power Yoga. I am told not to think. I am absorbed.This wondrous vacation from my head is also why I love writing. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know. But in an essay, "Why Write?" Alan Shapiro nails this addictive sensation mid-essay. He suggests that we write for the pleasure of "perfectly useless concentration." We write, Shapiro tells us, "for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here, right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration."When we write we are not ourselves:It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self, because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making: your identity-the incessant, transient, noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites, and interests-has been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity's a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve.In other words, writing provides the same sensation I feel at minute 67 of a yoga class, wrapped around myself in eagle pose.Reading provides this natural high, too. My Oxford Dictionary defines absorption by describing the act of reading:"she was totally absorbed in her book. ENGROSS IN, captivate by, occupy with, preoccupy with, engage in, rivet by, grip by, hold by, interest in, immerse in, involve in, enthrall by, spellbound by, fascinate by/with."Many images of women reading capture this absorptive mood. Think Vermeer, Woman In Blue Reading A Letter. Sex, of course, offers this release as well. But you know that already.Yoga does writing and reading one better by being offered at regular times, scheduled throughout the day. When I am too much with myself and books fail and writing devolves into playing boggle online ("maybe I can make an ultra-rare word that ends in "ing"?), I can always pack up my mat.There is roadblock, though, that pops up tp stymy me some days, even after I have changed into my yoga pants, hurling myself from one form of self-forgetfulness to another, from prose to pages to poses, constantly seeking absorption. Despite myself-or, more accurately, because of myself, I cannot get to class. I dally until it is too late. I change out of my clothes. Those days, I am too much inside my head to be able to head out of it, stuck in that constant state of distracted attention we call everyday life.
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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