In a little funk recently I decided that people in general rarely do what they say they will, that they/we are generally unreliable. Then I realized it is really through no individual fault. Life is unpredictable and therefore people, who are impacted by life’s unpredictability, will naturally also often be unable to follow through with plans as originally verbalized. Life is constantly in flux and we are always shifting and adjusting in response to that flux. No matter what I might think in my funk, we want it that way. It is the constant change that brought us forth as living beings and provides the foundation upon which we continue to live.
I realize my thoughts are nothing new but rather have been taught in various spiritual traditions, including yoga, well before I entered this world. It is obvious really, if one is paying attention. Even our bones, something we might think of as solid, unchangeable and fixed, even these bones are continually changing. The collagen in our bones is constantly replenishing so that every seven years we have a new skeleton. It happens on such a small level that we are not aware of it, at least not consciously. Inside our bodies (outside too if those distinctions are actually meaningful) exists a whole very small world that is always in motion and always changing. If I understand anything about quantum physics it is that we cannot actually measure things predictably. The smallest of worlds that we cannot see are unpredictable.
Bones seem so stable, a bit like rocks of the body. Bones, like rocks, last far beyond our death. Rocks, it turns out, change too but their timetable is one that is almost beyond comprehension, making our lives seem like the blink of an eyelid. Rocks and bones both tell stories to those who have the patience to learn how to read them such as a paleontologist – origin stories, stories of extinction, and stories of our ancestors. The stories can be surprising. I recently learned that scorpions are one of the first creatures to move from the ocean to land and are hence our ancestors. From childhood, we are fascinated by dinosaur bones and the creatures the bones speak about. We want to know why they became extinct and imagine their lives.
With the capacity to sequence DNA these stories become ever more precise and yet so very incomplete and full of mystery. Mary Oliver writes of discovering the ear bone of a pilot whale. She feels she is close to “discovering something:”
“For the ear bone
Is the portion that lasts longest
In any of us, man or whale…
And I thought: the soul
Might be like this-
So hard, so necessary-
Yet almost nothing”
Humans have 206 bones, twenty-six in the feet and fifty-four in the hand and wrist. The femur bone in the thigh is the longest and the strongest. The three smallest bones are in the inner ear. Without them we would be deaf. Thanks to their shapes, these small ear bones are informally called the hammer, anvil and stirrup and all three could easily fit on a penny. When struck by sound waves they vibrate and strike a thin membrane, thus transmitting the sound waves from the air to the fluid of the ear.
Then there is the hyoid bone, the only bone that is not attached to other bones. It is located at the base of the tongue and anchors the tongue. Elephants have five bones in their hyoid apparatus. They are able to make sounds too low for humans to hear. These sounds are transported to other elephants through the ground for up to 2.5 miles.
In a recent article in the New York Times, Science Section (December 22, 2015), Jane Brody reported on a study done on yoga and bone health by Dr. Loren M. Fishman. He found that yoga was safe for those with bone loss and helped prevent increased loss and fractures. Plus, he said, the “side effects” include “better posture, improved balance, enhanced coordination, greater range of motion, higher strength, reduced levels of anxiety and better gait.” Dr. Fishman argues that “yoga puts more pressure on bones than gravity does.” By opposing one group of muscles against another, the osteocytes – the bone making cells – are stimulated to do their job.
Much of the conversation around yoga in our modern western world tends to be on how yoga helps our health. While this is wonderful, it is not the whole story. When we practice yoga, we want to align the bones so that the posture requires less muscular effort, or less effort in general so that we might begin to enter another more mysterious place where the mind settles a bit from its frantic planning and jumping from one thing to the next. I hope I am quoting accurately B.K.S. Iyengar as saying that when we practice yoga asana (postures) and focus our mind on all the many subtle aspects of how we are in any particular pose, we are aligning with the soul.
The soul is about as mysterious as it gets. We can measure the tiniest of particles. We know many of the stories of how our bodies function though we also know very little. But we cannot measure the soul. Many argue there is no such thing. I hope we can never measure the soul. I hope rather, that we continue to write poems, like Mary Oliver, finding hints of the soul in the ear bone of a pilot whale. I hope we stay unpredictable. I hope Myrtle dances to her hearts content every night she wants to.