Flying Lessons

By the third time (all week-day matinees: cheaper & less crowded), the theatre clerks & I exchanged amused glances of recognition. By about the fifth time I was definitely feeling sheepish, if not downright embarrassed, by what I imagined was being perceived as clearly-addictive behavior. But I didn’t care! I saw the film, over the course of about a month, no fewer than seven times. Each viewing revealed some new wonder, some previously-unnoticed level of meaning, or just an exquisite detail, that my eyes, ears & heart hungrily consumed.

And what was the cause, in this film (and later also in the re-made Hero) for my tears & rapture? For drawing someone who doesn’t even really watch many movies, back like this, again & again, almost magnetically? It’s a bit hard to articulate, though what I can say is that there was something being portrayed ~ in both of these films ~ with which I resonated so deeply, that at a soul- & cell-level I recognized, which so rarely, in this culture, is portrayed. It felt like coming home. Particularly powerful for me were the fight scenes: not for the conflict that was being enacted (I actually have an aversion to violence, per se), but rather for the fluidity & lightness ~ the Mastery of physical movement ~ that was being so beautifully demonstrated. Some who I spoke to about the film considered these scenes merely fanciful, a kind of science fiction that perhaps had been taken to an extreme … but for me those scenes were ~ at long last ~ portraying a reality, something the very fibers of my being understood to be not only a possible, but also in many ways a preferable way of being-in-a-human-body. There was and is a knowing that: Yes ~ Flying is possible!

Now this love affair with movement-as-flight, with enlightenment expressed as human form & movement, has been with me for a while: As a child I adored the graceful connections between Terry Bradshaw & Lynn Swann; Later, Michael Jordan became my all-time hero. Then it was Bruce Lee. On a number of occasions I’ve felt my life to be transformed by the performance of dancers: Mikhail Baryshnikov (who I saw in person for the first time when he was in his fifties, and stunning!), David Parsons (whose magical piece “Caught” still resonates inside of me), Diego Pinon (a Butoh Master, whose sensual & organic explorations of human movement opened within me whole new realms of possibility re: intimacy & empowered vulnerability). Each year that I’ve lived in Boulder I’ve watched the world-class runners in the “Bolder Boulder” 10k race, and noticed how the winners (in recent years, Kenyans) most often have broken through their intense effort into a level of ease, of rapture, of something clearly beyond the physical … In the realm of yoga asana, Richard Freeman has expressed this same level of power, grace & fluidity. Among the Tibetan Lamas that I’ve encountered, it has been Mingyur Rinpoche whose light-filled physical presence has inspired this same level of appreciation for the kind of intelligence (genius, really) that can be manifest through & as a human body. To all of these beings (and countless others who’ve accomplished something similar): a deep bow of gratitude.

So how does this happen? This appearance and/or experience of “flight”? This transformation of a seemingly-dense human body into something capable of such magical displays?

As a starting-point for this exploration, it might be useful to learn a bit about the principles of fluid mechanics which create the aerodynamic force of “lift” in an airplane … for perhaps the key to our own “flight” as yoga or qigong practitioners lies in the emulation of these physical characteristics. First, know that air, just like water, is ~ in terms of the (Newtonian) physical & mathematical principles to which it adheres ~ considered to be a “fluid.” Know also that “lift” can only be generated when a fluid is in motion. So, for instance, a wing must be passing through the air or the air must be moving around a stationary wing (or both) in order for lift to happen.

Most of the lift in an airplane is generated by its wings, and specifically by the way air flows around wings of a particular shape. What we notice about most airplane wings is that, when viewed edge-on, their upper surfaces are curved (convex) and their lower surfaces are flatter. As air moves around a wing of this shape, the air that goes over the curved upper surface undergoes two important changes: (1) it is reduced in pressure (by the centrifugal force of flowing across the curved surface); and (2) it is accelerated downward (as it leaves the trailing edge of the wing). The wing is then forced into the region of reduced air pressure above the upper surface of the wing by the higher air pressure beneath the wing; and the downward acceleration of the air at the trailing edge also forces the wing upward. Since lift is dependent on the motion of the air, it increases as the speed of the air increases. Lift also increases, to a point, as the angle that the wing makes with the airflow increases (past a certain point, however, an increased angle will cause the wing to suddenly lose its lifting ability).

So how, in the context of a physical practice such as yoga asana or qigong, might we emulate the qualities that give lift to an airplane? Let’s explore … Creating or energizing physical structures which have the same shape as an airplane wing is something we certainly can play with: If I extend my arms out from my shoulders, like wings, I can cup my palms slightly, away from the floor, and at the same time deepen my armpits, while allowing my shoulders, biceps & the top part of my hands to feel “puffed” upward. In this way I’ve created a shape similar to the shape of an airplane wing. And as it turns out, there are many other places in my body where I’m able to create suction-cup-like structures, which will act to generate lift in this same way, when met with flow: the soles of my feet; my pelvic floor, my thoracic diaphragm, & the roof of my mouth, to name just a few.

Now that I’ve created these structures which have the potential to give me “lift” when met with a flow of air, the next question becomes: how do I create a flow of air? I could, of course, go outside in a high wind, and see what happens … But as yoga practitioners we like at least at times to practice indoors, and at all times for the practice to be moving in the direction of being “internal,” of being something that doesn’t depend too heavily on external conditions. Luckily, our pranic bodies, like air and water, operate in many ways like fluids. What’s even more fortunate is that we can utilize the basic yoga/qigong principle “prana follows citta” (qi follows mind/intention) to create the “high wind” (high vibration) conditions that will ~ in combination with our wing-like structures ~ give us “lift” (transform matter into “light,” structure into flow). To do this, I simply imagine that I’m facing a high wind (or standing waist-high in a fast-moving creek, facing up-stream) … It’s as simple as that. Then tilt your wings (and all those little suction-cups) slightly upward (into the on-coming wind or water), feel the upper surfaces of your body being drawn into the low-pressure areas above you, and feel yourself becoming lighter: little by little (or perhaps all at once) taking flight! (At this level of practice, what you’ll also discover is that remaining “heavy” in your heels, sitting-bones & coccyx actually supports the feeling of lightness of the body as a whole, particularly along its central axis … It’s kind of a paradox!)

So that’s a way of working in the direction of “flying” which takes as starting-points: (1) our conventionally-perceived bodies (a collection of muscles, bones, organs, etc.); as well as (2) our habitual identification with our bodies (I am my body so what it means for “me” to fly is for this physical body to do more-or-less what an airplane does). And this can be an interesting and useful exploration.

What can also be interesting is to begin by challenging these basic assumptions, for instance by thinking: To the extent that I’m currently perceiving my body as something solid, to this extent I’m still caught in wrong views, in delusion. (And creating my yoga practice on the foundation of these wrong views is the equivalent, say, of building a philosophical argument upon a set of faulty axioms/assumptions.) What might happen if I begin instead with the assumption (adopt the view) that my body is of the nature of light, color & sound (like a rainbow)? Or that my body is of the nature of space, like the sky itself (am I then always already flying)? That instead of being continuous through time, my body is being created anew in each second (pulsing in & out of “existence”)? Or wondering: If the belief that “I am this body” is the basis of all suffering, and I somehow now let go of or at least soften around that belief … If “I” am no longer identified with this physical body, then what might it mean for “me” to fly? (Who or what is it that’s flying, if not this physical body?) I don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but do feel very curious …

What I do know is that many of us have had dreams of flying. In my own dreams of this sort, I’m almost always “flying” in/as a body which looks “just like” my waking-state body. (There are Tibetan dream yoga practices in which we train in transforming our body into many different shapes … so, for instance, we might choose to assume the form of a bird, or an airplane, to do our flying … or might transform our body into the body of a particular deity, and simply hover in space in that form, or fly around with our consorts …) What I notice in these flying dreams is that it is my intention (mind, will) that is the “pilot,” i.e. it’s via my thoughts (or mental body) that I choose the course of my flight. And how this takes a certain relaxed focus, which at times is quite precise & effective, and at other times less so. (Sometimes I crash-land.) And then I wake, and think: I’ve just been dreaming of flying!