Many people asked when I was lying in a hospital bed, ventilated with no movement below my neck, “What will you do now? How will you practice yoga?” Many of them, knew me as either their yoga teacher or a yoga pioneer and entrepreneur. I established one of the first Yoga Alliance 200hr teacher training programs in BC and the first yoga studio in my hometown Nelson, back in early 2000.
Truthfully, I didn’t really know what I would do myself. Except that I knew I would somehow continue to do yoga. Thankfully, long before my injury I had been blessed with the introduction to the philosophy of yoga scholar Patanjali and the Eight Limbs of Yoga (which he formally called Ashtanga Yoga) as codified a few thousand years ago in his text The Yoga Sutras.
This perspective prior to my paralysis came ironically from devoting myself to the physical practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, which is different than Patanjali’s Ashtanga (Ashta-eight, Ange-limb) Yoga. Although different in origin, I experienced them not necessarily different in essence. While doing a very intense physical practice I had to learn how to manage my newly activated non-physical energy. I did that through the Eight Limbs, which also led me to discover some aspects of all of our inherent energy anatomy, bandhas, pranayama and vayus. I knew this was significant, but I didn’t know how significant, nor the extent of what to do with this, just yet.
At the time of my injury in 2004, I felt assured that only one of the limbs of yoga, Asana, is concerned with practice of the physical postures. And that the other seven limbs were related to the theoretical management of our energy and the mind. What I didn’t know or have access to though, were the techniques, the tools, the practices. Fortunately, my continued study of yoga had also led me in 2001, to Yogarupa Rod Stryker, Tantra Master within the Sri Vidya lineage.
Tantra is the system within Hatha Yoga that looks at and deals with the intelligent and reverent management of energy. All of it from bandhas to kundalini to nadis, distractions to desire to thought, insomnia to enlightened sleep... everything. Physical to non-physical. This was great news for me, when all I could move was my breath, my head and my non-physical energy by way of thought, visualization and sound vibration. It was through this auspicious association, that I fully learned about our energy systems, and where the tools and techniques of Hatha Yoga really came to life for me. So I was delighted, but not surprised, when I made unprecedented progress with my rehabilitation.
This is great news for all of us and an important perspective when we think about our individual practice. I used bandhas, pranayama, focused meditation, visualization and more to bring back body functions that would be unheard of with my diagnosis. With that in mind, how much of your practice do you devote to managing your energy, your nervous system, your breath, your thoughts? How much do you factor in awareness or utilization of the bandhas, the chakras, Pranayama, Mantra, the koshas, the kriyas, the vayus—all of which contribute to the movement of energy in your being, especially during practice?
Knowing that your Asana practice can include all eight limbs, combined through these varied energetic tools, offers all of us—no matter where you may be at physically—the tall juicy carrots of yoga. We are energy beings! As such, these tools and techniques provide important options that everybody can access, to create a practice that is a whole system and not merely a fragment or a part, of what yoga has to offer.
Truthfully the scope of knowledge of the ancients is extensive, and something I’ll likely study for lifetimes. For now, let’s take a brief look at how you can develop your personal practice to be more complete by incorporating all eight limbs and engaging your full physical embodiment, tuning in to your own energetic capacity. You may be surprised to find a deeper integration and connection physically, mentally and spiritually – the ultimate experience of yoga. Or you may be relieved to be able to practice with less of a physical focus, especially if that’s compromised.
One of my favourite poses, both before and after my injury, is Seated Forward Fold, Pachimottanasna - Intense Stretch to the West. It doesn’t qualify as my favourite because it is easy, but rather because it takes me to the depths of my being, physically and mentally, and provides the foundation for unfoldment (paradoxically) as we fold into our self.
This posture, and the experience of it, is explored both functionally and symbolically by the late Swami Sivananda Radha in her insightful book, Hatha Yoga – The Hidden Language. In the early days, I could only do my physical practice in bed with many, many bolsters to hold me up. Getting past the paralysis and the “big hump” in my back speaks to the Yama limb Aparigraha (non attachment) and the hidden language of the posture as described by Swami Radha: “Before one can fold with a straight spine, there is often a big hump, an obstacle that one has to get over in life. Only then is the surrender complete enough to make one receptive. Only then are the body, emotions, and mind strong enough to accept the insecurity of limited vision.”
Radha goes on to list the physical and nonphysical attributes and challenges of this posture: “Folded into halves, limited vision, opposites, surrender, softening and expansion, limitations, acceptance, secure holding, patience, spine consciousness, big hump, obstacle, receptive, insecurity, non- duality, center point, humility, the beginning of movement, inspiration, awe, wonder.” She also addresses the necessity, due to the intensity, to trust in the innate divine nature. I have found that looking at our postures and practices in this way, opens up the very awe and possibility that she speaks to.
So let’s bring ancient wisdom to our modern practice in the profoundly simple, Seated Forward Fold. Please consider using bolsters like I recommend here, even if you’re not accustomed to doing so.
On January 25, 2004, Mary-Jo Fetterly had a skiing accident that crushed her C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down. She was diagnosed with Quadriplegia-complete, a “worst-case diagnosis” predicted by doctors. Her journey back to health while coping with her new situation defied odds – She has experienced a miraculous recovery due to hard work, faith, knowledge, insight, determination, Yoga and strong-willed optimism. She has transformed injury into inquiry; her passion is looking directly into “disability” to uncover the “ability”.
Shop Mary-Jo's recommended bolsters here.