Floating in mediation. (Photo: Louography)
In my yoga classes, I’ve recently asked the students if they’ve seen the film Birdman and not one person has said yes. I bring up Birdman in class because it has a fantastical opening scene with the main character of the film floating in lotus position as he listens to his inner voice. And so, for fun I started incorporating what is known as “Toelasana” into my classes, which is a great way to build abdominal strength and work on that “floating” feeling that assists us in moving gracefully on our mat.
I not only enjoyed Birdman for the aspirational opening scene, but the film itself is a perfect metaphor for the deeper work that we do in yoga. The work to uncover our inner voice, become aware of our habits and internal stories, remove blockages and come closer to our true self.
Perhaps these are universal concepts and I’m just that yoga teacher always making yogic connections, but hey that’s what I do and honestly it’s fairly easy to use a yogic lense for everything since everything is yoga. And, this is what happened this past November when I saw Birdman.
It helps that I saw the film the same weekend that I took a yoga workshop with a visiting teacher named Katie Silcox. Much of the work we did in her one-day workshop was focused on using our yoga mat as a stage for our emotions.
One of the main purposes of yoga is to clear blockages, to remove what is know as Dhuka – which can mean our suffering, ignorance, physical tension and darkness. The purpose of doing yoga is to remove Dukkha and create Sukkha – which is ease, lightness and knowing. This is why we are always talking about bowing into our inner light because this inner light is the truth of our soul and this truth is steady and unwavering.
However, the light doesn’t easily reveal itself. We must travel through layers of darkness, such as our ego and the stories we tell ourselves. What was so delicious about the workshop with Katie Silcox is that she encouraged us to embrace the darkness. To “ripen” the dark emotions and thoughts within to such a degree that we could “juice” it, gain an understanding of it. When we held poses such as low lunge she encouraged us to breathe into what she called the “dark side of the moon,” the backside of the heart. In downward dog we would explore the emotions/thoughts throughout our body. And to finish our practice we did a tantric breathing technique to burn up the emotion that we had just juiced to cleanse them from our physical and emotional body – a process she says takes more work than just one go of it, but which felt cleansing and powerful the first time.
Her workshop reminded me of the emotional/physical connection that yoga takes advantage of to heal us in more ways than we know. It was also a clear experience of using the yoga mat as a stage for working out real-life emotions/thoughts – something that happens all the time on our mat, but is sometimes a more conscious process then other times.
Can you tell why following this workshop Birdman was such a yogic film to me? It doesn’t help that the film begins with the star – Riggan Thomson – floating in meditation. When we meet Thomson we hear his internal voice, which seems strong and focused. We later discover that this voice is less his own and more the super hero – “Birdman” – who he played in action films for most his life. Later on in the film, the voice and Thomson undergo a struggle.
Without going into too much detail on the film, the most poignant connections that Birdman has to yoga is Thomson’s search for self-knowledge (he created a play as a way to explore and make a change in his life), Thomson’s attempt to break from past narratives (he struggles with his internal voice of “Birdman”), the importance of understanding the true motivations behind our actions (he just wanted to be seen, especially by his family), and the need for a stage as a place to experience emotions (as clearly communicated by the character Mike Shiner – more on that, below).
The most important takeaway of this film for me is my last point above, this notion of the stage. The stage is a clear example in the film of how reality and fiction are easily blurred in life. When we try to act proper, be who we think we are supposed to be we ignore parts of our self that deserve to be seen and heard. One of Thomson’s co-stars in the play – Mike Shiner – has a passion for the rawness of truth. However, we soon learn that Shiner is only able to access and experience “real” emotions on the stage. His life off-stage is flaccid and meandering. Like Shiner, Thomsan is using this stage to work something out in his life.
This film makes me ponder how often we allow ourselves to express our feelings in raw and uncalculated ways. I always try hard to be a good person and measure my emotions so I can make thoughtful actions in my life, but I definitely don’t want to ignore or censor authentic messages traveling through me. I want to learn from them. I want to feel this aliveness of emotion and learning in my life – what Katie calls “Ripening and Juicing the Mango.”
I think we all need a stage. My stage is often my yoga mat, sometimes my writing or candid conversations with a friend who I know will not judge me. But it’s very clear that getting to the truth is messy and involves digging in the darkness. Digging into what seems real and what seems unreal, but honoring them both. We all need a stage to explore our thoughts and emotions.
What is your stage? Where do you feel you can act out your emotions, learn from them and travel through the darkness, the Dhuka, to come closer to your light?