I watched the most amazing marine biology video that someone posted to facebook the other day. I have to admit that I’m not one to watch every single thing that appears in my facebook feed or I’d never get anything else done! The comment associated with this video, however, said that the footage contained had actually made a marine biologist scream. That compelled me to click. Marine biologists don’t seem like an over-excitable lot so this had to be good!
And it was. The video started with a shot of a sea bush, flowing in the water and as the camera got closer to the bush, all of a sudden, a huge patch of it turned white and an eyeball appeared. It was an octopus that had camouflaged itself into the sea bush as a means of hiding from the marine biologist that had been following him for an hour. Only when the camera got too close for comfort did the octopus go into startle mode, shoot ink at the guy and flee the scene.
The video went on to show clips of the octopus disguising itself as a rock, complete with the appropriate texture and colour. The bumpy, grainy-grey “rock” then bounced across the ocean floor and merged seamlessly with a smooth-surfaced, army green sea plant and began to sway harmoniously in the water. It was an awe-inspiring reminder of nature’s staggering sophistication. It also prompted me to consider what I personally could learn from the choice and order of the octopus’ coping mechanisms.
Cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish and squid) use camouflaging as a line of first defence. They are soft, squishy creatures that are vulnerable to attack. Rather than use huge quantities of energy in reactivity or self-defence, they look at the environment they are in and adapt to align with their current situation. Only as a last resort do these amazing creatures opt to attack with a blast of black ink.
Think of the economy of energy this allows. As a general rule, cephalopods don’t resist their environment. Their natural state is to check out what’s going on and adapt. At their essence they’re always an octopus or a squid or a cuttlefish but they can harmonise with the world around them.
What if we could do the same? What if rather than flying off the handle at the least provocation or building up internal stress over every little thing, we could open up to the situation at hand and transmute the energy into something we can use? What if we adapted, not as a means of losing ourselves or our individual identity, rather as a means of merging more closely with everything around us AND in us?
Within a yoga practice, we cultivate internal space by breathing fully, by releasing conscious and unconscious tension. We put ourselves into various positions which can help to let go of our holding patterns and create great physiological healing. For me, practice goes even beyond that. Many of the postures can be uncomfortable at first. This causes all kinds of mental and physical resistance to flare up. Those moments are perfect opportunities for learning to breathe, stay present when all I really want to do is scream, run or shoot some ink at someone.
One of my favourite teachers, Elena Brower, often suggests bringing one of the most troubling situations you’re facing into your awareness when you’re in the midst of a practice. She asks you to hold it there and breathe as fully, calmly and deeply as you can, creating so much space inside your body so that you can bring that situation even closer to you.
When I’ve done that in the past, it’s been interesting to note where my body contracts and tenses in reaction to the very thought of something difficult. Our bodies don’t actually know the difference between real and imagined stress. They react the exact same way so it gives us a wonderful opportunity to re-pattern. By breathing space into the parts of me that want to shut down, I create a new possibility for myself.
One Sunday morning recently, I began the class I was teaching by telling the octopus story. It was my intention to help the students become aware of their own patterns of reactivity and to help them cultivate more spacious receptivity in the face of a challenge, real or imagined. As luck would have it, halfway through the class, a banging sound began somewhere outside the room that lasted for the entire rest of our time together. It provided the perfect opportunity to notice the way our minds and our bodies responded to the perceived interruption.
For me, it was “Who would bang so loudly on a Sunday morning, don’t they know a yoga class is going on?” I noticed my belly contracted, my jaw hardened, my eyes narrowed, my breath quickened. All of these things would have been useful in a real emergency but it was just a little noise. Students got a little twitchy, a vibration of agitation threatened the space.
And then remembering the brief of the class, we all listened intently to the sound, breathed fully and deeply and released all of the internal reactivity to the sound. There was nothing we could do to stop the sound but we could certainly stop the sound from ruining our experience.
We finished that class with one of the most powerful meditation sessions I’ve ever experienced at the end of a yoga class, all the while the banging continued. Everyone dropped in. It was a fantastic reminder that we do have a choice to adapt and harmonise most of the time. It takes far less energy to create space inside ourselves than to shoot metaphorical ink at every single perceived stressor. In choosing the path of least resistance, we were afforded the most intimate connection with ourselves. Thank you Mr. Octopus, Ms. Elena Brower and the persistent receptionist who locked herself out of the building (oops, we thought it was construction work) for this useful lesson.