Me & My Camel

Trigger Warning: This post discusses responding to sexual assault.

There was a time, just after I stopped sharing a bedroom with my sister, when I became… not afraid of the dark, exactly, but leery of what I couldn’t anticipate, what I couldn’t see. I never used a night light though I burned through the bulbs of several flashlights for after-hours reading purposes. I didn’t have nightmares, fear of bedtime, or insomnia.

But I remember always, always sleeping with my back to the wall. And I mean wiggling right up against the wall, which was cool and practical in summer but kind of shivery in winter. Additionally, if I needed to flip sides during the night — say, from right to left — I’d also flip head-to-foot on the bed so I could keep my back to the wall. As long as I could feel that no one or nothing — back then, I’m not sure if I was afraid of people or of monsters under the bed still — could sneak up behind me, I slept fine.

Mostly, folks just accepted this as an idiosyncrasy of mine; I have many and gradually grew out of this one anyway. A parent once commented casually about it, to which I just said, “This is where I’m comfortable.” It was at least part of the truth, and it’s a surface explanation I’d accept, except —

There was a time, just after I was raped, when I became afraid of what I couldn’t anticipate, what I couldn’t see.

This time, my back-to-the-wall vantage point expanded beyond my bedroom. I sat sideways in chairs in class and on the bus, with my back to a side wall, so that I could always watch out for whatever was there. Walking across campus with others, I found ways to be at the back of the pack. Walking alone, I checked regularly over each shoulder. At social gatherings, I found ways to tuck myself into corners so I could watch everything and every one — because now I was sure people were scarier than monsters.

I’m not sure how much these actions interfered with my ability to enjoy life, but the actions were symptomatic of fear, and the fear was entwined in everything I did, pervasive.

Which was why, when I was learning ustrasana (as part of a process of reclaiming my body and mind after my assault), it wasn’t just scary for me. It was downright triggering. Entering ustrasana, or camel, quite literally means dropping backward into what I cannot see. Even though the floor or my feet (or the wall or blocks or a chair or whatever I used as a prop) has never disappeared out from under me, there’s a difference between knowing my support is going to be there because, duh, that’s logic, and knowing my support is going to be there because I can always see it. Especially for someone who has not so logical reactions to the world around her, the difference between trusting my eyes and trusting my mind is huge.

Maybe aside from when I was first working to build the base amount of necessary muscle, I’ve always been more limited by my emotions than by my body in this pose. My body will bend back into kapotasana if I let it, but my fear relinquishes its hold in small and hard-fought increments. I’ve gone from camels that keep my hands on my pelvis to camels that use a chair to to camels that reach for my raised or lowered heels to camels that start reaching overhead for the ground behind me. It’s been years — eleven since I was raped and maybe nine or ten that I’ve been working with camel — and every time I begin in my kneeling shape, that wave of fear still hits me.

But I know now that the wave will ebb, not completely away but back to where I can move again. I know how to sit with my doubts and my terrors until they’re no longer coursing out my ears. I know how to acknowledge rather than fight my fear. I think, though I’m still not sure, this might be what people mean when they talk about cultivating courage.

The courage I’ve found from and in ustrasana is the emotional foundation of all my subsequent arm balances, the poses where I almost certainly have to fall on my face at least once. It’s the courage that lets me try headstand in the middle of the room when I know I have the strength and balance but really want to see the wall. It’s the courage that lets me talk about my experiences with rape and rape culture, to people who may well be unclueful or hostile, without seeing ahead of time what the response is likely to be. And it’s one factor in why I no longer sleep with my back to the wall.

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I'm here. I like stuff. Some other stuff, I like less.

Posted in asana, backbend, chakra work, core, non-asana, present, swadyaya
5 comments on “Me & My Camel
  1. This is awesome…”But I know now that the wave will ebb, not completely away but back to where I can move again. I know how to sit with my doubts and my terrors until they’re no longer coursing out my ears. I know how to acknowledge rather than fight my fear. I think, though I’m still not sure, this might be what people mean when they talk about cultivating courage.” That is exactly it. I can relate to the fact that yoga has helped me cultivate courage and a sense of groundedness which I did not have previously. I don’t share the same experience, but I too had to work very hard at Camel. I think it is intriguing how so many of the poses that I used to dread when I was uncomfortable in my own skin are now my favorite poses. Same skin.

    • Tori says:

      Camel is one of my favorites now too. For me, I think at least part of the evolution came from having time to observe the benefits of the pose. When I can actually experience myself getting “better” over time — however you want to define “better,” and my definition changes depending on my intent — it’s easier to connect that back to the pose and to associate positive feelings with it, which is a nice counter to the fear. ;)

  2. Laurie R. says:

    I was raped ten years ago this month. I never thought of yoga as a way of dealing with it. I realized when it was happening that what angered me was the lack of self control exhibited by my rapist. The trigger for me is seeing someone behave in an out of control fashion. One day I was outside walking through a dance routine when some drunk came up to me and made a rather obscene comment. I looked him squarely in the eyes and said, “That comment is inappropriate!” in the sternest voice I had. He stumbled away muttering to himself, but I was pretty shaken up. I think that your yoga practice and my rehearsing that line (because I rehearsed that line for years after the rape before I had to use it) serve the same purpose of creating control, finding a center when things seem to be spiraling out of control. Thanks for sharing. I almost have enough room to actually focus more on yoga (I’m mostly a beginner–I’ve taken a few classes).

  3. [...] intended this post to come directly after talking about my own experiences with ustrasana, but… [...]

  4. Revisiting this and the other one after doing camel pose for the first time in class.

    The majority of my class seemed to feel some fear/anxiety about camel pose; one woman was particularly having trouble, but that led to a lot of others nodding along. The woman who was particularly having trouble mentioned a martial arts class she’d taken in the past where she was being pushed to the floor and felt a loss of control over her body.

    I don’t experience that fear, but I’m not able to get very far into the pose. I seemed to be the least flexible in the class. I have to keep my hands on my pelvis.

    My first experience with camel pose was in the first yoga video I’ve used, the “10 Minute Solutions” one. They don’t explain it as well as in the first video of your “Getting To It” post. (I don’t always watch the videos; I only just watched that video now.) It was hard for me to figure out what exactly I was trying to accomplish with the pose, in part because I didn’t have enough flexibility to really resemble most versions of the pose. Most poses feel like they’re stretching or strengthening one area at minimum, and that one didn’t. I was arching my upper back primarily; in the yoga class today the instructor told me that I should be mostly focusing on arching my lower back.

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