The Still Point
By Mary Paffard, October, 2015
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance.
—T. S. Eliot
S. Eliot’s poem, which has haunted my yoga practice for decades, came to mind recently at a London dance performance called Dust, Akram Khan’s contribution to Lest We Forget, a collaborative tribute to those who had suffered the pain of World War One. There was a moment in Dust when all the dancers moved as one body, and it created one of those magical seconds of intense hush in the audience where there is no past and future, no dancer no audience—just breath.
As yoga practitioners we know these moments, when stillness becomes movement and movement stillness, the ego mysteriously evaporating. But we also know times when no matter how adept our craft of asana is, it can become limiting, externally oriented, and performance-based, losing the quality of our original intention to practice.
How do we cultivate this quietness in movement, this presence? Fortunately, in yoga we don’t need massive orchestras and the grueling regime of rehearsal to bow to the sacred! Instead, in the middle of an asana, we pause, and come back to the breath—to the moment of being rather than becoming. Yoga helps us in the everyday of our mundane realities: walking down a busy street, doing the laundry, engaging in a challenging conversation, we come into the center of our bodies and experience ourselves from an embodied, compassionate place.
Most of the time, we live on the rim of the wheel of existence, getting battered by the rocks and mud of the road on which we travel. But through a meditative approach, we can come to the center of the hub of this wheel. Ajahn Chah, a well-known Buddhist teacher in the Thai Forest tradition, talks about “still, flowing water”—the place where nothing moves, but everything happens! For me, this image, remembered in asana, reconnects me to my breath, my core, the reason I came to yoga in the first place. It allows me to access the center of my physical being—my belly, my hara, my womb—and invites the movement to arise from a fecund, fluid reality, beyond my dry left-brain-dominant universe.
Did you ever as a child play with the light switch, trying to find the place between off and on? Perhaps not, but I did, and probably drove my parents crazy in the process! I see now that I am still playing with that notion, curious and enchanted by moments on the mat, in nature, in both deep trauma and the nuttier details of life, in great art, and the simple cyclical rounds of being, where the world stops and yet keeps moving—moments that are neither off nor on, neither flesh nor fleshless, neither from nor toward, reminding me that I am part of something so much bigger than that little “I,” where there is only dance.