Two to four times a year, a snake sheds its top layer of skin. This process is called ecdysis, which means "the act of molting or shedding an outer cuticular layer." Ecdysis is the sloughing off of the outer layer, in order to remove stale cells and parasites, free up mobility, and so enable growth. Apparently, just after a snake sheds a layer, they’re visibly healthier and vibrant. Their new body, free of restrictions, allows them to move and expand how they should.
When snakes are young, they shed more often - every two weeks or so. Perhaps this is simply because they grow at a faster rate than adults, or maybe it's because they are so often something's prey, and so must be in constant adaptation. Like a child learning from touching a hot stovetop, a baby snake is trusting not instead of vulnerability, but despite vulnerability. The baby snake moves excitedly exploring without inhibition, and adapting to circumstance as danger comes and goes. When they outgrow their layer, like a toddler outgrowing a race car bed, they simply shed, instinctively, and continue on.
Snakes and seasons live in cycles, encountering obstacles and adapting accordingly. Each peak and valley seem higher and higher, easier each time to trek. Rainfall feels heavier to a small body, parasites attach quicker to young blood. Baby snakes bear the weight of the weather and predators, grow tougher skin, then slough it off when it becomes too heavy and tight. When they become trapped in their outer shells, they don't wait for the environment to change - they change their bodies, and continue on. The old skin gives itself to the earth, waiting somewhere in nature, fertile to become something else's material for something else’s purpose.
In the first grade, our class pet was a Ball Python. I remember noticing the snake's abandoned skin collect in the tank over time, and he would move about, shining in his new, rejuvenated body with ease and freedom. I remember feeling jealous of this ability. How badly I would have loved to leave my parasite-ridden, restricting physical body. How beautifully instinctual it was to shed a layer when it was no longer needed, to uncover and expose the purer, healthier, cleaner self.
Childhood health problems made me anxious in my skin, malnourished and reactive to culturally "normal" foods my classmates could eat freely. I had an intestinal bacterial overgrowth which caused physical tension and emotional instability, muscle tics, anxiety and mood swings and symptoms such as the one now often diagnosed as “restless leg syndrome,” (because our culture likes to confuse symptoms for the causes, but I digress).
Thanks to my incredible and critically thinking parents, as well as a team of nutritionists, biochemists, and physicians, we figured out that my symptoms were due to Candida. Nowadays, Candida is a common term among yoga teachers and the holistic wellness community. In the nineties, however, we were complete weirdos, with a lack of resources to boot. I remember my mom ordering a special kind of bread made from millet from a bakery in Florida, because there was nowhere closer to find gluten-free bread.
The discipline this taught me as a child could result in a whole separate essay, although now I have the good fortune of living a relatively healthy and "normal" adult life with a strong ability to communicate with my body. I also am privileged to have a sensitive and direct relationship with food.
Sometimes the swells of tension come back, though, mostly when I indulge in toxins, which unfortunately include sugar, dairy, processed wheat, alcohol, and other foods commonly found in our society. Sometimes I recall my childhood inability to relax physically or mentally, and a chaotic wave of pins and needles washes over my midsection and skull. Sometimes, even now as an adult, I want to shed like a snake and leave the old shell behind. Sometimes, I catch myself resenting the skin I’ve often felt so stuck in.
In addition to dietary changes and a cocktail of vitamins and herbal supplements which cured (and still keep) Candida at bay, I’ve tried many methods to slough off this experience: Holistic chiropractors, acupressure, Reiki, massage therapy, cognitive therapy and family counseling, aromatherapy, the list goes on. If it reads "personal development" or "holistic body work," I've probably explored it (or become licensed in it). One thing I was hesitant to try, however, was yoga. This is mostly because I am, by Bostonian nature, a perpetual cynic. Despite my genuine love and passion for all things holistic self care, I'm guilty of having a baseline of “Daria”-esque sarcasm. Humor is how I cope, I admit, but my point is, (or used to be), that yoga was for privileged and skinny white women looking for fitness and weight-loss trends. I thought it required expensive clothes and a size 0 waist - how ELSE could one fold into “Mermaid Pose” like the blonde beauty on the cover of Yoga Journal?
So, I initially tried yoga for the same reason I tried Reiki and acupuncture and all the other ancient practices: I needed a tool for stress relief and was desperate to explore all angles. I was working a demanding job with chaotic hours while juggling some personal issues, and the emotional stress eventually manifested as physical pain. I was desperate for a way to slough, and I needed my body and mind back - even if just for an hour a week. I tried a “Gentle Restorative” yoga class first, and was beyond content with its predominately grey-haired demographic. I particularly enjoyed the part where we lied on the floor on bolsters, gently twisting and wringing out the workweek. I became a pro at Savasana, "corpse pose," or what I endearingly refer to as the “yoga nap."
It took just a few classes to realize that gentle, restorative poses could churn up fervent feelings and insights I didn't know were there. The class began to feel like my weekly acid trip, to be frank, going in and in and in until the information I didn't know I needed became uncovered, in beautiful ways through all the senses. And the more I dug and twisted and rinsed out the stress, the more joy and calm began to surface. I noticed myself approaching work with less anxiety and more efficiency, I started to choose better eating habits. I became a better communicator, noticed unhealthy relationships and built boundaries accordingly. I realized I was wearing a metaphorical blanket of old anger, anxiety, and resentment that just didn’t need to be there. This dead weight certainly wasn’t serving me or my loved ones, and the more I practiced and made space, the more this stuff was worked through and released.
The best part was realizing that this information is always in there - self awareness and joy aren't outside of the body, they're just sometimes buried under stress and skin. Our culture doesn’t encourage us to dig below those surfaces. In fact, it encourages quite the opposite. Media and popular culture tell us to band-aid our problems with distraction by booze and sleep aids and social media. Definitely don’t explore it, we're told, definitely don’t get vulnerable - because pain hurts! But, yoga truly helped me realize that the only way out of the pain is straight fucking through it. The pain was telling me information, I just wasn’t listening close enough.
Over time, my yoga practice naturally evolved, and I tried more advanced Vinyasa, heated classes, and countless workshops on yoga therapy, transcendental meditation, Yoga Nidra, you name it. The more physical my practice became, the more emotional skin I shed. More movement allowed for more shedding, which led to more movement, and herein lies the ever-evolving cycle of yoga. The exploration just never, ever ends. Every day brings a chance to dig and play and unbury myself, untie the knots, un-fuck my life and relationships and every experience. I can move, physically and emotionally, without the weight of dead and useless layers.
I read that "ecdysis" comes from the Greek "ekduo," or, "the act of getting out." I'm grateful to be a young snake who can shed often, aware and vulnerable to parasites, but brave enough to let go of my too-small skin when it’s time to shed. I’m grateful for the chance to re-connect with my innate resources for strength. I’m grateful for knowing that letting myself in is a precursor to letting old stuff go. I’m grateful for the chance to grow up and out and around, by going in and in and in.