‘skin pinch meditation’ & the wisdom of letting go

illustration by Sherwin Tjia

excerpted from the print magazine…

I pinch to lift the limp and thinning skin around my knuckles. The argil film slides easily from the flesh, tents for a moment above wormlike veins, and I watch as it, more and more slowly over the years, resumes its place. This is my Skin Pinch practice.

When I was becoming a young woman, my mother and my aunts would glory over my hands, my long fingers and smooth skin. As my three women elders gathered and I took their casual conversation to name my essence and define the truth of me, I believed that my very self was my beautiful hands and my glorious red hair. This brief and subtle ritual, so casually observed, showed me who I was expected to be in the world. And so, my hands and my hair defined me.

Now my aunts and mother are gone, my hair is grey, my hands no longer youthful, and I ponder impermanence as smooth skin and red hair are not, I’ve found, my enduring self. The truth of impermanence doesn’t easily or always sink in, but to help me realize it, I have Skin Pinch meditation. It’s a profound practice that, along with the wisdom of age, has released me a little from my narcissistic perception to realize that my aunts’ marvel of my young hands was also a ritual acknowledging their aging hands.

My Skin Pinch practice grew out of a splendid class I took at the University of Minnesota around 1985 or so. It was taught by Dr. H. David Coulter, an instructor in the medical program and a long-time yogi. He occasionally had the opportunity to teach the anatomy and physiology of asana to yoga students and did so with a young boy’s enthusiasm in finding friends as interested in this toy as he was. He would flip into an inversion to demonstrate a point or show us a contorted bandha or gross us out by detailing some cleansing practice. As his students, we were able to learn anatomy from an expert physiologist and, because of his position at the university, even work on cadavers. It was a unique opportunity for us who were outside the traditional medical school. I am very grateful for the opportunity he gave us.

Working with the cadaver in class, the most important thing I learned is that with age, skin gets papery and separates from the flesh. This point has had the most impact on my life. I was surprised by the skin of the elderly female cadaver I worked with. It was thin, traced with lines, and didn’t snug the body; it floated above the flesh like a loose wrapper. It is likely that this very skin was once the focus of her image as she sought the best creams she could get, tanned it, bathed it and presented it to the world. She may have “had” organs (which obviously betrayed her and brought her to this slab) but she “was” her outward body. It is likely that she did not realize that its appearance would matter so little as a measure of her worth and that it would, along with everything else, float away.

Since that class, I’ve wandered around with a handy reminder of that learning right at the end of my arm. In the ensuing nearly twenty years since Dr. Coulter’s class, I’ve watched the skin of my hand become that loose wrapping, lose its elasticity, and inevitably become like my cadaver’s. When I pinch the skin of my hand, it retains the pose for awhile before fading into release with a backward glance that gives the haunting teaching: you, too, will be a cadaver.

The Buddha’s parents worked to keep him from knowing about the decay of the body. They knew that if he were to see death or old age, he would leave them to pursue an understanding of the causes of suffering. They knew that there was deep teaching in practices like Skin Pinch meditation. This is the realization of monks watching the rotting and immolation of the dead in India. This is the teaching Buddhists recite daily in the Five Remembrances, which includes, “I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.” Skin Pinch practice is my reminder.

Pamela Steinbach practises Buddhism and teaches yoga and tai chi to cultivate contentment and an appreciative attitude in everyday

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life