Oh gosh, where to start with my so-called flaws?
Ok, just throwing the pin here and deciding to start with a behavioral habit.
I eat too fast.
What is “too fast”? Oh, barely pausing between forkfuls (and I do mean FULL) and hardly chewing enough (unless there’s no alternative as in the case of hard-to-break-up foods like sauteed chard and kale, or crunchy raw veggies). I also drink fast, in big, throat-lunging gulps. Now, there are all kinds of experts and studies (I assume), if not just plain common biology/chemistry sense, that show chewing sufficiently and eating slowly/mindfully leads to better digestion and nutrient absorption, less food consumption and wear + tear on the digestive system, increased enjoyment of one’s food, and in general, improved health (in the immediate and over the long term).
These things I know.
That said, I’ve been eating fast (and plentifully) my entire life (as best I can recall). Somehow my rapid food consumption doesn’t feel rushed or hurried to me, it just feels like eating. So I tend not to worry too much about it.
But it can be pretty easy to have a distorted “feeling” of oneself or one’s actions when they are habits, so of course it feels normal to me.
Maybe it’s not, or shouldn’t be. I guess I just won’t know until I try eating differently.
And I’m sure I will get around to doing so one day (sometimes it takes a while to sit with acknowledging one’s habits before it’s safe to rush in with changes). The important thing for me in this moment is not that I change how I eat, but that I recognize that eating fast doesn’t make me a bad person. Not being in excellent health (presumably) isn’t a moral strike for me. It’s just the state of being I am in. I can analyze and explain it, and it still won’t be shown to make me a bad person. I can get to know this state of being and take action to change it, but I have to do that at my own pace, in a way that suits me, so that change will come about as an inevitable result of being present, rather than pushing myself to feel obligated to change to please someone else.
Eating too fast isn’t a flaw. Or maybe it is. Either way, I’m ok with it today.
I am the way I am and that’s enough for me.
Till next time, namaste!
I do a fair amount of self-study. Observing, learning, analyzing (can’t help myself! all that pitta in me), counteracting and the like. I do my best not to attach to what I notice, not to be emotionally tied up in what I know about myself. Others’ acceptance of me helps in this. The objective opinion of others helps, too —even if it stuns at first.
But then I find myself walking the streets of NYC, shifting in and out of observing without attachment or judgment and then seeing myself - and others - as better or worse than —. Comparison is put to use every day to make decisions, but it really doesn’t have a place in evaluating of determining the identity, beauty, worth, or value of a person. Within a certain context, sure, yes, it can be useful. But without said context, like in the comparison of oneself to strangers on the streets of new york, it is no good at all.
So when I find it creeping into my perspective, and as a result end up walking around with a distorted sense of my flaws (or strengths), it is not just a little confusing and disheartening. I mean, who is to say my “flaws” are actually bad and not just aspects of my personality I neglect to manage, embrace, or even love? If I can remove my perspective on these traits as definitively good or bad, as inherent judgments on me/my character/my worth + validity as a person, then perhaps I will better be able to live with them and accept myself with compassion and unconditional love (isn’t this often the hardest to do for ourselves?).
And who knows what kinds of awesomeness will come from that? Happiness, contentment, continued health…
So I’m gonna come clean. With myself. On my self-identified “flaws.”
I’m putting them out here in the public eye because a) it’ll make me remember to go through with it and b) I truly hope it’ll inspire similar acts of acceptance and self-love (in the best sense!).
I could start with the physical and work through the behavioral to the emotional, but since all of these things are tied up in one another, I might as well skip around. My scatterbrain memory prefers that anyway.
See you soon for “flaw #1”! (gosh, when you say it like that, it already doesn’t sound so bad!)
Today I watched a very dear friend squeeze all of her belongings into every last corner of her new (used) car and drive off to her “new” (continuing) life in a new house in a new state, with new friends waiting to be made. It wasn’t easy in the slightest (but I’m still posting a cute little Ganesha for her!).
Usually I am the one to do the leaving, and with all the promise of new beginnings, it is much easier than being the leavee. I have to continue on here where everything is the same… but different. No more calling her up at the last minute to go grab dinner at the local bar, no more riding the subway together when we happen to be coming home at the same time, no more seeing good and bad dance shows together, no more cat-sitting for her, no more lots of things. This kind of change, where one element of my stability is removed, scares me because its ripple effect seems out of my control, which is, for me, hugely ungrounding. (As long as I’m the creator of change, I’m happy.)
But then I remember that this change doesn’t have to shake me up so. I am so unbelievably proud of my friend and so happy for her, that as I focus on that, the hole in my life is filled with love. And the adjustments I’m gonna end up making, those are opportunities to see things as they are, to stay with the present moment, because who knows what will come of any given moment if I let it ride out unimpeded by attachments to how things once were? There is nothing to be gained from lamenting change, and much to be experienced in riding the waves.
Yoga teaches us to remain unattached to the results (both achieved and hoped for) of our practice, because in the experience of the practice, in the commitment to what is - and not to what you want to have be - there is a true sense of peace. The same is true of your daily living. It’s a practice, a process, and it demands presence. So much so, that there is no room left for wallowing —in any emotion. Which is not to say that you can’t experience emotions across the spectrum. I still cried as I waved goodbye to my friend, but as I start my first day without her as the closest neighbor I’ve ever had, my eyes are drying up and I’m treating this day just like she’s treating hers: as an adventure in living honestly and with all the presence I can muster!
Have yourself a week filled with presence, and next time I’ll post some tips on learning how to practice non-attachment.
Until then (and always), hari om, om tat sat.
Sutra 1.12: abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah. “Identification with the fluctuations of mind is stopped by practice and non-attachment.”
Today, one of my students seemed surprised to learn that I, like she, suffer from knee and back pain.
Yes, even yoga teachers walk around with aches and pains. We are pretty darn human ;)
Why is it that being human causes us physical pain? Why are we sooo susceptible to habits that hurt us? And I’m not even talking about the obvious stuff like drugs, alcohol, and mindless eating. I’m talking about how by sitting too low in my chair, my wrists are strained as I type this and even though I’m in pain, I still haven’t gotten up to get an cushion or something to make myself sit higher.
Ok, I got a cushion, and yes, this is better for my wrists. I really hated getting up, though. Why is that? I knew the solution was five feet away (and I do feel tremendously fortunate just to know how to ease my pain - that’s half the battle!) and yet I wanted to plow through the pain and then have it magically disappear without my having to do anything. (Now I kinda want to laugh in my own face having admitted that!) Really it’s a little bit more complicated than that (ain’t it always?): adding the cushion to my seat means my feet don’t comfortably reach the floor (and short of whacking an inch off the legs, my desk is as low as it goes), so then I prop my feet up on my chair legs, which creates tension in my hip flexors and strain in my feet. Arrrrgh! All we’re talking about here is me sitting at my desk writing this blog, and it’s full of whining and butting and nothing being perfect.
No wonder I have back pain, knee pain, and wrist pain.
So, what can I do to address these oh-so-large problems of mine?
- Stop whining.
- Make the changes.
- Allow myself a little whining, (just less of it in public)
- Observe what I am doing and how it’s effecting me, and change it if the effect is anything other than awesome
Easy. Right? Yes and no. Here’s what I need to achieve all that stuff above:
- A genuine motivation to change (pain in arm, check)
- The decision to change (writing a blog post, that’s pretty decisive)
- Adequate information/knowledge to effect change (knowing from ergonomics + my Alexander Technique studies that I needed to change the relationship of wrist to keyboard by lifting my whole torso higher up)
- HELP making change happen (teachers!)
Ok, hold up. This is something like the fifth or sixth blog post (where I am supposedly writing about yoga) in which I’ve touted the help and benefits of the Alexander Technique (AT). Just in case you hadn’t noticed that all on your own, I’m pointing it out because I want you to know about AT. It’s suspiciously difficult to describe generically, but here’s a nutshell for my purposes: AT teaches you to let your body move with the greatest efficiency possible (or not move, in the case of maintaining a position). It is not a quick fix, it is not, for most, easy to learn, and it is a lifelong practice. I’ve been studying it for over three years and I feel like I’ve only just started to “get” it. Maybe. But the grand thing is that in that “maybe,” there have been enormous changes in my body and how I walk, sit, and move in general. Many of my chronic pains are now manageable — meaning not that the I can handle the pain, but that I can manage how I use my body to prevent or reduce pain, or, at the very least, ease muscle + joint pain away with movement and rest once it creeps back in. AT isn’t solely responsible for this —yoga tools are a big part of it, too. But more often than not, what I learn from AT informs my practice of yoga, rather than the other way around (unless it is to notice overlapping intentions and effects).
That’s what I told my student today. It’s in the lifelong, daily maintenance practices from AT knowledge and yoga tools that I keep my pain-inducing habits at bay and no longer walk around frustrated by my back pain. I know what to do now, whether or not I get up off my lazy bum to do it. Awareness is the first step. Knowledge is the second. Action must always accompany it or nothing will change. (But please allow for change to also happen slowly over time as needed! Demanding too much of oneself is a fast track to overwhelm.)
I would love for you to take action now by 1). noticing how you’re sitting or standing as you read this (can you feel anything holding or tightening that doesn’t need to be?), and 2). letting me know what questions you have about the Alexander Technique and yoga in the comments below. I will do my best to answer them from my experiences!
And if you want those questions answered through your own experiences, you should check out the workshop that my AT teacher (Amira Glaser) and I have put together on applying the Alexander Technique to your yoga practice. It’s gonna be one pretty fabulous September afternoon (Saturday the 8th) of learning, experiencing, and discussing said learning + experiencing.
You’ll walk away with a whole new take on asana!
Until then, hari om, om tat sat, my friends!
I remember the very first time I performed in a dance concert. I was about 14. I was a newbie among performing veterans. I was wearing a tutu in the my most dreaded and abhorred shade of pink. I was about to go out and twinkle my toes on stage in front of the whole school. Shit, was I nervous.
My ballet training was minimal and I was completely afraid of screwing up. I felt so out of place, and really wasn’t sure how I had gotten picked to be in this piece anyway. I was just an apprentice in the school dance company. I didn’t like or relate to the frilly dance I was about to try to keep up with, and I couldn’t stop the fright that encompassed my body and mind in those pre-show minutes backstage.
And then, the most amazing thing happened. I got through it! Not without mistakes, and not with much style, but all of sudden, I was out there and then 20 minutes later it was over. When all was said and done, nothing about it was as terrifying as anticipated. I was perfectly happy to laugh at myself and let it go.
Never again have I been nervous before performing.
Why? I don’t know, but I think it has something to do with realizing a) how much I love, love love love performing and b) that whatever happens on stage is just fine. Even though I don’t feel nervous, I do often feel anxious. But in a “good” or “amped up” way, in anticipation of the lovely known/unknown. That’s good right? Wellll, kinda. In this state, which I think of as normal for a performance day, I might feel buzzed, but I can’t really claim to be in control of my body or mind.
That’s not such a great thing for a dancer. You want to be in control at all times, so whatever you do on stage is a choice (whether that has been predetermined by choreography or is being decided in the moment by mishap or improvisation). And very often, those pre-performance jitters that accompanying the anticipation of the performance, the waiting, disappear once you’re dancing. Sometimes, they just submerge a level. And other times, they manage to stick with you through it all. And very often it has little to do with your dancing or preparation for the performance. More often that off-center feeling is a result of randomly popping-up thoughts or emotions from whatever’s going on in your life.
So what do dancers do to combat those distractions? A solid warm up that focuses thoroughly on technique generally does a good job, because it taps the mind into the body. But that warm up usually ends at least half an hour before actually going on stage (not to mention that the best of us have chatted through the better part of our warm up and not really connected to our bodies at all), and there can be lots of sitting around once all the preparations have been made. And then because of that, most dancers have developed their own little rituals that psyche them up for the show. In my experience though, these things keep the mind occupied, but don’t actually help ground and center me (and others, I believe).
What to do?! Call on yoga to the rescue!
Most of you are well aware that a balanced + gentle yoga practice can be a great part of a dancer’s physical warm up, but yoga also offers great tools to take in to the dressing room for those last minutes before going on stage - any stage, be it for dancing or some other kind of performance or presentation. I’m teaching a workshop on these very techniques (Yoga + Meditation for Dancers!), August 19 at Kinespirit in NYC, and you should absolutely be there, but in the meantime I want to share a quick tool anyone can use at home (or backstage!).
Breath Awareness 101
- Lie on your back, knees bent, feet on the floor. Begin with your arms relaxed by your sides, palms open. (This practice can also be done seated, either against a wall or in a chair. Make sure your spine is supported.) Close your eyes.
- Bring your attention to your breath. Observe your breath without trying to change or judge it.
- Then bring one hand to your belly, and focus your awareness on the movement in the belly. Allow it to expand as you inhale, and release toward your spine as you exhale. Stay here for several breaths.
- Then bring your other hand to your upper chest (anywhere that is decently comfortable for your arm), and focus your awareness on the movement in the chest. Allow it to expand three-dimensionally as you inhale, and return to neutral as you exhale. Stay with this for several breaths.
- Lastly, move both hands to the sides of your ribcage (again, place them so that your arms + wrists are as comfortable as possible), and focus your awareness on the movement in your ribcage. Allow it to expand three-dimensionally as you inhale, and return to neutral as you exhale.
- Release your hands to your sides and maintain awareness of your breath. Allow your entire torso to expand gently as you inhale, and ebb back in as you exhale.
- If you are feeling particularly anxious, encourage, but do not force, your exhales to lengthen and let your focus, and a hand or two, remain on your belly as your breathe. Let the abdominals muscles be soft and your belly move with your breath.
- To finish, open your eyes slowly, do any gentle stretching actions that feel good, and rock yourself back up to sit.
Even after you’ve opened your eyes, while you’re walking around and probably chatting with other performers, keep a portion of your awareness on your breath and the movement in your torso. Without needing to “psyche” yourself up to it, you should feel more relaxed and grounded just by using this simple tool.
Give it a try when next you need to feel less anxious, and then let me know how it goes in the comments below!
Dancers in NYC, if this approach sparks your curiosity, come check out my workshop designed just for you on August 17th! Can’t make it but want to see me run it again? Let me know in the comments! Then keep yourself in the loop of added dates by signing up for my newsletter :)
Om tat sat, happy grounding + centering!
We’re hearing a good deal about meditation these days as science begins to confirm its benefits as measurable. I love metrics, but that’s not why I look forward to my daily meditation practice. Contrary to my early assumptions about what one does during meditation -try with great effort not to think- the practice is one that we do as a process, an experience, and the possibility of “failure” simply does not accompany it. As someone who’s intimidated by trying new things for initial fear of getting them “wrong,” I ended up being smitten with meditation as soon as someone pointed out to me that it offers no chance of that. Meditation helps me to leave my perfectionist attitudes aside and sit without apology, without care or caution, without any hope of getting it right or wrong. No wonder I feel calm with it!
But what does meditation actually do for you, ya know, physiologically? Oh, I’m so glad you asked. See there’s this cool effect called the relaxation response that Harvard scientist Herbert Benson identified (and coined) in the 1970s. The relaxation response is the physiological state in which the sympathetic nervous system - you know, the one responsible for “fight or flight” and that is on “slow drip” in most of us in the modern world - is turned off, while the parasympathetic nervous system - yep, that’s the “rest and digest” one - is kicked in to high gear. This means that in your body an amazing process of healing and restoration is under way. And this wildly awesome relaxation response is surprisingly simple to elicit!
Here’s what you do (in a nutshell): focus on a neutral or positive sound, image, or action (such as a mantra, prayer, or specific word or phrase; a yantra, internal light, or visual image of significance; or repetitive activity such as walking, running, or swimming). The focus does not need to be unbroken to stimulate the response, meaning that if you remain detached from thoughts that come up during your attempt to focus and gently return your focus to the chosen object of concentration, your relaxation response will continue undisturbed. How cool is that?!
And that basic process of repetitive focus without attaching? That’s meditation.
More recent studies have shown that the effects of meditation (and the relaxation response) have a cumulative and lasting effect, meaning that the more you do it, the better, but even just dabbling in it will also do you good. Pretty wicked, huh? (heh, i love dated slang). This also means that your efforts reap benefits immediately, whether you have been meditating for 5 years or only 5 minutes. This technique doesn’t discriminate against newbies! I love that!
Yes, my friends, meditation loves you back from day one.
Here’s a simple mediation you can try at home.
- Sit comfortably in a chair or against a wall with your spine supported upright (use pillows, sit on a folded blanket or two, whatever you need to feel comfortable and supported in your seat)
- Place each hand under the opposite armpit (this might seem a bit weird, but trust me there’s science behind it!)
- Close your eyes and become aware of your breath (without trying to change or judge it). Keep focused on the sensations of your breathing. 10-20 breaths (no need to count, just a guestimate).
- When your breath feels balanced (or sorta kinda) and quieter than when you started, bring your hands down to your thighs, letting them rest comfortably palms up.
- Imagine a glow of light at the base of your spine. As you inhale, travel the light up your spine into the middle of your brain. As you exhale, travel it back down to the base. (If it is difficult to “see” a light inside, that’s ok, just think it anyway - visualizing takes time to learn!) Continue like this until you feel in your brain a clearness or see a glow (optical radiance) or just feel very calm. Then let your focus just naturally rest in the middle of the brain with that feeling. If such a feeling never comes, or you feel something different, try not to fret, and trust that everything is as it should be. You can stay with the visualization technique (the light) as long as you like.
- When thoughts bubble up, say silently to yourself “mang” (long “a”, almost like an “uh” sound) letting it resonate like a gong sound. Repeat “mang” as often as you need to clear away thoughts.
- To come back, bring your palms together, tip your chin to your chest, and slowly open your eyes to focus on a point. Gradually let your surroundings come back in to focus. If you feel lightheaded, do a chair pose or similar to re-ground your awareness in your physical body.
My advice? Try it out now!
5 minutes, that’s it. (If you’ve got the time, feel free to sit with it for as long as is comfortable!)
Silence your digital noise makers, put up the busy sign, make space around you, and read through the above instructions a few times. Then give the technique a try with the script set aside. If you miss something, no big deal. Let go of getting it right.
Step two? Grab a friend so you can be fearless together.
And then let me know how it went! Or if you have another approach to meditation, do share! How do you bring it into your life?
Om tat sat!
photo by the brilliant + talented Sarah Lehman
Sometimes when I’m teaching meditation, I listen to the words coming out of my mouth and think, “who is this woman speaking these woo-woo words?!” Certainly not me.
Practical, skeptical, independent, critical, aetheist. Those are words that describe me (thankfully, there are other, friendlier words in my bio, too). Not “new-agey” or “touchy-feely” or “surrendering” or any of the things that newbies might associate with meditation. So when I guide students with instructions like “imagine a glow of light at the base of your spine” or “let the energy radiate out from behind your forehead” I feel a little lost.
That is, I know exactly where I am, but I feel doubtful that the essence of what I am teaching is coming through my words, that I’m translating properly the actions my students need to take (which aren’t, in my experience and opinion, “woo-woo”), and that any potential benefit will escape being lost to that part of the brain that goes “huh?!”
That’s because the simple instructions I offer for meditation techniques are precursors to words that would follow if it were my teacher teaching me, words I’m not comfortable repeating, because I don’t particularly know what “universal consciousness” is nor why we should expect that we are “connecting” to it via meditation. I don’t, but he does, and when I am in his class, the way he teaches, I am free to take it or leave it. There’s no pressure to be convinced, no judgment made based on one’s beliefs, just techniques to practice. That’s what we’re supposed to “get” in yoga - the practice, not the motivation behind it.
When we meditate, we’re doing something very real with our minds, which is why the tools we use are effective at stilling the mind, even if we are asking ourselves to feel or imagine “lines” of energy that cannot as yet be seen (or detected by science). I am quite confident in the practical nature of the techniques I teach, (all of which were taught to me by Alan Finger and senior teachers in the ISHTA lineage) and I LOVE that they are accessible. That all you need to learn are the techniques, and the body will take care of the rest. What is the rest, you ask? Simply stillness and, for me, a blissful state of honest-to-goodness awareness of myself. I don’t mean the big Self, I mean the little self, little ol’ me, the me I live with every day. That’s the only me I know and, quite frankly, the only me I care to know. And if little me is part of a “true Self,” “the universal consciousness,” so be it. I don’t really need to have (or want) that answer.
That there, that stubborn refusal to imagine what I don’t need, that’s very much who I am. The other day I took a free test to determine my natural “strengths” and “weaknesses.” I like these kinds of things for all the self-congratulating reasons most of us do. And it’s fun to see what my behaviors indicate about me in someone else’s words. Turns out my greatest strength is curiosity. Yup, that one they got right. I luuuuuv asking questions, voiced or not. My next greatest strength? Faith. As in believes in a supernatural power. I nearly fell out of my chair. Like I said above, I’m an aetheist. I generally don’t believe or believe in anything that I can’t see, feel, or otherwise experience that doesn’t also have significant scientific backing. (Which is why I’m a sucker for meditation —it’s an honest experience and why or what doesn’t change the experience— but not so much for a single universal force. I don’t believe there isn’t one, I just don’t believe there is.)
But writing this post, I realize that, while I certainly haven’t started believing in a higher power (the very suggestion of hierarchy really irritates me), what I have cultivated is a willingness to let experiences change me. Reluctantly, perhaps, but nonetheless. A belief, faith if you must, in the use and value of experience. Now, the scientist in me knows that experiences aren’t necessarily any more “real” than “beliefs,” but as long as they are mine, they are something to work with on a daily basis, and what else is there than living day by day? Nothing I need.
And so, when I teach my students the techniques of meditation, I can stick with the actions, the very practical, not touchy-feely what to do (imagining things can’t be weird - it’s just the mind talking to the body, something it does all day long), not the why. Over time, their experiences will answer that question for them, too.
Hari om, om tat sat.
photography above by Maxwell Tielman
I’m a little obsessive in nature. If something captures my interest (and it doesn’t hurt if it’s something that can be followed via a course of study), I will pour nearly all of my energy and attention into it. I’ve never had hobbies, just life-consuming obsessions that I try to parlay into full-time studentry and/or jobs. Hence my love of the Alexander Technique. How I understand the Alexander Technique is as a tool for creating balance in the body, but not one that you exercise for an hour every day and then leave be. Well, maybe in the beginning you do, you certainly can, but really it’s meant to be in practice all the time, so that you can undo “unnatural” or harmful patterns of how you use your own body to move or carry yourself (sitting, standing, etc) throughout the day, making way for your body to move at its most efficient, with an awareness of the whole system. I don’t want to get in to it too deeply, but just offer it as an example of a manner of learning and living that is in practice, in play, at all times, that seems to come through “just” the physical body. I think this is particularly challenging for many people, especially those not entirely obsessed with their own moving body, because it seems like one manner of doing and not an array of approaches that is applicable to the many areas of one’s life. Being a body person (major geek), I love spending all day paying attention to what my body is doing, and I do believe the physical body (which has as part of it the energetic and mental bodies, too!) and one’s use of it is applicable to ANY area of life. That said, I get that it can help to parse out physical, energetic, and mental as separate if connected bodies. Which means you might want different ways to work with each of them. And this is where I really begin to appreciate the study and practice of yoga.
Yoga is oneness. Now, I’ll bet you’re asking yourself, what does that even mean? I’m still defining it as a ya-know-it-when-you-feel-it kinda thing, because I don’t have the proper words for it. But the yogis way back when were a bit more systematic than I am. They got obsessed and then they went and built a system of tools that ANYONE can put to use to find that oneness (even if we don’t all describe it or experience it in the same way). Lucky for us, the collection of tools addresses practicing yoga with all of our bodies (all of our one body), offering physical postures (asana, most of these being perhaps quite a bit more recently developed, but equally relevant), breathing practices (pranayama), meditation techniques, and rules/guides/suggestions (the yamas/niyamas, among others found in yoga philosophy) for living peacefully and gracefully with others and within any environment. Et voila, you can practice your yoga via physical, energetic, mental, and social bodies! By covering all angles (is that all of them? you tell me), more of us will find it more accessible to make this yoga practice infuse every moment of your living. (This is not to make every moment about work, but rather a balance of effort, ease, and joy.) Of course, yoga just as a lifelong practice, it is also a lifelong study, meaning it does and should take some time to learn these tools (and there is no such thing as perfecting them, only practice). No one should dive in to the whole kit and caboodle at once — start where you are most comfortable. For some that means asana, for others contemplation and inward reflection, for others new codes by which to carry out daily actions. But remember that if you’re stuck in one body, you might try getting un-stuck through a different one. If you can’t solve a problem in your head, get on your mat. If your body can’t take another sun salutation, think it through rather than doing it. If your emotions are running wild, breathe slowly and pause without thinking (for just a brief moment or sit in meditation for longer). Whatever you’re doing, however you approach it, remember to breathe and practice moving towards balance, in everything.
Speaking of which, I’ve been sitting at this computer a while and need to get moving again!
Till next time, om shanti, om tat sat.
When I first started studying yoga at ISHTA, the pictures in the studio of teachers doing “fancy” poses just looked like pretty pictures to me. How these could actually be representations of real people doing postures a human body could ever be capable of, didn’t even cross my mind. Kinda like when most of us don’t even look in awe at ballerinas, we just enjoy their dancing like a beautiful painting (at least, that’s kinda how I approach ballet). Years and lots of education (svadhyaya) later, I find that for the first time as I mindlessly gaze at these images while waiting for the classroom to open, I can see with physical knowledge how those bodies came to be comfortable in those postures and can understand how one day my body will be capable of them too. As if, all of a sudden, the muscles understand what their jobs would be to support the bones in a split forearm stand (pincha mayurasana variation). Of course, it isn’t “all of a sudden,” it’s that part of the process of daily practice, daily investigation, and daily curiousity that just feels like “ah ha!” but has been building all along.
And when I realize that, I see that there’s nothing in those fancy poses that isn’t in the so-called simple poses. They all take practice, they’re all only as possible to do as our skeletal structure will allow, they’re all only as pretty or perfect as the balance we strike in our ease and effort (sutra 2.46 “sthira sukham asanam”). They all give us room to explore our bodies and ourselves.
It is no easy feat to learn how to do all that practicing, exploring, and changing, but the best advice I can give is 1) to start 1b) to dive in to the aspect of yoga (or anything) that excites you most, not necessarily that aspect that you think of as being “true” yoga 2) to proudly approach your new efforts with a willingness to feel awkward, silly, shy, fearful, skeptical, confused, unsure, thrilled, alive, excited, playful, open, and whatever else you might happen to feel 3) to ask boldly for help, because that there is an intimidating list of emotions to let yourself experience all at once!
Om shanti (peace to you)
Last month I was reminded of the importance of and the inherent trouble with “believing.” A friend and I were chatting and it came up that he subscribes (somewhat) to the validity of astrology, a system I view as essentially made up and coincidental. I, on the other hand, take similar guidance in how we relate to our environment from Ayurveda, a system that he seemed uncomfortable having come up in conversation (perhaps just as I had seemed when he asked me my astrological sign). It seems to me that Ayurveda carries a little bit more credibility in the scientific community, just judging from the two wikipedia entries, but at the level of use value to each of us, the validity of either comes down to what each of us believes about the world and how we can understand ourselves in it.
I do, generally, believe what science has to tell us. As a diligent student who has often looked up to teachers as embodiers of truth itself, most “facts” I learned in school have long been just that. And most of them still are, but some have since been disproven, replaced with new facts uncovered by science. (Of course, in some cases, it wasn’t the availability of facts that was missing, just the sharing of the whole story, but I’ll save you my diatribe on our broken education system.) This new information, for someone like me, is unsettling. If everything is black and white and fixed, great. I can just learn the facts and put them to use. But if some things are certain and some things aren’t…? Well, then, how am I sure which “facts” to believe? Which then raises for me the question of what it means to believe or believe in something -anything.
In the yoga sutras, the practice of yoga is defined as requiring the exercise of three things: tapas, ishvara pranidhana, and svadhyaya. Tapas translates as “heat,” that which burns out impurities, or basically the effort + persistence you need to contribute to find balance. Ishvara pranidhana translates as surrender to the “universal intelligence” or simply to the idea that you can’t control everything and need to allow what will happen to happen. And svadhyaya translates to self study, meaning the essential or “big” self, that which is universal in each of us. Now, just as often (as in the Satchidananda translation/commentary that I am using), you’ll see ishvara pranidhana translated as “surrender to god” and svadhyaya as the “study of spiritual books” (implied is that in these books the truth of the Self is documented), but those concepts don’t have any use value for me, so I’ve put the original Sanskrit concepts into language that does (translations are never perfect, after all!), with many thanks to my teachers at ISHTA (in this instance I am thinking of Peter Ferko, Kristin Leal, Mona Anand, and Alan Finger) who’ve given me the broader understanding of yoga within which to do so.
That said, the “spiritual books” bit really bugs me; if there is nothing to assure me that they got it right, why should I trust that my study of them will bring me closer to understanding all that is? In my continued effort to make some sense of this (still within the context of the sutras), I went back to sutra 1.7 (the sources of right knowledge are direct perception, inference, and scriptural testimony), from which I take away that we can build useful knowledge through a synthesis of our own experiences, established knowledge, and our conclusions drawn from both experience and established knowledge. What is established knowledge? Well, it’s probably become clear that I rely on the knowledge that science and observation (history, philosophy, art, etc) have made available to us, understanding that what we “know” is only as certain as it is current. But I also allow that it can be different for each of us, depending on one’s beliefs in what constitutes fact/reality/what can be known + explored. I believe that knowledge is liberating, that through objective understanding, one can find harmony with one’s subjective experience.
That’s what I get from svadhyaya, tapas, and ishvara pranidhana. But even in my take away, belief and trust are part of negotiating how to use the information I’m taking in. It’s nice to have evidence that is impersonal and not specific to me, but I still have to believe that it holds true for it to really do me any good. Or do I? Is that the reality I’m looking for, the one I don’t have to believe in?
In a response to the question of why we use Sanskrit mantras (sounds) in meditation, Alan (Finger) writes that you can use any word that is simple and is something you truly believe, but that the mantras are “better” to use because their vibrations correspond to nadis (energy lines) in the body. I think he’s saying that believing is critical, but that the mantras have an effect on the subtle body irrespective of belief. This makes sense to me, but I am not yet sure that I believe it is true, because I don’t have enough knowledge or experience of this to take Alan (or even ancient texts) at his word (even though I really want to).
But I do have an experience of and read studies that claim that we have this amazing (or not so amazing, depending on how you view it) thing we can do, which is to affect the physical reality in our bodies and energy simply with our thoughts, with our belief. We can’t make matter exist by believing it to be so, but we can make ourselves happy (and many other states) by believing we are so.
Where does the difference in those two roles of belief lie? I’m not sure, but for now, I’m going to do my best to keep thinking happy thoughts.
Om shanti, om tat sat.
I never imagined identifying beauty would be on the bill of an Ayurveda workshop I attended recently, but ever so casually, the endearing Vasant Lad, yogi and Ayurvedic teacher extraordinnaire, slipped it in there. Very simply, the moment of awareness of beauty is an experience —of yoga, of stilling clarity beyond the individual self. This makes perfect sense to me because, as Lad explained, it’s a moment without definition. Knowing it (defining it, creating it, going to war over it, and so on) through perception is something we do with our identity, the self that moves through life relating and connecting to others. In Sanskrit + yoga, that identity is ahamkara, and it is the perspective from which an individual moves through life. The seed of ahamkara, your jiva atman, your little self, the part of you that is unique even as it is connected to the entire universe, is said to be housed in the heart center, anahata chakra.
It is tempting to take this information and run in all kinds of mushy, touchy-feely directions drawing connections between identity and heart, self and love, etc etc, or one could simply acknowledge that the connection exists and is a powerful one. I’m not one to tend to share my innermost thoughts or feelings, but I have in the past year been struck by a rather intense awareness of my sternum (i.e. at the front gate of the heart center) and a radiating energy that emanates from underneath it. My tendency (postural habit) is to let my sternum bone (manubrium! #anatomygeek) fall in towards my center body. When I pay attention to it, when I’m indulging in the action, I should say, it can feel like I’m squishing my heart. If I do as yoga advises to “open” the heart center and go in the opposite direction (into a backbend), my back muscles contract to pull my (thoracic) spine into extension (arch back), and it feels like my heart is being pushed up against my sternum, also in a manner of reducing the space around it. Either action feels “good” to me because it offers a strong sensation of extremity, of reaching into myself and beyond myself.
When I instead practice allowing my sternum to float and my back to widen (and my neck to lengthen so that my head can be easily supported on top of my spine.. these are all Alexander Technique terms here, and my study of it (with the lovely Amira Glaser) has become essential to my understanding of human anatomy and movement and is infused in my approach to directing my yoga students to find their “best” alignment), I make space in my chest and torso - for breath, for the movements of the heart, for the movements of the internal organs, for movement to reach into the rest of the body.
The sensation is terrifying.
All that room for little ol’ me to be… me.
That’s beauty, too.
And it’s also the extent of my mushy for the week. Take it as you need it and go find some space - literally! - for your own jiva atman to shine.
Then come back and tell me about it! I would love to hear your stories of back bends, forward bends, and finding your heart center!
hari om, om tat sat.