Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The warrior within

Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror
up to where you're bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here's the joyful face you've been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding,
the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as bird wings.

~ Rumi
I've been thinking about how it is sometimes helpful to find things that allow you to realize your power and grace, to connect with the light within. On the other hand, it can be detrimental if you identify your power and light too strongly with those things. I was thinking about this first with regards to running. Training for a marathon made me feel invincible: strong, courageous, capable, joyful - but when I became injured and couldn't run, I lost not only the activity itself but also my strength, courage and joy. In another example, a woman might feel like a goddess when she puts on an evening gown, but she might fail to notice that same goddess within herself when she's wearing old sweatpants or is naked. A yogi might feel power and courage when standing in a warrior pose but not when entering into a difficult work negotiation.

I suppose this issue is really about impermanence again. Though these things have the power to open our eyes to the potential that lies within us, they fade in and out of our lives. They cannot be depended upon, and we cannot hold onto them no matter how we try. Knees can be injured, an evening gown can be torn, our bodies age and change shape, and we cannot always stand in warrior pose. The paradox is that by experiencing them fully and letting them go, we can somehow retain their power and grace, whereas by clinging to them we seem to lose everything.

For myself, I am working on finding the warrior within, even when I'm not on the mat. Especially when I'm not on the mat. Awakening is really about what Rumi says so beautifully: learning to see your deepest presence in every small contracting and expanding, in every inhale and exhale, in every moment. It is an amazing gift to come into yourself fully, but it is a gift we might not appreciate if we didn't fade in and out of this knowing, this being present. It is a gift we can find around every corner, each expansion and contraction of the breath in the body, of the mind, of the spirit, another opportunity to go deep.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, March 29, 2010

Just breathe

The other day I found myself saying, If I could teach everyone in the world one thing, it would be how to find their own breath. I think that of all the things I've learned in my years of doing yoga, of all the practices I've been given, this is the most powerful. This one simple thing: to remember to seek my breath and then learn to observe it, to deepen it or to hold it, to count it, to follow it or send it deliberately through the body... This is the key to all of the other practices for me. I truly believe that if all people learned to be aware of their own breath, the world would be a better place.

You don't have to "buy into" the system of yoga to access this practice. You don't have to believe in chakras or worship Ganesha. You don't have to be in a studio or own a yoga mat - and nobody has to know you are doing this practice if you don't want them to. Since we took our first breath, this simple action of moving air in and out of our bodies has been part of our connection to this earth: our greatest gift, our birthright. We all do it without being aware of it - but with awareness, the breath can be the key to calming the mind, coping with stress and anxiety, navigating grief and anger, or just getting to sleep at night.

There are periods of my life when this is my only practice. Sometimes I simply follow my breath and let go of my thoughts. This works well on the bus, at my desk, before eating - any time I need a moment of quiet. Other times, I deepen my breathing or even sigh and feel the tension melt away. These practices and the three-part yogic breath have helped me release anxiety and go to sleep at night, transforming me from an inveterate insomniac to a good sleeper. The breath of joy energizes me on a sleepy afternoon better than coffee and without keeping me up into the night. Of course, learning to use the breath can also transform the experience of asana, helping release muscles, concentrate the mind, consolidate balance, and more.

In January, I did a daily pranayama, or breath practice including some of the techniques mentioned above and others, including two commonly taught pranayama techniques: nadi sodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, which really enhances my meditation, especially if I'm feeling anxious about something; and kapalabhati, the skull-shining breath, which is another very invigorating practice. I've faded this more formal practice out, but want to return to it as part of my meditation practice since I found it very beneficial.

If you're interested in deepening your relationship with your breath, I highly recommend the book breath: the essence of yoga by Sandra Sabatini. Not only does she give lots of ideas for practice, but the book is basically poetry about the breath - a beautiful, reflective, resonant practice. I leave you with some of her words, because she says it much, much better than I can.

don't push, don't pull (p. 63)

allow the exhalation to travel out of the body
without leaving anything behind
only emptiness
a clean inside
don't be excited, don't be enthusiastic,
just be present, in here
and let the exhalation really move,
truly move out of the lungs

the movements created by the exhalation
are so subtle
you cannot DO them
you can only accept them, receive them, welcome them...
the rest is not in your hands
you can create a space
and then what comes in is a gift

Sunday, March 21, 2010

What does it mean to "do yoga"?

You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you where you are resisting your natural state.
~ Sharon Gannon

In theory, practice and theory are the same. In practice they are not.
~Yogi Berra

Recently I was reading Lulu's post entitled "Can Anyone Really Say What Spirituality Is?" over at her Oceans and Avocados blog, and then I surfed over (as one tends to do these days) to the Eco Yogini post that inspired it. They got me to thinking about how my own view of yoga is similar and different to theirs, and also a little bit about both my practice and my research of late. Eco Yogini describes the point of yoga as being spirituality and discusses the differences she feels between her spirituality and what is traditionally taught in yoga. I guess I am coming to see the point as Sharon Gannon describes it in the quote at the beginning of this post. Yoga is a set of tools that we can use to reveal something about ourselves and how we relate to the world. That can be spiritual - it is for me - but it is also deeply personal, emotional, and it can be both a mental and physical journey too.

Lulu poses the questions: Who decides what spirituality/ zen/ yoga are? and What if the definitions don't work for you? These are important questions. There is a vast range of beliefs and practices that have sprung up out of every spiritual tradition, including yoga, and I think this is indicative of the fact that every set of tools does not lead every person to the same destination. What makes intuitive sense to one person, another person may be unable to connect to. When one person follows the practices of her teacher, she may discover an entirely new insight and there we have another school of practice. I am amused to be quoting Yogi Berra here but he makes an excellent point here in a way only he could: theory and practice are not the same thing, and one never replaces the other. The Buddha said this in another way: Doubt everything. Find your own light. He didn't want anyone to take his teachings as the Gospel, but rather for each to do his own practice and figure out what it is that he has inside.

Many people think of yoga as the practice of asana or postures, as a way to lose weight and stay in shape, or as a way to reduce stress. Patanjali said that Yoga is to still the patterns of consciousness [so that] pure awareness can abide in its very nature. The full system of yoga has eight limbs and is a fully formed way of living including both ethics and lifestyle practices that go far beyond asana. For my personal practice, this is very important. In the past two years, I have had periods of time where I've focused intensely on asana and this has had tremendous physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits. However, I have also had periods where I've focused more intensely on pranayama (controlling the breath) or meditation or various ethical principles. Each of these practices has also had intense physical, emotional, mental and spiritual outcomes for me. I very passionately would defend the idea that these are no less "doing yoga" than asana practice is, and in fact simply doing asana does not equal "doing yoga" for me.

However, right now I'm doing research and designing curriculum to bring some of these yogic practices - asana, pranayama, meditation - into educational programs to help international students manage stress related to studying in a foreign country. Through this work - and through reading about people's experiences in blogs such as those I've mentioned here - I am slowly becoming less of a purist. To me, the benefits of any one of these practices are so profound that to do it, even in isolation, can deeply transform a person's experience of a difficult situation. So who am I to look down on someone who doesn't follow the "whole system"? If a person won't do yoga because their religious beliefs prohibit it, who am I to withhold the secret of the three part breath from them? If someone goes to yoga class to work out and it makes them feel better, who am I to insist that they get spiritual? Meditation by any other name is still meditation. If I don't formally sit in meditation but I do take a moment on the bus to let my thoughts settle and follow my breath, who are you to judge my practice?

I know that not everyone will agree with me. There was a time when I might not have agreed. But these days, I'm thinking of ways to bring the benefits of yoga to more people. And if that involves teaching "stress management" or "deep breathing" or "quiet time" then so be it. The world will be a better place if more people connect with their breath.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Taking root

Among the many definitions of the noun root at
  • The usually underground portion of a plant that lacks buds, leaves, or nodes and serves as support, draws minerals and water from the surrounding soil, and sometimes stores food
  • A base or support
  • The condition of being settled and of belonging to a particular place or society (often used in the plural)
  • An essential part or element; the basic core
  • A primary source; an origin
In discussions of physical asana practice, you will often hear the phrase "root to rise." The basic idea is to create a firm foundation for the pose (usually by grounding your feet) and send energy down into the earth through that foundation. By aligning your body correctly above this foundation, you allow a counter-flow of energy to move upwards and lift your body lightly, without effort. This allows you to practice asana with what Patanjali described in the yoga sutras as "steadiness and ease."

This sense of rooting to rise is important in balancing postures. In vrksasana, or tree pose, it is easy to visualize this principle of rooting down and growing upwards through the image of the tree. One way to challenge the balance in this pose is to close the eyes, relying on instinct and the internal senses rather than the visual representation of the external environment in order to achieve balance. This requires a little bit of trust also. Of course, poses of all kinds can allow you to practice achieving a sense of lightness through the use of this principle.

Because of the multiple definitions of root(s), the idea of rooting to rise lends itself as a metaphor for off-the-mat practices. For example, root can refer to one's source or origin, so grounding yourself firmly in the past can allow you to move easily into the future. Learning to trust the instincts rather than visual feedback in poses such as vrksasana can also have lessons for how we achieve balance in our lives off the mat.

We use the phrase "returning to one's roots" to describe the process of going back to where you came from, both physically and ideologically. In many ways, I feel like I've gone back to my roots in the last year and a half. Returning to your roots does not necessarily mean regressing. Rather it is a process of integrating elements of your history and experience into who you are now. It can mean simply honoring parts of yourself that you've cast aside and re-evaluating what role they can play in the present moment. Maybe they no longer serve you, in which case they need only an acknowledgment, some gratitude for the role they played in your journey. Or maybe, looking back you will find that your past still holds you up. If we deny our pasts, we will always lack a solid foundation and when we are required to operate on intuition, we will lack the stability needed to stand firm. Only by building on the past can we truly find balance. It is your history that gives you the energy and anchor you need to grow above the canopy and wave your leaves in the sunlight.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Accepting limitations

“Through practice, I’ve come to see that the deepest source of my misery is not wanting things to be the way they are. Not wanting myself to be the way I am. Not wanting the world to be the way it is. Not wanting others to be the way they are. Whenever I’m suffering, I find this ‘war with reality’ to be at the heart of the problem.” -- Stephen Cope

“These days, my practice is teaching me to embrace imperfection: to have compassion for all the ways things haven’t turned out as I planned, in my body and in my life – for the ways things keep falling apart, and failing, and breaking down. It’s less about fixing things, and more about learning to be present for exactly what is.” --Anne Cushman

Once again, I've been gone from this blog for a while. I've been practicing out in the world. I've been writing, but not about yoga. I've been going down different avenues, most of them very internal. Once again, I feel like it's time to come back here and see what there is to be said, explicitly, about practice.

Since the New Year, I've been practicing meditation and pranayama more intensely. I've been reading a lot about yoga philosophy and mindfulness in daily life, and my asana practice has dropped to the side. I've also started training for a marathon. As I've been increasing my weekly mileage, I've been exploring the meditative possibilities of running - how it feels to connect with the body and the breath, to use yogic practices like sending the breath into areas of discomfort and using mindfulness with mental habits such as fear of failure and the desire to give up.

Approximately three weeks ago, I started getting some minor nagging knee pain during runs. It was so negligible that I put it out of my mind and thought I just needed to stretch more and rest my legs. However, on February 22 I completed a 10-mile run and I ended it with severe pain in my knees which worsened over the course of the afternoon and evening. I soon realized that I had a serious overuse injury that was going to require an absolute halt to training until I could move pain free.

I was devastated. I had invested all my identity in my running and had come to rely on it for a sense of purpose and power in my life. At first, I wanted to give up on everything and crawl into bed and never come out. But then all the meditation practice I've been doing kicked in. Instead, I was determined to listen to my body until it spoke to me. I gathered as much information as I could about my condition, and I asked my knees what they needed. At first, they just wanted me to stop moving, but then as the pain subsided, I began to be able to identify specific areas of difficulty and how they were affected by the way I moved my body.

I held back. I watched all my thoughts and practiced letting them go, whatever came up: a sense of failure, a sense of desperation, a competitive urge. When my knees asked for it, I got on my yoga mat and discovered that my body knew which areas to work and stretch to give my knees the freedom of movement they required. Yesterday, I woke up and my body shouted, "RUN ME!" At first, I doubted it, but when I took to the road, I discovered that I could run 4 miles without pain. Not only that, but I was present in every step. I felt the impact of each movement; I felt the chain of energy of each impact with the road.

As soon as we are formed, our body begins to be affected by being in the world. Like the tree trunk in the picture accompanying this post, we are worn by the business of living and by our contact with those living around us. We are not perfect, we are not invincible, we cannot do whatever we want. We cannot take on everything. We like to think we can, but our bodies let us know... and if we don't listen, they shout louder. If we fight it, if we ignore our bodies, we end up in pain. What I have learned these past two weeks is that the pain is not here to punish us. The pain is our teacher. It is here to remind us to listen and to find what it is that we need. Come back into your body. Ask it what it has to tell you today. And then listen. Whether you like what it has to say or not.