Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Monday, November 17, 2014
When I was in my early twenties, I had a boyfriend whose family made a particular dish for Thanksgiving. They took oranges, cut them in half and scooped out the fruit, which was blended with cooked sweet potato. This half-round orange peel cups were then re-filled with the potato mixture, decorated with marshmallows and cinnamon, and baked in the oven. This was a traditional side dish, served with the cranberries, turkey, dressing, rolls, and green bean casserole. I remember it because it was an extreme example of the foods we eat for holidays; foods that are family traditions, sentimental attachments, curious concoctions only seen once per year at the particular occasion when they are "always" served.
I love Thanksgiving, with the cold autumn weather and things baking in the oven; families gathered together, and pumpkin pie. This year, it's made me think too, about how my yoga teacher used to say how cultural attachments are some of the most difficult for us to see, let alone change; and food is so much more than nutrition to all of us.
Good digestion is the foundation of health: when our digestive system goes wrong, all sorts of disease and toxicity can result. Digestion can be thrown off by over eating, eating the wrong combination of foods (for us), eating poor quality food, or eating under the wrong circumstances. Generally speaking, eating when the sun is out and we are in a calm environment and state of mind is ideal. The light of the sun is related to fire, which is the element that rules transformation and digestion, since digestion is the miraculous transformation of gross foods into energy and nutrients.
Just as we don't eat food based purely on what is good for us and what will help us feel good (we eat food based on emotional attachment, to entertain the palate and out of familiarity and cultural traditions) we also don't always eat in an environment conducive to digestion. Noisy, crowded, or distracting places don't support good digestion. Likewise, eating while angry, sad, or stressed doesn't either. Stress produces a 'fight or flight' reaction in the body, which tends to shut down our digestive processes. The fact is, many of us are in a low-level, chronic state of stress most of the time; definitely if we are eating while rushed or worried.
At the same time, nothing I"m describing is bad, it just is what it is. Every action has a result. If we eat turkey, potato, green beans, salad, cranberry, stuffing, pumpkin pie and whipped cream, there will be a result. It's not a bad thing, but it's predictable.
In the yoga sutra, it says heyam dukham anagatam: future suffering can be avoided. This sutra refers to the previous sutras, which lay out why we do the things we do and what causes suffering in our lives. It boils down to this: with clear understanding of what causes pain, and close observation of ourselves, future suffering can be predicted, and avoided. We sometimes choose something else though: the pleasure of Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, is so great in the moment, that we choose to ignore the consequences we can imagine, even though we've done it for the past 10 years and it's predictable.
Now, this isn't entirely true. When I was younger, in my early twenties, I would disregard that little voice that said I might get too full, or get a stomachache, and forge happily through quite a variety of food on Thanksgiving; these days I enjoy the family and visiting and cooking, choose my foods more thoughtfully, and eat more moderately. But this train of thought caused me to wonder: what else in life is like this? In what other situation do I know the outcome will be not-so-good, yet do whatever-it-is, anyway?
What are those deep, driving motivations and patterns that cause me to choose pain and discomfort over freedom? Is it emotional attachments, fears, strongly rooted habit?
This is the challenge and ongoing inquiry of yoga practice: to gradually gain self awareness, and to allow those choices to become more and more conscious, rather than blind habits. When we look at the earlier sutras, the causes of pain are listed: wrong understanding, aversions, desires and attachments, attachment to our ego, and fear of death.
The first, which I've loosely translated as "wrong understanding" is avidya, literally 'wrong knowledge". This relates to our feeling that it's "us against the world" or that we live in disharmony to nature, or others. The feeling that if we have ours, others will just have to fend for themselves. It is the misperception that what we do is separate, and doesn't affect the whole of life. In fact it is the misperception that we are separate, acting in isolation. To gain true knowledge of ourselves, I gather, is to become aware of the inherent inseparability of all life. The lack of this awareness gives rise to selfishness, isolation, depression and fear, and acting from these feelings represents a basic misunderstanding of what we are and how things work.
Perhaps with practice, observation of ourselves and the world, cultivation of awareness, we will feel more connected, at home in ourselves, and confident. This is one step closer to what we'd call inner peace, and one step away from avidya. I use Thanksgiving dinner, and it's potential for gastronomic disaster, as an example, but I'm really talking about every situation where we 'know better' and do it anyway. It's worth reflection what lures us to those spots again and again, to each of our own favorite indulgences, which may actually be keeping us in our place, inhibiting growth, and re-inforcing our dark suspicions about ourselves.
This gets to the heart of the matter: we are ultimately so attached to comfort, to staying as we are, and to staying within our small boundaries of known success and familiarity, that we keep ourselves there. We revisit the same pitfalls again and again, date the same 'bad boyfriends' and make the same financial mistakes, instead of seeing the underlying issues that cause these behaviors.
Yoga practice, cultivation, and inquiry reveals all this: it shows us how we behave, even the things we don't necessarily feel proud of or like, and gives us choices. Daily practice, over the course of years and decades, slowly refines our understanding and reshapes our behaviors and habits. With steady, persistent, deliberate action, there is potential to transcend the boundaries of self-limiting fears and actions, and become our best selves.
Friday, September 26, 2014
About 4 years ago, I decided to try something new: I enrolled in a rowing class. Where I live, there's a river through the middle of town, and a center with boats alongside, where they offer 8-week classes. To qualify for the class, I had to take a swimming test at a local pool, to make sure I wasn't going to drown if we accidentally got dumped in the river. I don't swim well, and it was a self-regulated swim class. I had to approach a teenage "lifeguard" and tell him to keep an eye on me as I swam and then treaded water for 20 consecutive minutes, so that he could sign off on a little form that I would later turn into the rowing school.
I don't know if the kid watched me treading water, because I spent the entire time staring at the big clock on the wall, and concentrating on not drowning, but I did "pass" the test, and proceeded to register for the rowing class.
The reason I think of this story is because now, even years later, I can easily recall now uncertain I was, driving to the first rowing class. Was I wearing the right clothes? Who would be in the class? Was I supposed to bring anything? Would it be hard? When I parked my car, I sat for a moment and considered not even going inside the building.
And I also laughed at my insecurities, because I thought, "what is with me? I get up and teach yoga every day to strangers and feel perfectly confident about it!" In the end, the class was great, I made some friends, and learned the fundamentals of rowing: enough so that I can appreciate it when I see someone else doing it well.
What I learned is how trying something foreign to you can be so uncomfortable, and I really learned first hand to appreciate how difficult it can be to enter a new world where you don't know the customs (proper attire?) or quite what is going to happen to you.
So for those of you approaching a new yoga class, here are a few tips:
1. Look into it. Go to a class recommended by a friend, or that you've read about online. Maybe you've met the teacher and they seemed like someone with something to offer. There are many classes and styles and teachers out there, so choose one that seems like it might be in the ballpark of what you're looking for. Choosing a class or a yoga teacher is something I could dedicate several posts to, but in a nutshell: for your own sake don't make a random choice; do a little investigation about what you're getting into.
2. Eat lightly and avoid eating at all for a couple of hours before class; likewise I minimize distraction and focus on the subtle energy by instructing students not to drink water during or right before or after class. Wear clothes you feel comfortable in. Come ready to focus your whole attention on the class.
3. Introduce yourself to the teacher. Usually a yoga teacher would approach you if you're new in class. If they don't let the teacher know who you are and if you have any concerns or issues you're dealing with. They will be glad to know, and can modify what they are teaching to support you, and/or offer modifications and variations that may work for you.
4. Especially if you've been to other yoga classes: follow instructions. Cultivate patience if you've heard another way to practice a pose from another teacher, and follow the directions you're being given in the moment. By entering the class you've made an agreement to trust that teacher and try what they suggest (within reason) for the duration of that class. If you don't trust the teacher, you're probably in the wrong class. Also, different teachers may describe a different activity or pose differently depending upon how it falls in a sequence, their experience and lineage, or what they are focusing on in that particular class. It's not that there is necessarily a right or wrong way to "do" the pose, rather there are different ways, and the teacher is suggesting to do it in the way that is appropriate for the time and situation at the moment.
5. If you do come with a friend, avoid side talking, in favor of focusing on your own experience in class. Distracting your friend will detract from their yoga practice, and yours. The benefit you derive from the practice comes in proportion to the degree of focus and attention you can bring to your own experience.
These are all simple things, but good guidelines to keep in mind when trying something new.
An open mind, patience, consideration and kindness to yourself and others, and alert observation will serve you not only in yoga class, but in any aspect of life.
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
While it's not entirely accurate to compare my inept tapdancing with yoga practice, what is similar is that I was blind to whether or not I could really tap dance, and got a bit confused by the fact that I was on a stage, in my shoes, with an audience, and had just enough experience to draw from to make me feel confident. The wake up call for me was that I didn't get the part. In yoga practice, the wake up call might be that you can't stand on your legs comfortably, or don't feel well. Is your yoga practice serving you? Are you excessively identified with your image as a yoga practitioner or teacher? These are good questions to keep in mind.
A good friend of mine recently said "When you've named something, you've killed it," meaning that once you think you know about something, there's no room for learning. As experienced yoga practitioners, indeed with any pursuit, it's a challenge to set aside our understanding of things, to make room for new insight. It's the challenge of creating an open and receptive state of mind. It might help to imagine you've never been to yoga class before, and notice when you rush through movements or asanas that are familiar, because you feel you already "know" what they are and what's involved.
In any case, whatever your practice, the state of mind with which you approach it is as important as the practice itself. And maintaining that connection to an open mind, and maintaining a practice over time is a good plan for understanding, and a clear view of reality.
Thursday, April 26, 2012
My Yoga Practice, before it was Yoga
|legs, steel sculpture by Lita. 1995|
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
A couple of months ago, I went to the doctor. I hadn’t been to the doctor in many years, for two reasons. The first reason is that I’ve been lucky enough to be healthy. The second reason is that our healthcare system seems very foreign to me, like it has nothing to do with me. I do have health insurance though, and since something had begun to bother me, and it seemed like it might be a medical problem, I thought I’d give modern medicine a chance.
At the office, the nurse took my temperature, blood pressure and weighed me. I changed into some laundered pyjama clothes, and stood alone in the examining room, examining the rubber tubes and metal tools hung on the wall. I gazed at an illustrated poster of someone’s insides. I considered the table with the paper cover. The doctor came in, and soon pronounced me to be the healthiest person she’d seen in months. At this point, I hadn’t mentioned what had been bothering me, and it occurred to me that I might like to NOT mention it, leave, and just see what happened. Maybe it would go away.
This inspiration sprang from my lack of trust, and faith, in the system at hand. Perhaps a little arrogance, because I know other modalities of healing and am predisposed to think I know better. Perhaps a little wishful thinking, as well. Would staying silent make the problem go away? No. Would I get any new information to consider? No. Was I testing my doctor to see if she could read my mind or magically ascertain why I had scheduled this visit? Maybe! After all, she’s a doctor and it’s her job to figure out what is wrong with me. Acknowledging these somewhat irrational viewpoints, I realized at that moment that I might as well talk to the doctor. To not do so would be a waste of the time it took to schedule an appointment and go to the clinic, disrespectful to the doctor who is sincerely using the system she has learned to help me, and a waste of an opportunity to get information.
It’s worthwhile to consider why we are doing things and what we expect to receive from them, which is what brings me to the topic of yoga class. I have sometimes had students who had quite a serious condition, but didn’t tell me about it either out of shyness, thinking they should follow the class and deal with it themselves, or not being aware of why they were in class or even why I was teaching class.
I teach yoga to assist with health, stability, awareness and personal growth. It's a system I've explored for 2 decades, and I know its value from direct experience. I am there because the people who come to my class are there. I can see many things from observing students, and often offer suggestions and modifications, or give an individual a personal practice, because this is the way hatha yoga works. The therapeutic qualities of the asanas will be effective when utilized at the right times and for the right person, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
I know from personal experience, as both a teacher and a student, that a student asking a question reveals at least two things: 1. That the student is aware of the issue and 2. That they’re looking for help with it.
When I am teaching and I see something amiss, or suspect an underlying condition, it is somewhat an invasion of that person’s privacy to bring it up; therefore in many cases I must wait to be asked for advice, or wait until a lot of time and experience with that student have allowed me to know them better. Asking a question is an opportunity for a student and teacher to get to know each other more quickly, and to establish trust. As a student, I have found that with trust in your teacher, you will be able to apply what they suggest and benefit from it. Without trust it doesn’t matter how famous or great that teacher is, or the quality of their advice: the advice won’t be taken in. To some degree, this was the case with my visit to the doctor: I arrived with a mis-trust of the system, and by extension the doctor trained in that system, and so I kept whatever advice she gave me at a distance, skeptical and hesitant to integrate it into myself.
Yoga was traditionally taught to one student at a time. A student would come to a teacher, and the teacher would offer some suggestions and the student would go away and work with those suggestions. The process of working with the material, and integrating it, is crucial. At first, the information is alien and outside of oneself. With practice, one may integrate the knowledge, and it is blended with each of our unique backgrounds and existing knowledge.
As Zhander Remete states in his book Shadow Yoga: “Theoretical information should be digested until it feels as if the information has sprung forth and grown from within one’s own self. Practice and theory will then be one inseparable living knowledge manifesting as wisdom and action at all times.”
Asking questions, staying alert, closely observing oneself, and maintaining an open, inquiring attitude will greatly speed up the process of learning in yoga, and your benefit from it. I have made the mistake of allowing months or even years to go by before working up the courage or humility to ask a simple question. I encourage you, if you are serious about yoga, to ask: find a trustworthy source and ask whatever you are curious about. The worst that will happen is that you’ll get information that doesn’t resonate with you, and that you discard.
Wishful thinking, ignoring pain, waiting for your teacher (or doctor!) to read your mind will usually not work. Asking questions and looking into why you’re doing things and who you are can only support your life journey, because time in this life is short, and we are here now.
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
I had a shocking injury last summer. Since then, I’ve had more acute interest in how wounds heal and, by extension, the connective tissues of the body, and by extension, the ahamkara, a part of consciousness that holds us together.
I said “shocking” injury, because it was the worst injury that I can remember having; there are definitely worse things that could happen, and so in the grand scheme it was not that bad. It was, however, a shock.
I had a fall, from a ladder, onto a post. In an instant, I spun in the air and landed balanced on the tube-like end of a four-foot galvanized steel pipe, which was part of a chain link fence. The part of my body that balanced on the pipe was the back of my thigh. Within a few days, a very large bruise had developed.
I don’t believe in accidents, and whatever I had done up until this point and the factors playing upon me were thankfully not so inauspicious. I mean, it could’ve been worse. I didn’t break my leg, or tear my hamstring, or any number of other possibles. (For a great discussion on Fate or Free Will, and how to mitigate the fateful events hurtling towards each of us, see Robert Svoboda’s transcribed talk: “Fate Or Free Will” in the Fall 2006 Issue of Namarupa magazine.)
(Some very general information: if you suffer a strong blow which is likely to cause internal bleeding and bruising, you’re supposed to lie as still as possible for a couple of days. Ice the area for 10 minutes at a time, every hour or couple of hours. If possible, elevate the area above your heart. There are nutrients that support the healing of tissues, like iron, which is found in pumpkin seeds, sardines, and spinach, among other foods.)
I didn’t lie still, because I didn’t know any better, but I did ice the area, even before I dared to take off my shorts and look at it. It was pretty ugly, and took a couple of months to look better.
I get little bruises quite often. The dinner-plate-sized, black/purple/red/yellow multi-colored, swollen situation on my thigh seemed to be in an entirely different category, so I thought: “Is there a name for a bruise like this?” Well, yes: there are various words: contusion, lesion, hematoma… that last one still makes me cringe as it means a big internal collection of blood that is created by a broken blood vessel. Still makes me cringe? Several months later? Yes: we could consider this a not-too-serious example of an emotional scar. As I lay in bed, the nights after this injury, as ridiculous as this sounds even to me, at times I worried that I might die. A friend “helpfully” suggested I might have gangrene. Rationally, I did not think so, but it's an alarming concept when it does kind of look like your thigh is rotting from the inside out, and the appearance gets worse by the hour. Isn’t it true that it’s the unknowns in life that are most frightening?
The things that make us uncertain, frightened, anxious, are also things that challenge our ahamkara, or sense of ourselves. The quotation at the beginning of this blog post, "Most people instinctively realize that the danger involved in spiritual advancement is the danger of personality extinction" is from Robert Svoboda’s book, Prakriti. Svoboda describes our individuality as being an expression of Ahamkara (“I-ness”). This is that part of our consciousness that gives us a sense of ourselves: the ego. Once at a lecture with Svoboda, I heard him say, “Most of the cells in our body are of alien origin”. I immediately started daydreaming about extra-terrestrial life and our outer space friends, but much later realized that he was only saying that we are, physically, a collection of trillions of cells. Some of those agree to be “us” and some are just along for the ride, and some have an agenda other than being part of the “me” of each of us. As long as most of the cells are working cooperatively as one human organism, things proceed; but when too many cells follow other plans, the result is not so harmonious. This leads, on a physical level, to disease; on a psychological level to mental illness. This is an example of weak ahamkara.
Iyengar, on the ahamkara, says: Singularity of body requires singularity of awareness. Imagine a car with two independent steering wheels and two drivers. it would never stay on the road. Self locomotion necessitates a single "I" awareness linked through mind, senses, and body to the environment that provides food, air and water.
It is the ahamkara that allows us to operate in the world, with a sense of who we are and what we need and want to do. The ahamkara which has qualities of both rigidity and fluidity, is essential for our mental and physical health. However, the rigid aspect of ahamkara can undermine change and growth. Why so rigid? It's self-preservation, and misunderstanding. Iyengar also compares the ahamkara to the filament of a lightbulb, which believes itself to be the source of light. In reality, electricity is the source of light. Just so, our ego/ahamkara believes itself to be our true self, although there are more fundamental aspects of our consciousness, which give life to the ego. Blind to these deeper supports, and acting out of self-preservation, the ego recoils from activities that may question it’s permanence. Examples of these challenges are: yoga, the prospect of death, and even relationships, where one’s views and understanding of oneself are called into question.
We all know a few people who are stuck, but cannot move ahead because they’re paralyzed by fear of the unknown. In this (simpler) case I found myself in an unfamiliar situation, and was unnerved by the not-knowing. I noticed that the initial shock was also paralyzing, so that I could take little action until some time had passed. This is a logical way that the body and mind protects us: giving us space and preventing us from making choices until we have recovered our sense of ourselves, after a sudden incident. Unfortunately, for some this feeling of being stuck, or paralyzed, is overactive, perhaps due to long-held scars and fears. I'm saying that it takes a balance, between reasonable stability and reasonable looseness, to be a healthy person.
On the subtle level, it is the ahamkara that contains the shape of our individuality, sanity, and ability to function. Simultaneously, just like with scar tissue or physical inflexibility, becoming inflexible or fixed in our personalities and behavior can prevent us from growth, movement and freedom in our lives.
Getting back to the physical, connective tissue is the most pervasive part of the body. “Connective tissue” is that which divides us up into sections, and both holds together the whole of and holds apart pieces of the body. Because of the segmented effect of separating the different areas of the body with connective tissue, disease or infection can be contained. (Like in the movies on the space ship when they have to run from an alien and close off that part of the ship) Because of the unity of the connective tissue, action on one small part of the body affects the whole, (Like if you catch one corner of your sweater on a nail, if you walk away it pulls the whole sweater.)
Connective tissue knits us together, and if we are cut or injured, cells of collagen surge to the area and knit it together, forming an extra strong suture to hold together those tissues that were torn apart, until they can cohere again. The scar that forms results from tissue building a quick bridge until the normal tissues have time to grow and heal. The scar is not as artful as our ‘normal’ tissues, because it’s a rush job. (They say that in connective tissue, collagen fibers usually form a ‘basket-weave’ pattern (left), but in the case of a scar it’s more like many strands lying parallel, across the wound, forming a hard, dense suture. Scar tissue is flatter and has no hair follicles, which may be one reason it tends to feel different and be itchy.)
As the tissues heal, massaging the scarred area for 2-3 minutes a couple of times per day can help to reduce the scarring, because it will help break down that mass of collagen. I was told by a friend to “get some Mederma, or you’ll have a huge scar.” Mederma, as it turns out, is a mass-market cream for scars. I made a rare trip to the drug store (this injury was spurring all sorts of new conversations, and visits to alien places!) and came to the conclusion that it was the rubbing and movement, not the “Mederma”, that was doing most of the scar-reducing work. (the labels of all the creams said “massage into scar for 2-3 minutes.”) Massage and movement help to reduce stagnation, and keep circulation and energy moving in an injured area. (So no, I didn’t get the Mederma.)
In a short post a few months ago, I shared a video of Gil Hedley, who talks about “fuzz”, the sticky, fibrous tissue also falls into the category of connective tissue: fascia and “fuzz” hold the various parts of our body in place, in fact sheathe every part of our inner anatomy so that if all the other flesh and organs were removed, our shape and that of all our parts would still be visible. When, through lack of movement, these tissues stagnate, they grow thicker and more substantial, almost like a scar. Movement is gradually inhibited, and we begin to solidify into a more fixed form. While we do need some cohesion, to have a shape and inner support, but too much cohesion binds us into a restricted shape, where our movement is reduced, and eventually disease can develop, aside from the fact that we may also feel stiff and uncomfortable.
It’s easy to imagine how a thick and fibrous scar could inhibit movement, and that it might be a good idea to minimize the scar tissue as well as you can.
It is to our advantage to move, and do so daily. You know the stiff feeling you might get in the morning? In this video clip, Gil Headley says you have the impulse to stretch because it slides your muscles and tissues around a bit, and helps to break up newly formed “fuzz” as he calls it, within our body.
As for our psychological state, we are, to a necessary degree, always "stuck in a rut". We have habits, and routines, which form the structure of our lives, just as the connective tissue forms the structure of our bodies. Routine and habit allow us to expend less energy figuring out what to do, because we already have a basic working template. But when routine and habit are no longer serving us, some movement, and effort is called for to bring movement to the stuck areas and to form new, more supportive habits.
The shock of an injury or sudden change can cause an emotional scar, which will affect behavior in the future as we try to avoid something similar happening. However, if the risks and dangers we imagine are not really there, it is only going to waste our energy to avoid them, and only going to imprison us in self-limiting behaviors. One of the foundations of starting the path of yoga is to begin to see clearly, to dispense with wasting our energy on imaginary dangers and taking action based on incorrect understanding. Yoga is wisdom in action when we are able to see clearly, adapt accordingly, and proceed intelligently. Through understanding the balance between our little self, and it's necessary cohesion in order to have a vehicle in this world, and the "big" self which pervades this little self, we may proceed with less fear, and more trust in not just our own egotistical constructs, but also in the self which is untouched by the fluctuations of life.
It is this underlying formless form that gives us the resiliency to live, and to make our form, though we may be blind to this source of our power, just as the lightbulb filament is "blind" to the electricity that illuminates it.