Monday, November 17, 2014

Cultivate Choices: become your best self.

Mitahara: be moderate in diet and consume fresh, wholesome food at the appropriate time in the appropriate amount.  

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

5 ways to approach a new yoga class

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.