When grief arises, the whole world can become a devastation. A great loss may also take with it our own sense of purpose. We may feel abandoned. We may lose faith.A grieving heart doesn’t only hurt. Mentally, it saps us of clarity. We forget things. We feel distracted. Our mood may swing between sadness and irritability, causing us to make choices in our behavior that may numb the heart but not heal it. Intoxication may appeal. So might a review of the past actions that leaves us paralyzed as to choice in the present.
Using yoga tools in response to grief will help us find the perspective to understand not only the grief but the loss that precedes it. Loss is the event; the resulting grief is our process of restoring balance to the tipped scales. We can address the symptoms of grief—the physical and emotional pain, the confusion, sorrow, irritation—with special practices that help the heart. They will enrich our sense of peace, courage, faith. As we do, our enhanced relationship with peace, courage and faith will guide us to understand loss itself. Life is always in flux. Change is a constant. As we develop personal peace, courage and faith, the scales will not shift so abruptly as life comes and goes around and within us.
So we use the tools to strengthen the heart.
A strong heart is a peaceful one. It also offers us the courage to acknowledge the sorrow of loss, to integrate the power of it, and to allow it to transform into a sweet faith—in our abilities, in our insight, in our access to deeper wisdom. This access is the reward of grief; the door will open for us and we can step into compassion for those who suffer as we have and forgiveness of those who may cause it.
And it isn’t just our spiritual hearts that are strengthened in these practices.
The anatomical and physiological dimensions of grief will help you understand why loss can hit us so hard.
When we encounter loss, the primal limbic brain perceives the loss as a threat to our own survival. It orders up a resistance—and the nervous system prioritizes protection and self-preservation. You’ve probably heard the term ‘fight or flight.’ This is the primary function of the sympathetic nervous system. It responds to the brain’s perception of threat by creating physiological responses like increasing heart rate, enlarging bronchial passages, channeling blood flow to big movement muscles, opening the pupils, overriding circadian rhythms and slowing metabolism to ensure energetic resources are directed toward a fight or an escape.
As you can imagine, we don’t want to stay in this state for long. It’s stressful. Our digestion gets screwy, our sleep doesn’t come, our blood pressure soars and we don’t do all that social engagement stuff that humans, with their language and love, can be quite good at! Stress is meant for acute situations; depleting energy quickly, it’s not made for the long haul.
But this is what grief can manifest in us, physiologically. Anatomically and physiologically, grief looks very much like a chronic stress state. And because so many of us move through each day in a state of stress—constantly perceiving threat and risk and challenge—the arising of grief, for whatever reason, further tightens an already taut wire.
When loss complicates stress, the brain will seek greater protective measures, and these may result in seclusion, high anxiety, cognitive fog, indecision, distraction and anger. When these issues become chronic, we can become depressed with a distorted sense of self that is looking for any way to take control. Our hearts—physically and emotionally—may ache.
Welcome, yoga practices. If we’re lucky, we learn some techniques to reclaim our nervous system from a chronic stress state. If we’re disciplined, we remember to use them when stress arises.
Here’s how they work. One of the greatest gifts of yoga over the millennia is that it recognizes that a stressed person isn’t going to sit still easily. We don’t simply surrender to calm if we’re used to fighting for control. Meditation is awesome but inaccessible to someone who doesn’t know how to settle in for to rest.
Old school yogis (and some contemporary ones too) understood that our interaction with the world around us is not a one-way street. We aren’t made to simply react and react and react. Eventually, it wears us out. If we learn to understand the circumstances around us, we can respond appropriately. We can breathe in such a way that we indicate to the nervous system that it’s okay to rest. With consistent deep breathing, our heart is toned and soothed. With a good, long exhale, our nervous system understands that we’re safe. Thus, we open up a boulevard of experience in which we can send signals through our body to our brain as readily as the environment around us. We begin to see that impermanence is a constant but something about us isn’t.
So we find ways to calibrate our energy. We work with our energy. Maybe we do strong asana. Maybe we do soothing breathing. Maybe we rest on our bellies. Or chant. Or meditate. We find methods that restore us to balance.
In the case of grief, we strengthen the heart. We restore ourselves to joy. Joy, as you can imagine, strengthens the heart. She’s the sister of grief. She knows how to settle her down. It doesn’t mean that we push the heart or demand that we release all of our sadness. It simply means that we provide energy to the space at our heart so that the experience of grief has room to breathe. Practices like brahmari—a sweet hum on exhale—serve this purpose. When the heart gains a bit of space, the experiences that are gripped around it—of misunderstood loss, or unresolved grief—begin to soften. That’s when they begin to transform. They don’t go away; they integrate. They lead us to the wisdom of compassion and understanding. To an appreciation of all the comings and goings of life. To joy.
A while back, a mentor gently chided me: ‘you really love what’s sad, Megan.’
I agreed and we laughed and laughed. And then I wandered off and wondered, sort of sadly: I do really love what’s sad. Why?
It came down to this: in my life, what’s sad has always been accompanied—before or after—by the greatest knowings. Sadness—allowed and deeply felt—ushers in those little or big understandings about the nature of life: that all experiences come and go; that what I hold now will eventually be put down; that today’s joy is meant for today; that a hope for joy tomorrow is, ultimately, meaningless and moderately desperate. Joy happens now; tomorrow never happens ever; the degree of my suffering and delight at every moment depends on the degree to which I regulate both.
Hard-won knowings, these bits. And not always speedy or even timely. Some take a long time to settle themselves. Some settle and settle again. The loss of my tiny, 8-week old puppy? That was an intense sadness. But fast. A lesson in mutual comfort and connection that offered itself as quickly as the puppy lived her fleeting life. The loss of my 13-year old dog? A heartbreaking sob-fest that guided me to see my loyalty and commitment had risen to the levels she taught me.
Then there are those churners. The great miseries of ’95, when an already shaky trust in authority, love and family crumbled? That resolved in ’03, with a law degree and a realization that authority is always silly, love is truth and family is whomever I chose. The devastation of my dad’s suicide in ’92? Partial reconciliation occurred over years. It was ’98, with the help of a lover. Then in ’02, thanks to a professor. Again in ’05, with a therapist. Another therapist in ’12 and a dear friend in ’14.
To complete the grief in me, I had to complete the relationships I’d lost. And that meant I had to see myself as someone capable of doing it. With guidance, but ultimately alone. Because people were lost… to time and death. And those who weren’t lost weren’t responsible. It was only me who could do this work. And seeing myself that way meant that I recognized my agency in life. No one would transform sadness for me. Not great friends or teachers, not pills or strong margaritas. It was for me, with whatever wisdom I could muster. These were my tragedies to experience. These were my treasures to unearth.
So life goes on. We strive, acquire and lose. In this cycle, we’re trained to acquire but we don’t learn how to lose. Even though it’s integral and essential to our evolution. To every moment passing.
I think of this stuff, sometimes, like perennial fruits. Memories sprout, grow, bloom, fruit. Then they die back to the roots giving the ground a little more to work off. This is how we thrive.
But we forget to appreciate our crops. Shit, we barely acknowledge the garden they grow in. The gift of our whole life. Most importantly, we tend to overlook our responsibility as gardeners. If we don’t tend to ourselves, we grow out of control, out of balance, out of reach among the weeds.
And this is why I love the sad stuff. Because it IS the shit. Not the weeds, but the shit. It’s this from which our lives expand, bear fruit, offer respite from the weeds—the noise and chaos of the world around us.
Our resilience strengthens us; it offers us solace in faith and understanding. We find warmth and comfort, compassion and forgiveness with every bit of sadness we transform. We discover gratitude and joy as we experience our ability to influence change.
If you’re curious about techniques to help you reconcile loss, please consider joining me at Foundation Yoga for a three-part yoga therapy series on grief. Grief manifests as an uprooting and separation from your innate sense of home. A mindful, gentle practice will offer guideposts to show you the way back. As you navigate your path, you’ll rediscover and strengthen your capacity to feel and share forgiveness, peace, and courage. With practice, you’ll learn that you can always find your way home, from sadness to joy.
November 2, 9, 16 at from noon to 1:15pm. Cost is $50 for all three sessions or whatever your heart allows. Class size is limited so please RSVP by October 28.
I think we can all agree that yoga, these days, appears a little absurd.
People carry their mats in stylish little bags and spend most of their day in pants especially designed to enhance your down dog. Great! May all our down dogs be so happy for the assistance.
Now what do those pants offer my mind? Or my heart?
The deeper practices of yoga intend to take any of us who are willing into an experience of bliss. What does that mean, actually? A quiet mind. In the stillness, your Self. The capital S indicates its importance. It’s your true nature. The resident of your heart. The eternal you that is not confined to your body or ego. The you that realizes how to move beyond suffering. It’s a spiritual thing, for sure. It’s the science of Self-realization. We are the scientists of ourselves. We use the system, experience its effects and consider the results. No one can experience it for us. And no one can tell us, really, what our bliss will be. Not your teacher. Not your mate. We can only study ourselves and find out. That’s the dance.
A neat thing about the dance is the variety of steps for your particular rhythm. You can plop down and meditate until you know the choreography, but this isn’t completely feasible for folks who have to work to pay rent and may also have some back pain. You can study the old texts a ton but the shoulder tension could distract you from that ultimate realization. Who knows?
Which is why yoga is a system. It’s got a bunch of options available to you as you progress in your practice. It also has a variety of tools to aid in the progression. And to help you understand how you should practice, Patanjali kindly offered eight steps to guide you: yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana samadhayo ‘stav agani. The eight limbs of yoga are social and personal conduct, posture, breath control, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and absorption.
Oh my gosh! Asana is in there! Long live yoga pants; long live my down dog!
In the West, most people equate yoga with asana. If people learn I’m a yoga teacher, they want to know my favorite pose. (Savasana. Duh.) To most, yoga means a form of exercise. Or, gentle yoga means a form of stretching. Or, restorative yoga means a form of napping. And, more recently, yoga therapy means a form of rehabilitation. All fine. Each of these forms are good and helpful. But there’s so much more. Taking asana to be the whole world of yoga is to take the spot where you currently sit as the whole world. Please don’t limit yourself.
Asana is just a fraction of a greater system. And the system is more vast than even Patanjali’s simplified rubric. Still, asana absolutely is part of the dance. Here’s why.
The practice of various poses will help you figure out the physical and energetic disturbances that keep your mind hurtling at mach speed. The appropriate practice of asana will balance your energy, so you can learn to settle your mind. It may be that your body requires physical purification. Certain asana, done in certain ways, are very effective for this. It may also be that your body requires greater strength to sit still. Certain asana are effective for this as well. In coordination with the asana, we also should learn to regulate our breath. This sort of integration of appropriate asana and pranayama gets us moving toward a greater understanding of our energy (and how to work with it) and how to start focusing our minds.
Another lovely aspect to asana is the familiarity it will give you with the temple housing your soul. Your body isn’t going to live forever. I’m sorry if I’m the first one to tell you. It also isn’t redeemable for a trade-in. The one you have in this life is the one you have to work with. You can look around these days and see a ton of variations on the theme of body-neglect. Folks in pain. Folks eating crap. Sedentary folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies move through space. Highly active folks who don’t want to make the effort to let their bodies rest. So many people have forgotten how to be friendly and loyal to their bodies. They care more for their pets. (The reason we love down dogs so dearly?)
An appropriate asana practice can help you start to pay attention to what your body needs. That lovely body of yours is constantly sending you signals. You may be familiar with those for hunger and those for ouch. Listening in more carefully, you can hear it ask more specifically. It may ask for sunlight or a siesta. Touch or a banana. Protein or the feel of dirt under your toes. The body knows what it wants. It’s amazing how often we fail to give our bodies what they want. How we fail to provide an appropriate offering to the temple.
Finally, an appropriate asana practice is a kick in the pants for self-discipline. It’s a thing these days: we prioritize everyone and everything but ourselves. Some people even hold this habit up as an achievement. Well, it ain’t gonna get you on the shortlist for sainthood. Just suffering.
Having a short sequence of postures to do in the morning or evening will help us learn to create space and time for ourselves amidst the noise. Even to realize that the noise is not all that noisy when we learn to integrate it properly.
So. Asana. Purposeful. But not everything. Pants or no pants.
Final note: I’ve mentioned several times the word ‘appropriate.’ Yeah. Intentional. If you’d like to know more about what’s appropriate, contact me. And if you’re shy, just think about this: would you expect a 30-year old marathon runner to do the same series of movements as a 70-year with a recent hip transplant? Do you think a new mother, post-Caesarean, with barely a moment needs the same movement patterns as a 45-year old dude who works in a cubicle all day and drinks beer all night? Good. Now send me a note and let’s talk.
I love you and your yoga pants.
Ah. What a sweet life we get to live.
For those of you snarling… bear with me. This one’s for you.
Think for a moment about that last little moment of hatred you shared with someone. ‘I hate that; don’t you hate that?’ Or disgust: ‘Gross.’ Or maybe you unleashed anger at a loved one. Or demanded that someone change for you. Criticized someone. Remember that moment. And then feel it. Feel that feeling? Of that choice you made to give someone a gift you wouldn’t want to receive. Something less than kindness.
How does that really feel to you?
We all do these things. We’re human. We’re relatively new to our potentials of consciousness and we forget all the time that we’re just bundles of energy bumbling around the joint. If you think about it for half a second, you know this. You’ve been in that situation when Mopey McMoperstein shows up and your beautiful day turns sludgy. And you also love when Joy O’Sweetness Sunshine comes around. She always makes you feel good. (Except when she leaves. And then you wonder why with angst and uncertainty.)
Buddha was good and clear when he broke it down: As humans, we suffer. As humans, we have the possibility of waking up. Yoga is clear on the subject too. We suffer our ignorance. When we relieve ourselves of ignorance, we relieve ourselves of suffering. Our ignorance is vast and comprised of all the multitudinous clanging and clatter of matter, but what’s say we part the curtains a touch to see this little gem?
The way your feel is because of your feeling. The way you feel is the result of you feeling the way you’re feeling. The way you feel is because of you.
(The caller is in the house!)
‘No,’ you may say. ‘You don’t know my mother.’ Or, ‘Don’t you read the news?’
(I love your mother for making you and no. Also leave your mother out of this.)
The truth is, while the news always sucks and tragedies around the world are abundant, we have a choice of response. It’s understandable to experience anger and grief but what’s the purpose of holding onto it and becoming a vector? We become angry and, if we don’t recognize that the emotion is transitory in nature, we’re carrying a burden that our structures aren’t meant to bear. Emotions are transitory in nature. They arise and they fall. Holding onto them—whether they are good emotions or bad emotions—leads to suffering. Holding onto emotions is like carrying your packed luggage when the trip is over. Or gripping at clouds. Choose your metaphor, but understand that it’s silly. The emotion is meant to pass. To be unpacked. To fade away.
Which doesn’t mean that emotions don’t impact us. They do. They affect us dearly, and we can be grateful for the lessons. The energy of emotions shifts us. Like the moon affects the tide, the energy of our emotions pulls at our energies and transforms our personal landscapes. It’s imperative that we learn to navigate the new terrain or we continue to fall and fall and fall again.
Know that it’s not about escape. And it’s not ignoring the facts. Your mother may set off alarms in you. And the news may hit you hard. But it’s you who gets to respond appropriately. You have the duty and you have the privilege.
So take a moment when emotions arise. Discover what you’re feeling and feel it more deeply. Watch the feeling. Breathing deeply helps to maintain your attention on the feeling instead of wanting to act out the energy of it. As you watch it, notice how it fades.
You may even try to flip the script. Think opposites. Turn it upside down. In yoga philosophy, this is called pratipaksha bhavanam. I like to call this the most challenging inversion you’re scared to try.
It goes like this: If you’re feeling hatred, consider how the person you hate is another human who suffers as you do. Maybe even more. See if you can feel a moment of connection through kindness or compassion. If you’re feeling disgust, see if you can cultivate a sense of wonder for the object you don’t understand. It exists as you do. If you feel anger, cultivate joy. If you feel greed, consider generosity. If you’re jealous, try love. Keep working at it. It’s a practice.
The point is, you don’t have to carry the weight of your negative emotions. They weigh you down. They make you want to share them here and there. But please don’t keep passing it along. No one wants to carry your weight in addition to theirs. Everyone has their own freight.
Let’s lighten our own loads so we can help others do the same. Life really is very sweet when you choose to see it that way.
The other day, a client mentioned that she was keen to keep a pain journal.
I asked, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to keep a pleasure journal instead?’
She said she wanted the information recorded so she could answer the doctor’s questions about origin and onset of discomfort.
I asked, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if the doctor asked about origin and onset of comfort?’
She just stared at me.
But here’s the thing. Yes, of course, pain. We all have it. Some of us have it worse than others. Some of us think we have it worse than others, which probably means we do. And some of us have it, ignore it and then suffer more when it gets worse.
We also have pleasure. All of us. Some of us have it more than others, mostly by choice. Some of us think we never have it. And then someone points out that we’re smiling, and we remember.
So what if we shifted our perspective? As a yoga therapist in training with my superb teacher, Gary Kraftsow, I’ve learned to seek doorways that will guide my clients back to an experience of joy. We’ve got a bunch of dimensions, as humans. Joy is not to be confused with pleasant sensations. They’re distinct, but related. Joy is the source, I think, of pleasant sensation. And also an effective remedy for pain.
Guess what the body feels when we experience joy?
Think about it. How about those times when you’ve hurt yourself, and then laughed? Or when your heart breaks, and you notice beauty? Our joy is a deep well. From it, we can draw pleasure, awe, wonder, inspiration, connection. Good love draws on joy and replenishes it.
Our pain body is an alert system. It’s advising us of an imbalance that requires correction. Like an alarm on the machine. If we address it appropriately, the machine resumes its functioning. Miraculous! Plus we learn a thing or two about the cogs and pulleys keeping us going.
But if we focus on the alarm instead of the underlying problem, well, shit, the alarm just gets annoying. It gets louder. It seems to be the only damn noise in the whole building. Can someone shut this thing off? The whole neighborhood frowns at us. We wish we could move out.
Pain is as we do with it. If we accept its purpose—to send a message—it will quiet down. If we accept its foundation—a transient imbalance in the machine—we won’t have to suffer its presence. Instead, we can cultivate an attitude of appreciation towards it. For alerting us. For sending us a message. For reminding us that listening in to our bodies is our duty and our privilege. For confirming our own power: that we’re the ones best-placed to oversee, manage, and maintain ourselves, if we honestly accept our responsibility to do so.
Weirdly, so many of us want to bullshit ourselves. To pretend like we take care of ourselves when we don’t. To outsource our self-care. To cede our power.
We have choice when it comes to pain. And we have responsibility.
We can focus entirely on the negative stuff. The pain itself. The way we hate it. The way it bugs us. The way it victimizes us. The way we feel like we’re the only ones ever to feel so horrible. And the pain, in that chronic condition of complaint, will reward you with its own chronicity.
Or we can remember how to smile. Even with pain. We can notice where pain isn’t and smile at our good fortune. We can offer kindness to others and feel our happiness when they receive it. We can experiment with kindness toward ourselves and feel the deeper, ecstatic joy of that. We can remind ourselves that we love, and that love is our treasure that multiplies in its distribution. And while we do, we can take care of our pain appropriately.
Complaining is a pattern. Patterns love reiteration. With chronic complaint comes neural networks that habituate the recitation of the negative. It becomes easier to complain than to find a way out of the negative situation. And with the ongoing complaint, the discomfort goes on.
So practice the converse. Create a new pattern. In the yoga tradition, this is called pratipaksha bhavanam. I call it the ‘practice of turning frowns upside down.’ Second chapter, 33rd verse of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: ‘vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam.’ Or, ‘when negative thoughts present themselves, cultivate their opposite.’
In other words, that frown? Flip it! It’s the best yoga inversion out there, I swear. When practiced regularly, those old habits of wah-wah-boo-hoo-me become sort of silly. Where do they lead us? Away from any understanding of our bodies and our emotions, that’s for sure. What if, instead, we cultivated a willingness to look inside? To engage in introspection and interoception? To learn how we create joy and experience its sensation? To realize our simple fortune of life?
What if we chronicled all that? The origin and onset of a sweet life?
Today, I hiked with a student. I shared a favorite trail. Together, we smelled the blooming chaparral and watched the flowers seek the sun. My heart swelled to see his awe. My well-worked legs felt strong and capable. My body was grateful for a rest in the afternoon and a sensation in my knee reminded me to go easy through the evening. Today was a good day. (Cue Ice Cube.)
Imagine if we all brought journals like this into our doctors?
May you, and Ice Cube, create joy every day.
Here’s a reminder: we know how to find the present moment.
So what do we do with it?
We immerse ourselves. We engage with it. We live.
But what’s living?
Look around and notice your sensations, your emotions, your thoughts. Can you accept the complete situation of your present moment and see what it offers? This is your opportunity to become totally involved in your life. This is the only time you have. Your sense of the past and future is illusory. You only have now and now is the only place where you connect with everything around you.
So experience the moment and be grateful for it. Say thank you. Notice what you see. Holy cow. I promise you: you’ll see so much more.
And then, when you notice something that prompts an instinct to judge, decide if you can refrain. To refrain from judgment is to accept totally that the present situation is the truth you’ve discovered.
What if, instead of trying to correct it, criticize it, rephrase it or reform it, you instead allowed yourself to explore the information around you? What messages is the universe sending you through this moment? When you withhold judgment, you open yourself to the truth—to the lessons of truth. You’ll discover how much you’ve missed. You may never have actually heard your friend’s thoughts because you’ve always had an instinct to correct her. You may not understand your partner’s position because you always discount his sensitivity. What if you listen instead and learn? What more can you find?
This technique reveals the truth of the world. It opens the world up. It makes you realize that the world was always ready for you. Waiting for you. You’re the one who’s been closed down. When we open up, we find nourishment everywhere. In the light, the sounds, touch, taste, smell. Our senses become keen as we open to deeper communication. We become more patient as we investigate the messages out there. We learn. And what we learn is connection.
Also, as we ponder our newly connected awareness, we start to see how our persistent judging is simply a habit that holds us hostage to fear, shame, and guilt. It’s a habit that continuously depletes us of energy. A habit at the base of all the obstacles we place in our own way. Basically, a habit of a defense system that just isn’t necessary. Thankfully, it’s also a habit that can be changed as soon as we notice that judgment isn’t requisite.
So see what happens if you immerse yourself in this moment? See what’s here for you. Notice how quickly you become a judge. What if it’s okay that the way things are is the way things are? What if you decide to look more deeply? What if you accept it and engage with it with wider eyes?
Here’s a wager: I bet that your cooperation with the moment will give you a better understanding of the appropriate action to take right now. I bet your opportunities for connection will expand. And I bet that some obstacles you’ve stumbled over again and again might become surmountable or disappear.
You can high five me later.
Seriously, try it. Give it a go. Then spread the word when it works. Because it will. We’re all meant to do this. It’s the truth awaiting our discovery. And when more and more of us do it, we’ll find our way to clear minds, pure hearts and a deep connection that changes our worldview.
We’ll stop acting like hostages. We’ll share freedom.
People keep telling me they want to unplug. They say, ‘I’m too connected.’ They want to ditch their phones, their gadgets, their keys to unreal rooms that don’t offer a moment’s rest. They say they’re heading to nature to escape. They want to feel free. To feel unconnected.
So I wonder.
Is the compulsive behavior that has us on machines all day actually connecting us? Are we using it toward this end? Or are we escaping true connection to our world around us by directing our energies toward constant distraction? How often are we actually engaging with the myriad facets of our natural life—the cycles of our bodies, minds, seasons, stars?
The return to nature is imperative. Absolutely. The more time we spend there, the more we see… this is the true connection. And the idea of unplugging is only a literal description of discovering that the energy that powers us doesn’t have to come from the electric company. Plug in instead to the world around us. Notice how it supports you. Notice its smells, tastes, sights, sounds. Feel dirt on your skin.
This is plugging in. This is finding yoga.
And it’s available at all times to you because all of nature’s reminders still exist, thankfully, in the tiniest bug on a leaf, on a spring flower on a succulent, in the waxing moon overhead.
You only have to decide to involve yourself…
If you don’t make that decision for yourself, who else will?
Someone called up and said she’d been reading about the benefits of meditation. She said she wanted to get started. She said, ‘I want to meditate 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night.’
Great, I said.
The woman said, ‘I have so much stress in my life. I usually work more than 50 hours a week and my husband and I have been going through some conflicts lately.’
I’m sorry, I said.
The woman said, ‘It’s going to be hard for me to get to you, though. So can we meet somewhere? I have to drive a lot for work. Maybe we can meet quickly somewhere or you can just give me some guidance over the phone?’
Hmm, I said.
I wonder if you can guess the issue that will arise if this woman tries to simply sit down on her own to meditate for 20 minutes. Even 10?
Here’s a clue: she won’t. Or she will for about 3 minutes and then she’ll fidget. She may check her phone. She’ll get up and come back. Within a week, she’ll decide, ‘I’ve been trying this for a week and I’m not enlightened.’ And then she’ll stop, concluding, sadly, meditation isn’t for me.
Which is precisely why there’s this gift bag of techniques offered up by traditional yoga.
Does your back hurt? I promise you that learning to meditate with a sore back is unlikely to bring you peace. Is your mind spinning? Same story. Do you struggle to be kind? To tell the truth? To rein in your greed? Yeah, well, deepening the practice of an asshole only deepens the asshole. Which is to say, someone who isn’t looking closely at herself to determine appropriately non-violent, honest and selfless behavior is only going to strengthen the patterns that keep her looking every which way but in. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we’re provided with the yamas, a set of restraints for worldly interactions, and the niyamas, a set of observances for inner processing. Toward others, be kind, be honest, don’t steal, be moderate, and free of greed. And toward yourself, be clean, content, disciplined. Study yourself and be devoted to something.
Not surprisingly, these are the first two of eight limbs meant to guide a seeker from raucous mind to absolute peace. From there, move the body. Then the energy on the wind of the breath. Tame the sense organs. Learn to focus. Become fully attentive on the object of focus. Then, give up the object and remain fully attentive. That’s meditation. By practicing that for a long, long while, with adequate preparation, maybe someday we’ll all comprehend the incomprehensible vastness of the universe and the pure potential of consciousness.
In the meantime, we’ll be more peaceful, healthier, clear-minded, less stressed and more compassionate. It’s worthwhile, even if we don’t all become Buddhas.
But it starts with a careful sequence. A series of steps to prepare the body to feel, to relax, to sit comfortably. Another series of steps to prepare the energy to withstand the process. And then practices for the senses. Practices to train focus. For some, mantra japa. For others, chanting. Maybe yantras. Maybe murtis. There’s a lot in the gift bag, curated over millennia to address various personality types, physical conditions and social conditioning. These yoga practices aren’t simply isolated magic tricks or exercise regimens. They’re tools of a system. They help the seeker see herself clearly and complement each other as the we develops her skills. And each tool serves some element of our daily interaction with existence—body, energy, mind, intellect, spirit.
It’s such an incredible gift bag. So thoughtfully compiled. All about you. The greatest gift of all being the compassionate recognition that plopping yourself down in lotus to ascend into mindless absorption isn’t natural after decades suffering and delighting in life.
So. Yoga. A system to know yourself. A system to lead us toward clarity of purpose and calmness of mind. A system to teach us all that we are all Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Mahavira. If we let it.
That woman? To start, I gave her an asana sequence with breath regulation. We did a short visualization before she settled in to rest. She said she had a marvelous experience in savasana. She wants to learn more.
I’ve been moving around this wonderful world since December 26. Now, I’m home.
I kissed the hardwood, the couch, promptly fell asleep for a day and a half, and then I kissed the refrigerator door. Thank you, dear Creator, for giving us the brains to innovate a storage receptacle for milk.
I really enjoy having a supply of milk. And cheese. And yogurt. But this isn’t about dairy. This is about absorption and assimilation. Both of which happen digestively for me when I have the means to enjoy copious amounts of dairy.
Thank goodness I’m home.
It’s going to take me a couple weeks, (and then another few years, I suspect), to fully integrate everything I learned from a variety of teachers over the last couple months. Chanting in Chennai, among chanters who know a thing or two, is like catching a wave on a 10-foot board. You just let it carry you. Alone, the board is one of those toothpicks. And the wave is ginormous. But, as Menaka said, ‘you can’t get anywhere if you don’t start somewhere.’ So I chant in San Diego, alone, and beg the forgiveness and indulgence of neighbors and a universe of sound awaiting some sort of alignment. Patience. Patience.
And then there’s that yoga therapy conversation that happened in the rain north of Watsonville for two weeks. The mountain I knew reformed before my eyes. The paths I’ve wandered for years are now streams. The rain fell. For a day. Then two. Then another 96 hours straight, with a brief pause for fog, and then another 72. I stopped being wet and just was. It took me a moment a few times to realize I was crying with the rain. And when I did, I thought, I’ve become water; I’m reforming myself. With all due respect to Gary and his transmission of Viniyoga, this learning surpassed all the content of the powerpoints.
Finally, a couple days among doctors, physical therapists and athletic trainers in a diagnostic workshop that was not so much diametrically opposed to the general play in my life — yoga, and all its multi-dimensional understandings — as slightly deficient in these greater lessons. (Like, say, working with the breath. Or realizing that what we call bad habits may have actually served us at one point and deserve some gratitude.) So I’m happy I could be there; let’s all work together, my friends. Because these folks know the body. They have this tool called the Functional Movement Screen, which is an attempt to objectively appreciate the subjective potential of movement in a given body. And then train it appropriately. My yoga translate would be: see the person in front of you, prioritize her conditions over everything you think you know, then work toward guiding her toward understanding them. The makers of this idea also have another screen, this one for pain. That interested me and I was fortunate enough to attend a training to learn its parameters. It’s called the SFMA, or Selective Functional Movement Assessment. This diagnostic tool offers a valuable set of information about the origin of pain rather than the manifestation of it. In yoga: recognizing the underlying patterns and how they no longer serve the person performing them. May they have the will and commitment to transform themselves. (That’s yoga.)
So, with all of this, I return to what I was. But, honestly, I’m no longer who I was. I’m richer. I see more. And I recognize that I know so very little.
And this, as always, is pretty much the only thing I know.
Thank goodness for yogurt. If you’d like to experience a hint of what I’ve learned, to help me integrate it more completely and benefit from the elegance and compassion of these teachings, please come see me. And if you have an physiological issue for which you’d like to explore alternative relief, please talk with me about being a case study. I’m looking to work with people dealing with chronic stress, insomnia, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, arthritis, diabetes or osteoporosis.
My appreciation for you in this world is immense. My love for you is greater.
Still, Chennai. Coming to know my neighbors: men lugging silver jugs of water on a shoulder before sunrise; flower weavers and their kids trying English words; pruned, skinny uncles tying fishing nets on the corner; dogs under carts; cows. The security guard sheepishly smiles when I smile. The schoolgirls laugh.
Winter isn’t scheduled for this part of the world; the heat builds and builds. Warm evenings become hot mornings then muggy, heavy afternoons. The sun isn’t bright behind the haze but it’s strong. It cooks trash piles and a cocktail of natural waste—human, dog, cow, goat—that fills the gutters. Today, my nose is tuned to the smell of piss. Fumes rise from the asphalt. Beside the tables where the women sew marigolds and freesia into garlands, the smells weave around each other, neither one canceling the other. Seeking the contrast is something like a nose exercise. My nose seeks freesia. It finds pee. It finds freesias. Ah. There is no immediate in-between.
I offer the crude example to share a souvenir from my time away.
Nose Yoga. Surely as compelling as Slackline Skateboard Yoga Booty Flow?
Okay, no. That’s not it. (Core Power will never have me.)
It’s this: when the world presents its extremes, how do I find calm in the center? In other words, where is yoga in this world?
Because it’s all extremes here. It’s a world of texture and color, divided into its polarities. It’s all oscillation, fluctuation from top to bottom.
On some streets, trash is piled against buildings. Traffic is incessant and not limited to wheels and feet. There’s hooves and paws. But one right turn and I’m lost somewhere else. It’s clean. Quiet. Like a bubble descended and captured the silence.
The food is spicy or highly spiced. If not, it’s rice or curd.
The water is bottled or slightly yellow.
Faces are stern until you smile. And then there’s joy, light, a laugh, a head bobble.
Even the hotel. When housekeeping closes at 11, the halls fall dark and silent. At 6, staff returns like birds thrown into a cymbal shop. They drop keys, brooms, phones, everything. They tell stories, issue orders or maybe it’s all lewd jokes that have become an appreciated alarm. (Thank you, Edison and Kalimuri, for the cleanliness and clatter.)
It’s all extremes. An overload for the senses in its fullness and emptiness. The only way, really, to remain calm as I interact with it, is to find myself happily lodged between the two. To find the center in me. At the point where the extremes collide and I get to experience both. Not in conflict but in concert.
Which works for just about everything. Anger around you? Stress around you? Awkward silence? Find your center. Yoga.
I signed up for this chanting and meditation workshop with Kausthub Desikachar and his mother, Menaka, because it promised to honor the divine feminine. Another extreme. One in western culture often ignored, misunderstood, hidden behind more masculine efforts to achieve, command, attack and acquire. All of which are divine as well. Just slightly out of balance when its counterbalance is absent.
So for two weeks, we’re chanting prayers and poems about the consorts of the Vedic gods. The women who share their power and, indeed, enable it with their energy. About abundant and loving Lakshmi. Wise and creative Sarasvati. Powerful mother Durga and blood-drinking Kali. Without the creative impulse and energy of these forces, the gods who stand beside them would be nothing but inert consciousness. Without the goddesses, the material world and our unique, seeking souls traversing it wouldn’t exist.
Nor would we be able to create life, nourish it, heal it and liberate it.
It’s a beautiful, spiritual way of remembering that the world has its way of sorting itself into extremes. As we navigate them, we ascribe to them one of the most elemental dualities we know: the man and the woman. The masculine and feminine. It’s so like men to sit quietly; it’s so like women to chatter. Men don’t ask direction; women have intuition.
Of course, the characteristics aren’t actually gender dependent. We’re all both—braun and beauty; stability and chaos; gods and goddesses. But honoring each gives us pause to remember both sides of the coin. Seeing the dual nature of the world reminds us to seek balance as we interact with it. To give, there must be a receiver. To do, there must be skill. The speaker wants a listener. Ideas want action. A lover wants her beloved.
We suffer when we forget. We become agitated in our imbalance.
I know the words divine and god and goddess (especially) provoke eye-rolls and shudders. So be it. There’s as much poetry in a resounding no as a lyrical yes. So read the poem. And consider it.
Kausthub’s grandfather and the primary teacher of what became western yoga, TT Krishnamacharya, said that you can’t remove Ishvara from yoga. He meant god. He didn’t care what god you choose to include or how you choose to envision her. Your god, my god, some god. So long as you cultivate devotion. In devotion, your heart thrills to connect with others and the whole world. Especially with your own true self. And that’s Ishvara. Safely invested in others, the whole world and you. Male, female. Divine. Yoga.
That’s what stands between the extremes. That’s what gives you calm when everything is fluctuating between them. Yoga.