Check this out: our lives are comprised of story. As a writer, I like this particularly well. It connects me to some original intention– worlds and their perceptions have to be created from something, by some chance of energy and interest. (It also justifies the indecent amount of time I spend turning memory and fleeting glances into fiction.)
We tell ourselves stories, too. I just told myself one in that paragraph above. It was a cruel little left jab at my writing habits. See it? It’s a samskara of mine. A scar, to put it another way, or a pattern. Like getting caught in a fishing net and using it as a hammock. I cling to the story because nap time in hammocks is damn comfortable. The thing is, after a while, I don’t like the rope burn. So I look for ways to unravel my samskaras. It might be the entire point of life– finding this liberation from fishing nets. (Somehow, turtles are always the best metaphor.)
So what’s the best way out? How do we curb unhealthy patterns? Yoga says first we pay attention to them. In the light, they start to fade. Magic. Then we see how they’re made. How, exactly, are those knots tied?
We’re all works in progress. Weirdly, the hardest progress to make is the quiet acknowledgement of our own innate goodness. We talk tales about getting hurt, getting angry, getting screwed, getting even. But how about some humble talk that includes, ‘I did okay today’ or ‘I liked the way I handled that.’
Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves fail to include the happy bits. The moments of success and heroic kindness that we achieve. If we leave out these integral plot points for too long, the story becomes much sadder than it needs to be. It also confounds reality. We fail to see ourselves as we truly are– essentially good, just a little pock-marked by patterns.
Which is where yoga comes in. When we practice our physical postures, we move through another story. Each pose has a beginning, a middle and an end; we move in, hold, move out. Our bodies follow the breath, our minds sense the movement, the movement sparks curiosity about our potential. We have these quiet moments to acknowledge our limits, our triumphs, our failings. All without much consequence. If we’re trying to find perfection in the pose– if we think there’s a giant #1 and a trophy to be awarded by achieving the best asana– we miss the point of the story. We also neglect the happiest, funniest, most satisfying plot points– when we wobble, open into our edge, or opt out completely. We don’t need to achieve a pose. We do need to listen to the story it’s telling us. And in that story, we might acknowledge the best parts of ourselves: our stability, our determination, our courage, our change.
As you practice your yoga, on or off the mat, consider the stories you tell yourself. Do they include the good parts? Do they cast you as a kindly hero? Do they recognize that other people are okay too, especially if you’re okay with yourself? Once you see your scars, like magic, they’ll start to let loose. And you’ll have taken a step along the path to the best happy ending– freedom.
(Also, once you’re free, you can nap in hammocks anytime.)
Here’s a proposition: let’s name our food by its component parts. At least until someone does something about the fact that almost all of our food is made of processed corn.
We’ll eat apples and kale. Avocados. Coconuts. Real corn… like from cobs and not processed into citric acid, lactic acid or high fructose corn syrup. I, for one, probably won’t eat potassium chloride or soy protein isolate if I can help it. I will, however, go for carrots, celery, cilantro. Almonds, cranberries and squash. Even coffee and the red cabbage and ginger sauerkraut I made last week which stinks to high heaven and tastes pretty heavenly too.
I know it’s hard these days to figure out a good diet. The competition for your attention is fierce. Should you eat like a caveman? Should you starve like a model? What about gluten? And dairy? And sugar. I will admit: I empathize with friends who say they’d rather just chuck the whole lot of advice and subject their bodies to the inevitable– refined sugar, processed grains, beige food laden with chemicals.
But empathy doesn’t mean approval and so hear me shout. Eat things that have names that children learn. Things that grow in gardens. Fish that swim. Organic creatures that take their fuel from the sun and convert it to your benefit. Use your brain. And eat the things that are naturally made to go in your mouth.
On Sundays, choose to rest. Notice that I’m reminding you of your choice in the matter?
Here’s what happens when we rest: the body grows calm and the mind becomes quiet; the mind becomes quiet and the heart begins to speak. I’m not trying to get woo-woo on you here, but I am suggesting that the heart has a vote in the way you live your life. Which means you might occasionally give it a chance to weigh in on things. Maybe it wants to hear from an old friend. Maybe it wants a garden. What is your heart telling you? How good would it feel to follow its wisdom?
What else happens when you let yourself relax? Usually, pain decreases. This is because relaxation and pain are conflicting states. Daniel Rockers, psychologist and director of the Pain Clinic at my alma mater, UC Davis, says ‘relaxation and pain… don’t usually co-exist. Good centering or balancing mechanisms … can help lower tension.’ Want to find a good centering or balancing mechanism? How about a hammock? Or an hour of Slow Yoga? Or a massage?
Even easier: mindful breathing for ten minutes. You’ve probably felt the panic that comes when you hold your breath for any length of time. That’s your body’s alarm going berserk because it’s not sure what you’re up to. That alarm is the same that rings when you’re frightened, stressed or anxious. Long, controlled, easy breathing pulled deep into your abdomen turns off the alarm, soothing the body and the mind, leaving you calm and relaxed. Ta-da!
So take a moment today and relax. If anyone asks you what you’re up to, tell them you’re investigating a balancing mechanism. This will make you seem like a very productive inventor who is discovering the next big thing. Which, in fact, you are.
Who doesn’t love a study? I love a study because I’m a perpetual student. Give me a study and let me wallow in it like a pig in mud.
Sometimes, however, I have to remind myself to see who’s doing the studying. For example, I am not a fan of pharmaceutical-funded studies. They tend toward delusional psychosis like a garage seller oversells at 3pm– sure that’ll work for something! Maybe it’s all those meds. Or pure desperation. See: inventing disorders to treat. I suppose a gajillionaire pharma CEO could call me a cynic, but he’s only right when it comes to him and his ilk. Mostly, I’m a purebred optimist with a great faith in the capability of the body to heal itself. With help, sure, but maybe not quite so much that’s quite so chemical-y.
Which leads me back to the study. Professors at Ohio State University recently published an article in the Journal of Clinical Oncology showing that yoga helped decrease fatigue, increase vitality and lower the presence of three blood proteins that are markers for inflammation among breast cancer survivors. The trial is especially pleasing because it’s large enough to get a little attention and, instead of relying on anecdotal surveys, it sought biological confirmation to verify participants’ claims.
So let’s give a great big Huzzah to the Ohio researchers! I hope the participants in the study have established a habit of yoga in their lives and that they find the calm that makes us all kinder to ourselves and others.
One of the finer gardeners of fruitful wisdom, Dr. Seuss wrote this little plum: ‘My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?’
Too frequently, the best observation comes too, too late. Which is why I ask the initial question: Is it time? Is this the moment for you to do those things you want to do? Whatever they may be.
As you ponder the latch on that pandora’s box, consider also the adjectives you would use to describe your perception of time. Is it free and floating or rushed and condensed? Is it out of your control? Is it a flock of swifts before sunset– chaotic and divingbombing your head?
I have this theory about time which isn’t really my own at all: it’s relative. It behaves in accordance with the position of the observer. And, forgive me for getting a little metaphysical with the theory of relativity, but just as light is a constant, so is a deeply rooted iota of you. In the Vedas, a body of texts that comprise the earliest Sanskrit literature and the oldest scripture of Hinduism, the absolute– Brahman, or the nature of truth, knowledge and infinity– the constant. It is also the original source of all that exists and ever will come into being. It isn’t god; etymologically, it is that which causes things to grow. Like the speed of light, it doesn’t change. Our perception of it, however, depends on our position.
Which is a long way, slow way of introducing you to the idea of establishing control over your time. It’s yours to appreciate but it’s wily. It’ll escape if you aren’t careful. It flies and it only comes back if you ask. It sticks around only if you pay attention. It may even expand if you sit still with it for a long, long quiet time.
So how about you give it a try? No side effects but a little moment of rest and respite.
Set aside ten minutes in the morning and sit down without your phone, your coffee, your dog. Set a timer and take a seat. On the ground, the grass, the couch, the pillow. It doesn’t matter. Sit and listen to your breath. Count your breath. If your mind roams, escort it back to your breath and count again. Feel your inhale lifting your ribcage. Feel how the exhale lets it drop.
I hear you. ‘Ten minutes!’ you’re shouting. You’re thinking ten minutes could be used for better things, important things, things that will make you better and important. Things like learning Mandarin, writing a book, establishing a petition to change small business laws.
Well here’s a bonk to your head: you’re wrong. Ten minutes in the morning is totally not enough for any of those things. But here’s the thing: ten minutes in the morning will alert that absolute inside you that you’re paying a little attention to it. And it will respond to the call. Ten minutes in the morning will make it possible for you to prioritize that other stuff later, if you really want to. You’ll start to see yourself pursuing those lofty goals or you’ll see that those goals aren’t even yours. You’ll find time starts to stick around because you’ve started to pay attention to it. It’ll still pass, but it won’t go so damn fast.
Have a listen to S.O.S. as you think on this more deeply.
I see a lot of yoga mats these days. Tucked under arms, tossed into bike baskets and backseats, nestled into slings that probably cost more than the mat itself. It’s good to see yoga mats. Huzzah for the mat and that lofty message it sends: I’m trying!
But. With this many yoga mats out there, I wonder about 1) all that darn PVC; and 2) how carefully all those students are applying asana to their one and only body. I think I can cover point one by addressing point two. Let’s see!
To get there, let me introduce you to Viniyoga. It ain’t Vinnie’s yoga, though bless that greasy guy in New Jersey who is definitely going to open a shala to capitalize on what’s coming. The term is taken from the Yoga Sutras, at 3.6: ‘tasya bhumisu viniyogah’ and it isn’t another form of yoga. With apologies to Sanskrit aficionados out there, the sutra proposes the care required to progress toward a goal, specifically meditative awareness. Vi might be translated as intelligent or deliberate; Niyoga as continuous application. (Bhumisu is stages or levels.) So, in the context of the sutra, deliberate and intelligent steps must be taken to head toward meditative awareness. But what about the context of life? What is viniyoga if we aren’t aiming toward meditative awareness?
These days, I’m thinking of Viniyoga as a challenge to the purely physical practice of yoga. What we commonly call yoga out on the street– what many of those who accessorize with the mat might call yoga– is actually asana. (Asana means posture— all those poses we do– and it is only one of eight rungs on the ladder of yoga.) If you’ve practiced any asana, you’ll remember those groans that issue off a really good stretch or the sighs when you find a moment of stillness. It’s good for you– the asana. It means you’re connecting with your body, asking it to move strangely, trusting it to abide this weird fancy.
But sometimes, those movements we ask our bodies to do in asana aren’t the right steps for us. Not in life, or on the mat. They might be viniyoga for someone else– you’ll see in my pics that I was born hyperflexible; it ain’t all it seems, I promise– but not for us. At worst, an inappropriate pose can lead to serious injury. At best, it might pique our curiosity but with a list of side effects that rivals a bad drug: diminishment of confidence, aggravation of postural imbalance, inflation of the ego, desertion of the mat.
Viniyoga tries to address all that. Like, say, you’ve got stiff shoulders? Then what are you doing cranking them into a downward dog? Making a lame dog is what. (Sorry.) Or, maybe you have pain in your hamstrings? Probably not a good idea to be constantly folding forward. Just sayin’. Instead of pushing our bodies into poses that can hurt us, we prepare ourselves by taking careful, deliberate steps. For stiff shoulders, we work on finding mobility. For overstretched hamstrings, we work on building strength and stability in the pelvis.
This is yoga that integrates the person into the practice. That respects the individual and honors its path. I don’t believe that a person should try to fit the asana. I prefer to see the asana form to the person. That’s an appropriate way to practice. And to live. And, finally, guess what? This kind of appropriate yoga is what will ultimately take you toward meditative awareness! (I just got all loop-de-loop on you.)
The loop leads me back to point one. The point about the PVC. These days, you can spend heaps on eco-friendly mats. You can get cotton mats. You can buy blankets. Or plastic paws for your hands. So much! You can buy so much! (Just this week, I discovered a shop in Encinitas called Jois. Seriously? After Pattabhi Jois? My former, now dead teacher? Yes.) ‘Everything is 30 percent off,’ said the nice lady. The studio is almost an afterthought. It’s in the back. Please enter and exit through the gift shop.)
So how’s this for an alternative to mat toxicity? Keep yours and WASH it! I’ve recently learned from some students that they get a new yoga mat every year because they didn’t know it can go in the washing machine. (Cold water, very little soap.) I’ve had the same mat for five years. I wash it. Line dry. And if you need a new one, ask around. Someone usually has a spare they aren’t using.
Same goes for your body. You can’t get rid of it though. So, you know, gentle cycle. Mindful of your component parts, please.
ZOMG. Laughter is good for you. Surprised? I didn’t think so. It’s like saying you should get off your butt, turn off your machine and go for a walk instead of reading this blog.
But wait. Don’t leave.
We all know ‘laughter is the best medicine’ because someone with grey hair has offered that little nugget when we preferred to pout. (Note: people with grey hair are usually right.) But sometimes it’s good to see some evidence.
Researchers at Loma Linda University, the home of those healthy Seventh Day Adventists, recently took a look at the effects of laughter on the stress hormone cortisol. They studied a group of elderly subjects, some healthy and some with diabetes. Turns out, the results in both groups, as compared with a control group who did not get to laugh (this kind of control reminds me of Sunday school) showed that the gigglers experienced a reduction in cortisol. They also had better memory recall after laughing for 20 minutes as compared with what I imagine to be the very sad, very controlled control group.
The study showed that 20 minutes of exposure to humorous videos provoked the same brainwave response as a session of meditation. It also stimulated the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain like endorphins and dopamine. Those, in turn, led to a general sense of contentment which, overtime, may boost the integrity of our immune system.
I always think of laughter as the contagion I’m happy to catch. So let’s aim for a pandemic. The worst thing that could happen is we all snort, cry and pee ourselves a little. Of course, I’m a fan of meditation too, but sometimes you just have to let go and guffaw. Chortle, snigger, quack.
Let me help you:
And I think you’re great. And we should be friends. And I want this to last. And, um, will you get that bowl down from the shelf? Wow, we should totally go out!
Oh body of mine, you’re so cool. You go when I don’t think I can and you heal when I hurt you.
I don’t get you a lot of the time but I love your mystery. And all that tissue. Also, I like the way you stick around. Let’s be friends forever. At least until we’re dust.