Sunday
Jan172010

Denial: Not A River In Egypt

Suffering comes in many forms. Sometimes it is emotional pain, sometimes physical, and sometimes your whole world literally comes crashing down around you (if you haven’t already, please donate to the Red Cross or another reputable relief organization working in Haiti, and re-count your blessings).

For the most part, we are fortunate enough to be sound in body and mind, and to be surrounded by a fair amount of creature comfort. It is easy in the midst of a crisis on Haiti’s scale to dismiss our individual sufferings as unimportant, and perhaps some of them are overblown, but as Daniel Stewart reminded me the other day in class, “It is not our feelings that are wrong, but our judgment of our feelings.”

I want to write about denial, because it strikes me as possessing a powerful, serpentine ability to wrap itself around any situation and squeeze the truth out of it. When a person undergoes a great tragedy on the scale of Haiti’s earthquake, the mind often enters a state of shock as a way to protect itself from the horror of its surroundings. In a less dramatic situation, denial can be our mind’s way of protecting us from a painful truth that we are not yet ready or able to deal with. We may convince ourselves that our partner’s excessive drinking isn’t a problem, or that our credit really isn’t that bad, or that the one that got away is still in love with us.

In my late teens and early twenties I grappled with an eating disorder, helped along by both a modeling career and a pretty fragile sense of self-worth. Eventually someone convinced me to go to a therapist, and at our first session he asked me what was going on with my eating. I gave some long-winded, run around answer about not having a choice because of work, and that I knew what I was doing, and how I had everything totally under control. I’ve never forgotten how he just looked at me and replied, “Wow. I should’ve given you a cane and a top hat to go with that tap dance you just did.” His brutal honestly was a great gift, because I knew he was right, and on some level I had been waiting for someone to call me out on what I was doing. It wasn’t the end of the struggle, but it was the start of my way out.

Like many coping mechanisms, denial works until it no longer works. As denial leaves the body, we feel the suffering we have been avoiding. As it loosens its grip on the mind and on the heart, and truth flows back in, we are flooded with feeling, just like the prickling sensation of blood flowing back into a limb that has fallen asleep.

We must be gentle in this process. We must commend our bravery, our willingness to look deeply and honestly at how we are in the world. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali tells us that future pain can be avoided, but the catch is that it’s not by trying to avoid it. Instead, as we slowly and steadily awaken to the truth of who we are and allow that truth to determine our future behavior, we will eventually and inevitably no longer need to go down that river in Egypt.  

 

YS II.16 heyam duhkham anagatam

Pain that has not yet come is avoidable.

(translation from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda)

Monday
Dec282009

New Year, Old You?

For most of us, the idea of reinvention is an irresistible draw, and no greater opportunity for total transformation presents itself as reliably as the New Year. Marketers have been onto us for years, promising that we can have new bodies, new lives, forget our messy past and invent a brand new shiny future. Meanwhile, we’re talking about the difference between a Thursday and a Friday. Any other two days would not carry such weight (or promises of weight-loss!) and import.

I’m an absolute believer in the examined life, in making changes, in letting go of behaviors or attitudes that stop us from understanding ourselves on a deeper level than the size of our thighs. Yoga asks us to be unwavering in our attention to ourselves, not to become obsessive navel-gazers, but to step forward into our lives with a deep understanding of how our actions, words and even thoughts can impact the world around us.

But with all the emphasis on looking forward at this time of year, it’s tempting to sweep past behaviors under the rug and pretend they’re over and done with. Many years ago, I worked as an assistant to a writer, and one day she asked me to mail a copy of one of her books to someone. My desk was piled high with papers, other assignments and tasks, and the parcel soon got lost underneath it all. Every now and then I would remember it, and try to remind myself to deal with it, but in time I completely forgot that it was even there. Months later, my boss came into my office and saw a corner of the parcel sticking out from under a stack. It had been, of course, unbelievably important that the book be sent, and my error had caused a ripple effect of problems.

You may be saying to yourself “but that was a simple mistake, not done on purpose,” which is absolutely true, and also often the case in life. My point here is not about the assignment of blame, but of the value of looking backwards as well as forwards. Becoming stronger, deeper, more connected people does not come from hiding past actions under a pile of distractions, but from pulling them out, dusting them off, and taking the next correct action to fix the situation as best as we can. Running away, or hiding from the past does not make it go away, and if anything we’re more likely to behave the same way the next time we’re in the same situation. Not only that, but we’re likely to keep encountering the same situation until we figure out a better solution.

With that in mind: Look forward! Be optimistic! Set goals! Make things happen! But this year, maybe take a few moments to ruminate on where you’ve been, not just where you’re going.

 

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

 

Monday
Nov162009

Ebb and Flow

I knew it had been a while since I wrote anything here, but I didn’t realize it had been over a month since I checked the blog a few days ago. [Full disclosure: when I wrote the first version of this article, it said ‘almost a month’, not ‘over a month.’] I think originally I had intended to write something once a week. Best laid plans…

But I try to only write when I have something I’m excited about, rather than just writing something to meet some sort of arbitrary schedule, and sometimes I’m just more excited about a topic than other times. As much as we organize our lives around clocks and calendars, which unquestionably serve a purpose, it’s valuable to recognize that on a grander, macrocosmic scale, our lives flow in a different way. When we start to see how this movement of energy constantly shifts and changes, we get to ride it like a surfer on a wave, and take advantage of where it takes us, rather than fighting the tide.

Our asana practice is like this. Some days we are full of energy, free in our bodies, ready to take on whatever the teacher throws our way. Other days, we can barely muster up a downward facing dog, our bodies feel desiccated and ancient, and class drags by. 

This ebb and flow is reflected not just in our practice, but in every aspect of our lives.  We might become too single-mindedly focused on getting one specific job, doing everything in our power to try and make it happen, but to no avail. Or we may spend weeks trying to win back the heart of someone who broke up with us. Denial and anger over the death of a loved one may send us into a depression. All of these situations have the same kernel at their core: resistance to what life is presenting to us in the moment. When we resist what is in front of us, we suffer.

When it comes to our practice, we can use the greatest tool at our disposal – our breath – to act as a release valve for any drama that might build up in our minds as we navigate not only the poses, but our mind’s constant commentary on the experience.

This is the heart of yoga: if we are truly to find the union that yoga tells us is available to us, all the time, right now, we have to let the flow of life take us on our journey. The moment we give up resistance (and the 2 minutes we’re able to maintain it before we start resisting all over again) we experience a great relief, a great unburdening. What a load off to stop fighting against what our lives are telling us, and instead to go with the ebb and flow.

 

“The resistance to the unpleasant situation is the root of suffering.” – Ram Dass

 

“Pain is a relatively objective, physical phenomenon; suffering is our psychological resistance to what happens. Events may create physical pain, but they do not in themselves create suffering. Resistance creates suffering. Stress happens when your mind resists what is...The only problem in your life is your mind's resistance to life as it unfolds.” – Dan Millman

 

“You have to stop the Q-tip when there’s resistance." - Chandler Bing, Friends

Monday
Oct052009

Proprioception: Know Where You Are

 After spending several years looking at people’s bodies, yoga teachers often see different people doing the same kinds of thing in class over and over again. One of the most endearing behaviors that I see is the student who looks at the teacher demonstrating a pose, and believes they are replicating that pose in their body, only to discover when they look down at themselves that they’re in a completely different position. Instead of their arm being shoulder height, it’s down by their side, or their knees are bent when the teacher’s legs are straight. The other morning I was demonstrating a pose with my arms crossed over each other and my elbows touching, and it took several repeated instructions to one student in particular before he realized that he was just holding his elbows with his hands. Until he actually looked down at himself, though, he was convinced that we were doing the same thing (and clearly indicated this to me with his impatient facial expression!).

Proprioception is the body’s natural ability to know where it is in space, communicated to the brain through specific nerve endings, many of which are buried deep inside our joints. Here’s the dictionary definition of proprioception: “The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.” In other words, or in a yoga context, you can feel what your body is doing, and make minute, precise adjustments to your pose, without having to look down at yourself to do it. According to A Physiological Handbook for Teachers of Yogasana by Mel Rubin, it is as satisfying to the body to propriocept its location as it is for the eyes to look at a beautiful picture, or the nose to smell delicious food, or the ears to listen to pleasing music. It is a sense that we can develop with practice, but it is also one that many of us lose over time through disuse (our modern, technology-driven world doesn’t offer many opportunities to play with the anterior/posterior tilt in the pelvis). You don’t have to go to a yoga class to see how people have lost their proprioception; watch a few people walk down the street, and you’ll see limps, twists, and weird head positions that are entirely unconscious. The good news is, you can get it back: I’m working with a client who recently had hip surgery, and as we refine his new ‘walk’, he’s becoming an expert in feeling where his body aligns and where it doesn’t, and making the necessary adjustments.

But the greater metaphor at work here is the very goal of yoga: to realize and discover for ourselves where we are. So many of us spend countless hours pining for moments, possessions, or loves past, or dreaming of a perfect future where everything that is wrong with our present will be fixed. Yoga tells us to come back to the present, and to sit in that present place in order to understand, come to terms with, and eventually let go of everything else but the now. We will never move forward out of our idealized memories and start living in a peaceful present until we see how that past has led us to where we are. And we’re not going to make it to any idyllic future if we don’t know where our starting place is and what we’re working with. It may involve forgiving ourselves for past mistakes, or even mistakes we feel like we’re making in the present. It may require taking a good hard look at our own habitual behaviors and recognizing what we keep doing to prevent that idealized future from ever happening. It will certainly take practice, but just like proprioception for the body, with practice, we will undoubtedly improve our ability to know where we are in our lives.

Tuesday
Sep152009

The Muscles Versus The Mystery

When you see someone perform a magic trick, there’s always that moment of “How’d they do that?” The dove flies out from under the handkerchief, or the card you selected is suddenly, inexplicably, in your pocket. Something happened that you weren’t privy to, and it resulted in magic. But the moment the trick is revealed, the magic disappears.

I used to think this was how yoga worked. When I first started practicing yoga, my knowledge of the mechanics of the body was extremely limited. I think I probably knew that your hamstrings were on the back of your legs, and your biceps were on your arms, but that was about it. I couldn’t have told you the difference between a tendon and a ligament, and frankly, I didn’t see the need: I was enamored with the movement, the sweat, the opening, the psychological release, the mysterious power that yoga had to calm my addled brain.

I didn’t think that increasing my understanding of what was taking place would do anything for my body or my practice; and in the back of my mind, I carried some disdain for all those Iyengar yogis who would (as far as I could tell) spend 10 minutes talking about their big toe in trikonasana. Who cares about that? I thought. Let’s move!

I retained this attitude when I became a teacher, but I ran into trouble pretty quickly. Students would come to me after class concerned with knee pain or wrist problems and I would have little more to offer them than “Just don’t do that pose.” I knew it would only be a matter of time before my lack of study caused someone to injure themselves in class. If my motivation for becoming a yoga teacher was to serve people, I was doing them a great disservice by neglecting to adequately educate myself about what I was asking them to do with their bodies.

So I trained (and continue to train!) in different schools of yoga, and I came to realize that the human body is a wellspring of fascinating, mind-blowing, humbling processes. And I discovered that there’s no limit to how much you can learn, and that ongoing discoveries and advances in science mean that a yoga teacher can’t ever stop studying. I also discovered something about the magic of yoga.

When a magician performs a trick, the goal is for the audience to remain in the dark about how it happened. For it to be magic, we must be fooled by what we see. But yoga is the process of unfooling ourselves. It is a practice of uncovering, of discovery, and that discovery can and should include what goes on inside the body. Understanding the mechanics of Warrior 2 doesn’t detract from its potent effect on muscles and bones; on the contrary, knowing and applying the 72-second rule (that 72 seconds of healthy bone stress stimulates the osteocytes to create more bone, thereby staving off osteoporosis) can lead us to a practice that deepens our integration of all our body’s parts, that brings us to a place of balance, and that addresses our unique needs. Learning more about the importance of the oblique line in the body (and through my recent posts, forcing other people to learn about it!) has done amazing things for my practice and my daily physical and mental well-being.

Yoga isn’t a trick, and its enormous healing power doesn’t rely on ignorance and sleight-of-hand. It is a lifetime of learning. So become an expert in yourself, and trust that the magic will continue to work itself with as much potency as always.  And really, how immature of us to think that such an ancient practice would be rendered ineffective by a little muscle talk. We don’t have to take sides here: the muscles are the mystery, and we will never be done trying to find out “How’d I do that?” when it comes to our bodies.