I love going back to Costa Rica! On retreat last week, we played around with some animal totem cards that Kari brought from San Francisco. I pulled the hummingbird, whose "secret is that they have learned where to gather nectar and they return to these sources daily for nourishment and rejuvenation." There is something powerful about revisiting the same place that results in a conditioned response. My whole system- body and mind- softened upon landing. Senses incite a strong response: the sweet scents of flowers, baking scones and morning coffee, waves crashing on the dark stretch of sand, deep guttural sounds of howler monkeys, jungle air in the nostrils. In this environment, I didn't need a massage to work out the kinks from winter in Boston and some heavy personal stress (but I got one anyway!).
The practice of yoga is largely about recognizing conditioned patterns of thinking and behaving, or samskaras. In the jungle, my senses- or salient network- combined with memories of being relaxed on the Osa, resulting in a system-wide unwind. In life outside paradise, we have a range of other associations, some of which can be less than helpful.
Let me give you an example. Early in the week, one of our yogis, Sandy, casually slipped on her shoe and ripped a tendon in her hand- a random accident. Depending on her past experiences- prior accidents, sicknesses, "bad luck" etc., Sandy could have given this injury a much larger meaning and her response could have been "this always happens to me, why is life so hard, why am I such a klutz..." We have all been there! This line of thinking could easily ruin an afternoon or worse. And get this: when we revisit the same line of thinking, our thoughts start to change how our neurons fire, and create pathways in the brain- connectivity between a stimulus and a response. Life happens and we react. We give our experiences meaning. The more we revisit similar thoughts, the easier those pathways fire, and often we end up feeling the same old way. We default to old stories about ourselves and the people in our lives: "She always overreacts," or "I always mess things up."
Picture car tires carving tracks in deep snow before the plows come through. The first car may have a tough go, but the ones that follow find the same grooves, and soon the roads are clear and all cars move a little easier. Our minds work in a similar way, creating paths of least resistance. So if we aren't happy with our current lot in life, how do we change? We can't control specific experiences. Sandy couldn't reverse time and un-tear her tendon. We also can't shut our thoughts off, as anyone who has tossed around in bed at night knows. So what is in our control? The choice is in our reaction. But knowing how the brain works, and how easily we can be conditioned, this isn't easy! In yoga or meditation, or any contemplative practice, the trick is to disrupt our usual lines of thinking. That is where our powerful senses come into play.
The moment we redirect attention to feeling instead of thinking, we override the narrating network in the brain. We pull ourselves into the present moment. During meditation and yoga, each time you redirect attention to the feeling of your feet on the ground or your breath in your chest, you disrupt your usual pathways and pull yourself into reality. In the present moment, we have a choice to see things clearly as they are, instead of overlaying years of experiences and reactions to current circumstances. And just like negative thoughts, with practice the brain re-wires to make this easier.
For me, yoga isn't about getting physically flexible (although you might!), it's about having more flexibility in life. Shake up old routines and live on purpose with a fresh mind.
Unlike the hummingbird, I can't revisit Costa Rica daily. Getting to the yoga studio is amazing, but not always an option. To harness the power of the senses to make practice easier, it really helps to establish a routine. Have a set place at home- even a corner of a room- dedicated to practice. I like to burn incense or sage and start with a little chanting. At times I find music is helpful. Create a little environment to prime yourself for practice, and keep feeling your feet on the ground. Stay with it! It actually gets easier.
If you want to learn more about the brain, check out Norman Farb's work at the University of Ontario.
It came to my attention this week that most of the metaphors I use in my teaching are related to food and cooking. Hey, we're supposed teach what we know, right? Hold out your hand like you're holding a pizza. Imagine relaxing the feet and palms so they spread wide like a baking cookie. Reach your arm like there is a piece of cheese just out of grasp. While these work for me, and I know my student was mainly kidding, it did get me thinking. These metaphors can easily push someone into a serious dinner fantasy ten minutes into class, which isn't necessarily helpful. One of my takeaways from recommitting to meditation this month has been learning that I can't meditate on an empty stomach- not unless I want to spend twenty minutes dreaming of a breakfast sandwich. Part of why we practice paying attention is so we can spend less time pulled from the present by desires and fantasies served up by the mind- to be more conscious of our patterns so we have the option to choose something different. In my teaching, I am now aware of a pattern and can consciously look for better alternatives that may be more accessible and more helpful for my students.
Instead of food, let's look at the (mostly living) plants in my house. I was not born with a green thumb. Luckily, I have learned from my mom and sister that the best ways to keep plants healthy and happy are deadheading flowers and pruning the dying leaves. Cutting the parts that aren't working allows the plant to redirect energy into what is still growing and green. At times I don't notice for weeks- which doesn't bode well for my plants. That first step in pruning- seeing what needs to go- isn't any different for us humans. This awareness can provide a better handle on what needs to be cut from our lives to make room for something different. This could mean putting down the phone to be more present for your kids, choosing to have your meals not in front of the television, or looking around while walking down the street and really seeing. We all have habits that aren't helping us live our best lives. We're human after all. The first step in growth along this path is just paying attention so if there are things to change, you at least notice them! #thisiswhywepractice
How much of human life is lost in waiting? - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Lately, I've found myself going through the motions in my asana practice- five breaths in a pose and then onto the next one, never actually landing. Waiting on each pose to be done, with my head moving steps ahead of my body. It wasn't a huge leap to see this playing out in my life. With my job and relationships a bit unsettled, much of my thinking has been spent in the future- when 'xyz' happens, I will be happy. This type of thinking pushes you forward and you miss out on the now. Life is a string of transitions, but not waiting is hard! So how do we stay present during transitional times on and off the mat? How do we stop wasting time waiting? In my asana practice, the missing ingredient has been curiosity. To pull myself back into the moment, I have been trying to approach each pose like it's new. Some questions I have been asking myself that have been helpful: How does the breath feel in this shape today? How do my feet land? How does it feel to take up space in this shape? Where do I feel comfortable?
And when the urge to move on arises, I try and stay curious about that, too. Where is that coming from? Can I breathe in a way that soothes the agitation? How am I being here?
So this month, my practice and classes are a *bit* slower than usual, and it can be frustrating. But this approach can make a pose that you've practiced 1000 times feel fresh, and build an appreciation for the seemingly mundane parts of life. How can we all land better in each moment? Can we recognize the urge to jump forward and get curious about now instead?
This quote from Marianne Williamson is one of my favorites, and one that I come back to when faced with senseless violence and acts of hate, which sadly, has been far too often in our world. In the wake of a tragedy like last night's attack in Las Vegas, I feel so insignificant, helpless and small. I know I'm not alone.
One of the basic tenets of yoga, ahimsa, requires that we do no harm. This can feel relatively easy when we think of harm as physical violence, as most us are not violent by nature. But choosing to love- in any and every situation- can require energy and a force of will that isn't always easy to muster up. We must continue to stay the course, and love others hard, even when, especially when, the gut instinct may be to shut down or push away. This can be something as small as letting someone in front of you in traffic, having patience in a long checkout line, or being present and listening to your partner in a difficult conversation. Remember to show that same love for yourself when your best intentions go awry.
Keep practicing. I'm so grateful to be starting a new Meditation class tonight to create some space to practice being less reactive and more present. It is in this space that love can grow. I don't mean to make this into an advertisement for this class- I just feel better knowing that I have these 20 minutes tucked away today to regroup and process. If your budget can't swing it, my treat today.
5:40-6 pm tonight at Bow Street. $5 drop-in.
These are trying times. Many in our community are struggling with anger, frustration, sadness, defeat and hopelessness. The practice of yoga allows the time to acknowledge — and really feel — these feelings. Where are they arising from? How does the physical body respond? What is their effect on the mind? Slow movement and breath are great ways to avoid storing this tension in the tissue for longer than necessary, to check old patterns, and keep the nervous system from short-wiring. In his workshop on Sunday at Bow Street, J. Brown admitted to questioning the relevance of yoga this past week, and I think we can all understand that sentiment. Why bother? There is so much work to be done, is this just a waste of time? But this is exactly why we practice.
In my last note, I explained the concept of vairagya — non-attachment or equanimity. This is important in the wake an election when for many of us, things did not go as we had hoped and believed they should. I truly believe the way forward is through connection, and that connection — meaningful conversation and understanding — requires that we maintain a level of calm. Flying off the handle and shouting beliefs at the "other" side may feel cathartic and provide relief in the short term, but from my experience it just makes both sides dig their heels in deeper. And from a yoga perspective, we have to remember that at the core, we're all the same.
maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam — yoga sutra 1.33
"The mind will remain undisturbed for those who can cultivate feelings of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for those who are struggling, and indifference to those who are"...less than virtuous. Or, as Richard Freeman says, "Keep everyone in your heart. Even the schmucks."
As Richard Freeman says, "Keep everyone in your heart. Even the schmucks."
This becomes easier when you're content in your own heart and mind — so personal practice and self-reflection are important. Don't underestimate the work you are doing. And try and remember that everyone — everyone — is doing the best with the tools they have. We may all be the same at the core, but across the country we have vastly different life experiences that have resulted in patterns of behavior (samskaras, in yoga) and coping that are just as different.
I certainly don't have answers or solutions right now. But if my morning practice can ground me, I'm less likely to have road rage on my commute. I'm more likely to smile and hold a door for a stranger. These things may seem insignificant, but they can set a day in a different direction. Practice can also help boost your immune system and give your nervous system a break — and we all need to be healthy to keep pushing forward. So stay with it!
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Happy Election Day. Wow has the stress been palpable this week. Classes were busy at Bow Street last night and I'm so happy to have the opportunity to come together and alleviate some stress as a community, and so grateful for a warm safe place to practice and breathe. One of the attributes we are cultivating in practicing yoga is vairagya — often translated as equanimity or dispassion. Early on in my practice of yoga this was taught as "it is what it is." And I had such a negative connotation with that phrase. I'm not supposed to care so deeply?! Should I just crawl in bed and give up?
In reality, the dispassion we are fostering isn't meant to hinder progress or action. It's not "it is what it is, so why bother," it's more of a sense of just — "it is." It's a letting go of the outcome, but not the action. And the election season has been a great teacher. We are called to put in the work. Exercise our right to vote, and do our best to raise awareness.
I know many of you have jumped on the phones and volunteered to drive folks to the polls. It's still important to care deeply and put that passion into action. But at the end of the day — once the action is done, none of us can individually control the outcome. And that is where the equanimity comes in. We vote, but none of us can ultimately choose the president or the results of the questions. What we choose is our reaction: the words we choose to speak to those who hold different views and how much we let the outcome rock our internal worlds.
So today: keep practicing! Choose to pause and breathe (slow exhales are excellent for calming the system), and check in with sensation in your body. Feel your feet on the ground. Shut off the media & take a walk — the trees are still beautiful out there. You're doing great.
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Part of why yoga is so powerful is that it provides the time and focus to strip away everything that is not right now. And when the practice continues off the mat, the life that is actually unfolding around you every day will be more apparent. Instead of looking to confirm all of the negative, fresh eyes might see evidence of all of the good things in the world.
I believe in the inherent goodness of all people, that we are hard-wired for love. In reality, maintaining this belief takes hard work and practice. I set daily intentions of staying open and strong and trusting in love, and my asana practice is a physical reminder of this intention. So this week, I practiced & taught Warrior 1, a favorite pose requiring strong roots, flexibility, connection and trust. A grounded pose to reveal the heart. A reminder that to stay open takes both hard work — real action — as well as release.
About this blog
This blog, together with the occasional newsletter, will be an active space to share thoughts about yoga on and off the mat. Please let me know what you like and what you'd like to see more of. And as always, thank you for the gift of teaching!