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.
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!