Monday, March 30, 2009

Emotional Vapors

As a yoga student, recently, I got an adjustment in Ustrasana, or camel pose (a backbend done from a kneeling position). It really hurt! Did my teacher grow a Captain Hook-style hand with two prongs? I don’t think so, but it felt like two bony probes penetrating the skin on the middle of my ribs on my back, close to the spine on either side. I didn’t say anything, but I’m pretty sure I gripped my jaw. When we came out of the pose and assembled for further instruction, I thought about saying something like, “as a teacher you probably want to know what happened, blah, what happened, blah.” And I think I have done something like this in the past without much satisfaction. So this time I decided to wait. I was in the passive mode of watching a demonstration when a series of emotions passed through me: little girl rejection preceded fear and I felt something big coming. I have been here before. I was triggered by this situation, and in the past I have battled the tears, and probably would have left class to cry.

This time I silently said, “Oh no…” to my self in a way that didn’t have a lot of emotional resonance: I was just going to see what happened. For an instant I felt like I was standing on train tracks with the locomotive coming. And then it left. The impact of fear and violation and sadness left just like that, leaving only a few tear tracks on my face. And what also came through was a piece of my past. A childhood caregiver in my life used to really manhandle me and scare me. I felt myself as I was then and I understood that experience in a different way. I really felt her—the child me, and what she went through. In the past I had blocked it out, and when it was happening it was too much to bear: how can a child deal with an adult attacking them? I couldn’t. But, what I gained this time was a greater understanding of myself, and compassion for my truth. I unraveled some of my mystery through this experience. I survived.

In that instant, when I was standing on the train tracks with the train coming, the outcome was not clear. The emotions coming were so strong. I felt awe about how strong the emotions are that the small body of a child can handle! There was potency to those feelings that I think no caring adult would want for a child. But there they were. I had felt that then, and feeling it this time was more of an education than anything else. In the past when I had experienced a similar triggering I just felt the sad child who was powerless, but this time I felt myself as a woman who could watch these feelings and feel for the child who was once me.

I am actually thrilled that I allowed this to happen, and feel lighter, more self aware, and more respectful of myself because of this experience. And it was all triggered by a situation in a yoga class where someone (of the same sex as the childhood caregiver) was strongly touching my back in a backbend. Luckily, I embraced it as a safe space for my healing.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Memories of Floccinaucinihilipilification

Self-reflection (svadyaya)* while I was reading the new book Emotional Freedom, by Judith Orloff M.D. compassionately showed me some of my unprocessed emotional straw (dotted with plenty of unresolved EXCREMENT) that still needs to be spun into gold through the alchemy of yoga, as in the union of body, mind and spirit. You really need the spirit part to do it! Without opening the heart to something greater (Isvara-pranidhana)* than the personal story, we can become a prisoner of it. And the book is definitely written for men and women both. So if you have ever done something or said something you regretted later because it was harmful and not done with conscious awareness, this book offers helpful ideas for becoming more aware and for shifting into a more compassionate and loving place.

The chapter on jealousy (aparigraha)* had me rapt. In it I learned a new word: floccinaucinihilipilification which refers to “the habit of deeming everything worthless.” This definition transported me to my younger adult days when a regular phrase for me was, “Life sucks,” said in a passionless monotone. I just wasn’t seeing a place for my hope to sprout in the world I was seeing. The new connection I made was that this was an effect of having lived jealously. When you always think that other people have everything figured out, and you don’t, eventually, (it’s easy to see how) someone might give up under those circumstances. Especially when that person (me) feels that they want to make a creative contribution to the world. That is not something you can find from someone else. It must come from within. Dr. Orloff sees self-esteem as the antidote for jealousy. It takes courage to look inward for inspiration, when so many people who don’t really have it worked out, themselves, want to tell us how to do everything—especially when you are a young person.

But it’s never really about other people, as in “their fault.” The road towards freedom shows up for real when a person is ready to take responsibility for their life. And a nice part about the book is that the author sees challenging emotions as opportunities to grow. So if I were to see the next occurrence of jealousy as an opportunity to work on self-esteem, I would be in line with the message of the book. So the next time I think that someone else has things figured out so much better than me, I can dedicate the next conscious moment to looking at what I am doing instead of ruminating on my warped perception of the other person.

Sometimes I am surprised when the old “life sucks” Brooks shows up. It is never when I am teaching yoga, but she can sneak in behind the scenes when I am watching or listening to a situation, either alone or in a group. Certain kinds of looks from people can bring it on, or if I feel that I am not being seen it can also happen. The next time this happens I’d like to remind myself that the clouds of negativity are not me, and those thoughts are not who I am. They are just a part of my mental soup that shows up sometimes, and I don’t have to believe it. It’s harmful to act from that dark place, so my awareness of it is crucial.

I have encountered some people who don’t want to tolerate negativity in any form. But that might send it deeper into the subconscious, and from there it can control things without interference. So this is why it’s important to bring these old nasties out into the light of conscious awareness—this way you can grow emotionally by making choices about what you are doing instead of reacting out of old emotional patterns.

I am grateful for having yoga in my life. It was the experience of going deeper into myself through this practice that allowed me to see a world where my hope might sprout and my dreams might become realities. My dream of teaching yoga has happened, writing about yoga substantiates another dream, and now I’d like to extend my reach further (hope in progress).

* I added the corresponding concepts from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. The book isn't about yoga per se.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Questioning the Unquestionable

From an essay by Wendell Berry

Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer

“What would a computer cost me? More money, for one thing, than I can afford, and more than I wish to pay to people whom I do not admire. But the cost would not be just monetary. It is well understood that technological innovation always requires the discarding of the “old model” —the “old model” in this case being not just our old Royal standard typewriter but my wife, my critic, my closest reader, my fellow worker. Thus (and I think this is typical of present-day technological innovation) what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody.”

Of course, I am retyping this excerpt from The Sun magazine on my computer! And I want you to know that I really like my computer. I do. And at the same time I see a bit of wisdom in the above quote.

More specifically, I recognize a longing in myself—a longing to not be discarded, and not to discard people in my life. This is a tough one because this has been going on for some time, and most people I know actively throw away old things and relationships. And I do wonder if the activity of discarding old things does create a model in consciousness that makes it easier to discard people.

Even though it has been imagined in science fiction, one thing we cannot discard (and still remain alive) is the body. So I see the practice of yoga asana, when practiced through healthy times and modified for times of illness as a way to maintain a valuable, long-term relationship with one’s own body. And this consistency creates a different model in consciousness that might help people to honor each other as well.

I also resonate with a notion of letting go of old thought patterns that no longer serve. So I do not want to cling to everything in my life, fearful of change. Yet, relationships are so cheap! I don’t think this is right. At the smallest inconvenience—“Bu-bye!” Are we not worth more than last month’s cell phone that now must be replaced by the new sleeker model?

Rather than giving up technological innovation, perhaps what is called for is a greater awareness of who we are. That way we can develop helpful relationships with one another, rather than dumping the old one to get a new one. Technological innovation is relatively recent, so perhaps we haven’t yet evolved an ability to discern our humanity in the jungle of toys.

I am hopeful that we can.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pilgrimage to Champaign-Urbana

Some people might wonder why I traveled 2 hours and 45 minutes to take a 1.5 hour yoga class with Lois Steinberg this weekend. The answer is that the yoga is really good. It was also a good time on a road trip with friends, and a great excuse to get out of the city for a bit.

The instruction was precise, and I was definitely “on” as I felt like I was on an adventure—not quite to India yet, but still an adventure. In Urdhva Dhanurasana I remember lifting my upper femur (thigh) bones and my spine opened with ease toward the strength in my arms. Also it felt like my shoulder blades were one-third of the way down my back, really allowing my shoulders to open over my wrists. Or maybe I was just high. One of the effects of a backbending practice is that it makes you feel great.

At the end of class, Lois talked about how people get high on backbends. She also said that as we age that we should practice more backbends. And backbends can be helpful for shifting out of a depressed state. But in the end when we are residing in the benefits of constant practice, backbends can actually be relaxing.

I definitely felt high from the backbends, but on the way home felt profoundly relaxed and satisfied with the trip.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ecstatic Commute

This morning on the train I was reading Kabir Ecstatic Poems, versions by Robert Bly. It looked like I was going to be comfortably on time for teaching my 7am class. Then I looked up from a particularly absorbing poem and the doors were closing at my stop. I had missed it! So I got off at the next one, and luckily there was a taxi at the corner and a man with a hardhat and big lunch box was getting out.

Soon I was on my way back. I told the smiling driver what had happened to me. And then I read the poem for him. Here it is:

Student, do the simple purification.

You know that the seed is inside the horse-chestnut tree;
and inside the seed there are blossoms of the tree, and the chestnuts, and the shade.
So inside the human body there is the seed, and inside the seed there is the human body again.

Fire, air, earth, water, and space—if you don’t want the secret one,
you can’t have these either.

Thinkers, listen, tell me what you know of that is not inside the soul?
Take a pitcher full of water and set it down on the water—
now it has water inside and water outside.
We mustn’t give it a name,
lest silly people start talking again about the body and the soul.

After I had finished reading it, I was grateful to see that we were almost there. I was going to be right on time! The cab driver really enjoyed the poem. “That’s so true!” he said.

And I enjoyed telling this story and reading the poem to yoga students today. If given the chance to re-do this morning, I wouldn’t change a thing!

This poem is pretty far out. Its imagery transports me to another place—which explains how I missed my stop this morning. Poetry can be an elixir, somewhat intoxicating.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Blissful Framework of Pranayama

When I walked into the Art Institute of Chicago it felt like a switch was turned on inside me. I went from a mode that was coasting into an activated state. My eyes became keen as I was primed and excited about what I was about to see. I enjoy and am stimulated by art. And I made a connection: I realized that when I get up from my pranayama (breathing) practice I feel the same way. The difference is that it sets up my frame of seeing without the pleasant expectations of seeing something great. As we know, not all activities are equally exciting. It’s easy to be “on” for things we know we like. Learning about the breath can help us to be “on” for more of life.

Pranayama, or breath control, is the fourth limb of Ashtanga yoga. It can be seen as a bridge towards meditation. The first limb, Yama has to do with relating to the external world ethically. While the second limb, Niyama is for personal observances. And the third limb, Asana is posture. So Pranayama begins to take us into more subtle realms of breath, preparing us for the next four limbs to work with our consciousness on many levels. It goes beyond how we understand ourselves in everyday interactions with others.

Breath connects visible processes with invisible processes. When you take a breath there is a perceivable movement in your body. Your belly moves, and/or your ribcage swells. This is something you can observe on yourself or others. It’s nice to watch pets do this (I like watching my bunnies breathe.). Inside the body oxygen is absorbed from the air, and it cycles through the body—invisibly maintaining our cells.

And air is invisible, so breath can also be seen as mediating the invisible. We take in the invisible air where it goes through invisible processes. So our bodies are in direct contact (inside and out) with the unknown (invisible) all the time. Metaphorically it can also be seen as processing an invisible past towards an invisible future, and the only place we can actually taste it is in the present moment. So when we are working with the breath it is important to be aware of the sensations of what is occurring in any given moment.

Different kinds of yoga handle the practice of breathing in different ways. In Iyengar yoga it’s important to be well established in your asana practice before learning pranayama. But, in Kripalu yoga they teach breath control right away. And, in Ashtanga yoga (of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) you are doing Ujjayi Pranayama during your asana practice.

I feel a greater sense of wellbeing after my pranayama practice (I have been doing it separately from asana in line with Iyengar yoga). I do it every day before leaving the house. Just five minutes of breath awareness can make a real difference. A good way to start practicing is to lie down and watch your natural breath. Learn to observe your inhalations and exhalations as they appear without any help from you. Then lengthen the in and out breaths so that they are long, soft, smooth, deep, even breaths. Breathe evenly into the right and left lungs. Make sure that the inhalations and exhalations are equally extended for a balancing breath. End the practice by relaxing the breath control, and observe the natural flow of breath.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Benefits of Structure

In my life I have been very suspicious of structure. Admittedly it can be seen as a great homogenizer, and I appreciate individuality. When I was in school I remember thinking that that was what some design schools were doing with their rigorous programs: creating uniformly fastidious cogs. There didn’t seem to be the freedom of artistic expression there. So I went to art school instead, and I was free to create what I wanted with very little interference.

However, it is a benefit for a vine to have something to climb on. With the support of the structure it can stand much higher than it might have without it, and it can even show a beauty it wouldn’t have otherwise. Similarly, people can come together and create structures that help one another out. What we build together affects who we are as individuals. Who we are as individuals affects how we build.

Learning an existing structure forces you to step outside of yourself. This process enables growth. This is like when you go to a yoga class and the teacher teaches a pose you know, but does it differently than you are used to practicing it. You can either try the new way, which can potentially deepen your experience, or you can practice it the same old way. It is a choice.

An important prerequisite to entering a social structure is having a good sense of (and confidence in) your identity. In the past I have not always felt safe in groups, but I think things are different now for me. Over the last few years I have allowed myself to know myself. My old failing was that I was a people-pleaser to the core, and was operating under the principal that if people liked me then I could have what I wanted in life. But really I was selling myself out.

I have also experimented with almost becoming an anti-people-pleaser, doing mostly what I wanted, and living a very unstructured existence. This approach isn’t so good because it provides fertile ground for bad habits to grow. We are social beings, and need to learn to come together in positive ways. And I think we can do better with the support of others as long as we can maintain ourselves in the process.

In the past it didn’t feel safe for me to engage with certain people because I needed them to like me. What a disadvantage this is! There have been plenty of people throughout my life who haven’t liked me (and gratefully, many who have). But, that doesn’t mean that I should have rolled over and died (which I felt like doing)! It’s just the truth: some people didn’t care for me (and some still don’t).

To participate in a social structure a person needs to be able to work with people they like and those they don’t like. When we come together to create something larger than ourselves we need the talents of everyone involved. So it does mean accepting those who like us, and those who don’t.

I have taken the time I needed to honor myself in what was a turbulent sea of self-loathing, and I will try to see through the spiteful eye of another to my own heart-full understanding.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Asana with Care

When I was first learning the primary series in Ashtanga yoga (of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) I would lay on my mat at the end, totally covered in sweat, good and hot, and felt as if I had just wrestled a big gorilla. I was the big gorilla. There is a good feeling to exerting oneself to that degree. It feels so good to lie down at the end.

It is good to work hard in yoga. But the scenario I just described isn’t so great. I was really yanking to try to be where I wanted to be in the poses. This is a vexing way to practice; my frustration would mount as I went from pose to pose. I was also hardening myself with over-effort.

At the same time I think it is important to challenge one’s self with the practice. So trying poses you “can’t do” is a good idea. What is crucial is how you practice. Practice with care.

Asana is the third limb of Ashtanga yoga from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Asana is the physical pose we are practicing in class or wherever you practice (Doing a yoga pose is a nice way to wait for luggage after a flight.).

A good way to practice asana is to put your self into the pose. Then assess it. Are you over-working certain parts, and under-working others? Do you feel strain? Can you breathe? Then adjust the pose so the whole body is actively sensing and responding to moment-to-moment feedback from the pose (including the breath). And this can all happen while “holding” a pose.

Sometimes I see students work by finding the general shape of the pose, and then freeze, perhaps waiting for it to be over. The moment you are waiting is the moment that you have stopped doing. The muscles have become like glue, rigidly holding the bones and organs in place. This way of practice is like when a bunny freezes. Sometimes rabbits do this when startled. There is nothing tighter than a tense bunny (I have two, so I know)! Their little bodies become like alabaster sculpture that shakes. Don’t do this to yourself! Don’t “hold” the pose still like that.

Keep finding the pose. Instead of trying to remain absolutely still, see what you can do to improve the pose. Does it feel dull anywhere? Can you activate that dullness? Does it feel like a rock somewhere? Can you release that or extend that? Do everything you have learned about the pose, and then discover more. Practice is fun!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Wheels of Mystery

I went to the Art Institute of Chicago this week, and not only has the museum changed, but I, too have changed. This time phone beeping interrupted my experience of the art. Oh, an email! Oh, a message! Oh, I’ll return that call later! These were unnecessary interruptions that I humored for a while. Later I wised up and silenced my phone.

The Nataraja sculpture was in the long hall that used to hold the suits of armor, chain mail and swords. It seems to be symbolic of world changes, that the symbols of combat have now been replaced with representations of spirituality. Part of the symbolism of the Nataraja (picture above), the royal dance of Shiva, is about creation and destruction in life.

The painting, Dance of Life by Edvard Munch, also on view at the Art Institute, shows a cycle of hopeful love, creation of connection, loss and grief all participating in a mad dance. I spent a long time looking at this painting, and identified with its mythology. I also saw it when I was a child going to museums with my grandmother, and wondered if it had somehow guided my emotional life-path.

The movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, brings the reality of life cycles into focus by reversing the life trajectory of Brad Pitt’s character. He is born old, and dies young—at least physically, while the love of his life, Cate Blanchett’s character ages normally (yet beautifully). This dynamic forces them to consciously address aging and youth-ing with difficult choices.

This year, I find myself the oldest I have ever been. I have experienced hopefulness. I have experienced loss. And I am looking forward to seeing how the cycle of my life continues because even though a life can be seen as one cycle from birth to death, within every life is a constant movement of inspiration for growth and the reality of decay. So I don't know what's next.

And, just as the earth rotates and is held by gravity as it goes around the sun, as we go through a life cycle we are held by the great mystery at our center.

Also, Ashtanga yoga is sometimes represented with its eight limbs coming out from a center like spokes coming out from the central axis of a wheel. When seen this way one can get a sense of evolving in multiple ways simultaneously. All spokes of a wheel support the movement or evolution, development, and realization along the path of yoga.

Let’s roll with it. Here are a couple more wheel links:

Buddhist Wheel of life
Tarot Wheel of Fortune