Yoga's ultimate goal is liberation: freedom from worry, comparison, fear of future, being weighed down by the past. Yoga Poses free the body, over time, of restriction and limitation. The practice - daily, steady practice - liberates the mind.
But sometimes getting liberated takes us right, straight into the territory that weighs us down. Sometimes this process brings us face to face with what we're scared of, embarrassed about or shrinking from.
Take me, this morning. I'm finishing a major project I've been working on for three years: a book about how to get started with yoga. The hardest thing for me to do this morning was to get on my mat - even though my space is newly cleaned, my morning was simple and everything is in place. I rolled out the mat. I stood at the top, finally, and realized I hadn't netied. I hadn't had my water. I hadn't practiced basic self-kindness and care.
I went and took care of those things. I came back. I felt frozen - like stage fright. I felt like I had to perform. It would be easy to make this about the book, but I've been here before. Have you been? Stuck, like you don't know what to do? Like you've never moved without instruction before? It was about how I was approaching my life, and yes, of course, it had to do with the book, since that is large in my life right now. But book projects and yoga mats are occasions for our habits - samskaras, in Sanskrit - to assert themselves... and for us to listen.
My samskara goes something like this: any time I'm putting something out into the world that represents my deepest offering, I shrink - not down, not in: up. Up into a tiny dot in my head. That tiny dot fancies herself the Protector and scans for threats (which are everywhere if you're looking for potential) and then strategizes a master and 2 backup plans for neutralizing or vanquishing each one.
Which takes me right out of the moment, out of my body and out of reality. So then, when I roll the mat out, the me that's practicing is performing for the tiny dot, who is awfully puffed up with how hard she's working to protect us from threats only she sees. The tiny dot doesn't think yoga practice is nearly as important as what she's up to and gets crazy judgey.
The first step in working with samskara is to be able to see them. The next is not to push them away. This is why it's so deeply important to step onto the mat every day. Daily practice builds in do overs, but it also brings safety and the ability to peek behind the curtain just a little bit each day. Standing off against our habits and fears only drives them deeper. But practice allows us to be more like water on stone: a flowing presence not asking for dramatic changes, only noticing, practicing kindness, even to the tiny dot.
Daily practice also gives us the experience of feeling the feelings that we don't allow to break through in the bustle of "getting things done" - and then walk away and actually get things done. And come back. The experience of peeking, maybe even hanging out with our habits and fears, and then experiencing our ability to effect things in the world before coming back, having another peek again, being curious and learning more - the cycle gently brings the self-importance of the habit or fear down to size and creates a container of awareness in which the gentle alchemy of transformation occurs.
So for me, this morning, practice was a process of expanding from that tiny dot in my head into my heart and belly, letting go of scanning for threats and getting see all the beauty around me, and feel the beauty of being embodied.
Mat fear, the feeling that keeps us from stepping onto the mat, that keeps manufacturing more things to do before we start, and reasons we don't have time, this feeling is melted by curiosity. Curiosity about what we feel and do not feel, and where we are not feeling (I wasn't feeling my arms and the back of my neck this morning, until I had done one Sun Salutation and invited myself to feel myself breathe) melts the fear that keeps the parts of ourselves from healing one another.
Mat fear is the number one enemy of daily practice. If you haven't practiced in a while, it may be hiding in the center of your tightly rolled mat. Unfurl that thing and let it out. Have a little monster hang out with it and be curious about all the reasons it says you can't. What do those things represent? What if you go do them? What if you don't? What if you just stood up right now and feel what it feels like to breath, then to lift your arms overhead? Why not? And what does that reason tell you about your habits?
Trust in the process of awareness. Trust your body. Trust curiosity without reaction. Let me know what you find.
One of my students told me that her office mates are jealous that she has a steady date with her yoga class. They know that Thursday means she's leaving on time, because it's yoga night.
This warms a yoga teacher's heart, of course, this dedication. But the next thing she told me I'll hold dear for the rest of my life: "I don't like to miss class because you always tell us we're beautiful."
I hadn't realized it until she said that, because it's a natural response to seeing people breathing with awareness, reaching out through hands and heart and feet from the strength of solid foundations from a rock steady core. I realized then that I do say several times each class, after finishing a series of instructions: "Beautiful." Because you are.
Come because you already are. Beautiful. And you want to feel that beauty with every fiber of your being.
Yoga is about sensing your body from the inside out. Experimenting with foundation and connection and learning to feel things that we ignore for large parts of our lives. Come to yoga for that: to feel the things that modern life has us ignore. Come to yoga to feel everything you already are.
Why we practice feeling grateful at the end of every yoga class.
In honor of our national festival of gratitude. Or food. Or being grateful for having food. Or eating our feelings. Don't eat your feelings. Feel them.
Right after your luxurious Savasana, after you've reconnected with every sense, moved every joint and begun to breathe... well, less like a corpse, I invite you to feel gratitude for three things in your life.
This isn't just a nice way to end class, a touchy feely, oh-see-how-grateful-we-all-are, pie in the sky, there ain't no danger in the world, special secret mumbo jumbo. This is based on real data that neuroscientists at the highest levels are using to transform their own lives while they study the brain some more. So I figure that school administrators, financial analysts, procurement specialists, social workers, paramedics and nurses, fathers and mothers, ministers, veterans, high school teachers and you should benefit from it, too.
If you come to yoga classes with me, you know we've been curling up in renewasana between corpse and closing class to feel feelings of gratitude for a long time. I recently listened to an interview of Dr. Rick Hanson by Tami Simon of SoundsTrue - listened over and over, it's that good - that made the science and procedures behind gratitude practice really come to life. Now if you've listened to Simon interview before, you're already a fan and may have heard this yourself. If not, head on over for a listen instead of longing for another installment of America's Next Top Model (Corey so should have won). You'll need to sign up for a free "Direct Access" Membership but then search on "Rick Hanson" and you'll be in. It's worth it.
The interview is about "positive neuroplasticity" and leverages what we know about neurophysiology to overcome our natural bias toward looking out for threats, so activating our fight or flight response, and grow our tendency toward a more relaxed nervous system. This procedure "comes from tough minded clarity about the ways life is challenging" and is "based in brain science."
The trick is to feel your feelings. But Hanson has a much catchier way of putting this.
Hanson notes that having a positive - or useful - mental state is the prerequisite to this method, but also notes how infrequently these transient states actually change us in any fundamental way. He gives 5 modifiers that lead to "positive neuroplasticity:"
(You really should listen to him talk, his interview is crazy packed). His recommendation is that "half a dozen times a day, half a minute at a time" you "help the good stuff stick to you" by stopping to notice the sensations and feelings associated with the positive experience and "install" these experiences by increasing each of the 5 modifiers. Make it last a little longer by noticing it. Up the intensity by savoring it. Notice every sense it hits, even moving your body to capture more sensation. Allow it to be on its own - new, not lumped in with other experiences. Acknowledge the experience's importance to you.
The experience doesn't have to be a rock-your-world kind of moment. It can be a "one or two on a ten scale," petting your dog and a stranger smiling at you are a couple of examples they discuss.
So now you know why, while you're curled up in a ball, preparing to take your practice out into the world, I ask you to feel the feelings that surround 3 things for which you are grateful. Yoga practice, we all know, is not so much practice for handstands and down dogs: it's practice for traffic and lines and challenges and grace. Practice for grace, practice for love and install a little extra light into that noggin.
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Blogging is sometimes like home yoga practice. Often. Almost always. You experiment and send something out to the world. You experiment and you plant a seed. You experiment and you find something that feels amazing, but the same thing doesn't work the next day. Or it does, but eventually it grows into new understanding and you experiment again.
I've been blogging since 2001, so I've been through a lot of experiments. I've had a home yoga practice just a little bit longer, so lots of experiments there, too. On the blogging front, I've been on Blogger and Wordpress and had blogs named Yoga3Om, YogaEveryDay, Align2Center, YogaGuide, CallsFromTheNight - and those are just the yoga blogs! And then there are blogs I've written for others, kind of like teaching yoga: you create something and share it by giving it to someone else to use.
It was difficult to move my writing to my business website, not because it was hard to figure out (it was a breeze), but because it represents a change fundamental to my entire practice. I've had YogaGuide since 2006 when I was in teacher training and YogaEveryDay since 07 when I started teaching at North Valley Senior Center and have resisted moving because of that longevity and history. And I'll still post there occasionally, just as I still return to Ashtanga Series when I need structure and rigor in my practice. But moving my writing here represents a final evolution I could never have imagined 7 years ago when I was about to move into a Field Operations Supervisor position as a Paramedic and when i was working weekend nights and living a schedule fit for a boozy guitar player in the '70s. This move represents moving into my skin as a writer and yoga teacher and shedding the Paramedic uniform skin once and for all. I'll still have a slight adrenaline dump when I hear sirens, I'll still evaluate everyone I meet for IV access and fatality risk factors. I'll still carry with me the partners and patients who made that life so rich, just as I carry with me the texts and students that made my Philosophy Ph.D. student life the most perfect foundation for all that has come after. But this is where I am now. This is how I serve in the world now. So I'm moving in. You'll be invited to the housewarming and I'll provide the presents, so stay in touch :)
How is your practice and your service evolving? What experiments are you in the midst? Are you in the first blush beginning, the make-it-work or the feeling a bit like day old beer phase? They're all exciting, because they're all feelings that lead to growth. The trick is to abide with them, while they're here, without holding on or turning our backs. As for me, this feels like a new rotation of the spiral of my unfolding life. Thanks for sharing the unfolding and the practice.