There’s a saying that I’m sure you’ve come across, “Wherever you go, there you are.” We’re well into this social distancing season and for all the shifts and changes in my daily life, very familiar behavioral patterns are still following me around. Yep. There I am.
At the beginning of all this, I imagined that not really leaving the house would eliminate the bulk of time-sucking activities so that I’d have oodles of time left over. That sounded like a possible silver lining to this dark COVID-cloud, because when life is busy or stressful, I crave the counterpoint of open time. I need room in my day for practice, writing, and connecting with my family. But that’s not what happened. As soon as my household and I did the heavy lifting to adjust to living in Virus-landia, I unintentionally filled up my schedule. Turns out, busy-ness is one of the things I do when I feel uncomfortable.
We may find ourselves in this strange new world where people wear facemasks, we stand six feet away from each other, and everything else seems to happen on zoom, but our internal structures, the patterns that help us and the patterns that we aren’t proud of, don’t. The internal patterning that each of us has for coping with change and stress seem inextricably and overwhelmingly entangled with our best intentions. This makes it very difficult to merely choose or decide that the aspirational behavior will come out ahead. Most of us need something more than will-power. We need practices that can loosen the old patterns and help new ones to take hold.
Yoga gives each of us a way of working with our internal patterning. Yoga practice gets into some of the deepest and most fundamental patterns that we have – how we breathe, move, and think – and lets us work with those aspects of our being so that something else can emerge. When we work with the breath so that it is long and smooth, the body can feel steady and calm. When the body feels steady and calm, the mind reflects that. And when the mind and body are steady and calm, we have a chance at cultivating, maybe even choosing, a new pattern where we have space in our daily lives for practice, important pursuits and time with those we love, including ourselves.
My parenting has had to shift a lot over the last few weeks. I’m still cooking and cleaning, I’m encouraging (and sometimes enforcing) good personal hygiene habits among family members, but other things are changing. This change is unsettling to me. I keep having to ask myself — How much śraddha, faith and trust, do I have in the process of being-a-human? When I ask that question, I come to find that I have quite a bit of faith in humanity. But the second, and harder question comes next… Does that trust apply to my children?
My girls want to be in charge of what they do and how they do it. Nora, my 11-year-old, has been sleeping on the floor of her closet for 3 weeks. Hazel, 16, died her hair bright blue and cut bangs. She wanted to cut herself a “modern-mullet” but thought better of it just before scissors went to the back of her head. Both kids want to wake up when they are ready and do school work at their own pace. They carry their laptops all over the house and into the back yard. They want to eat gross snacks. They want to dance instead of cleaning the kitchen. And when they talk to me, they don’t want advice. They want me to listen to the ideas that are bumping around in their minds and to give them the space and the time to work things out on their own.
I can’t say that I love all of the choices the girls make, but when I ask these questions about belief and faith, the śraddha is there. Hazel and Nora are capable of doing their school work and if they forget something, it’s going to be okay. It’s okay to sleep in a closet for a few weeks. It’s okay to have a dance party instead of doing the dishes. It’s also okay not to explain all the ways they could navigate the challenges they face. I don’t have to say all the things that I may want to share with my kids. They don’t need me to teach right now. They need to learn for themselves.
These days, a super-important part of my yoga practice is listening to my girls without my phone in my hands or an agenda in my back pocket. I see that the more I listen to them, the more space they have to figure out what their own inner voice is saying. There are lots of impulses and identities that drive a tween’s and teenager’s decision making, and it isn’t always the voice of intuition or true-self that wins the debate, but sorting through those voices is part of the process of being human. I really need to remember that because if I can, then my girls are going to come out of this pandemic knowing more about how they feel when they eat a bag of flamin’ hot chips or forget a school assignment. The songs and the drawings will be of their own inspiration. They will feel their own śraddha growing as they learn to trust the still, quiet voice within each of themselves.
So many of the external structures and systems that organized the flow of my days aren’t around in the way they were a month ago. My girls don’t go to school so our daily routine is much more fluid. I don’t have students coming to my home for yoga, so I don’t prepare the space in the same way I did. I’m not going to church services or to my parents’ house for dinner. I’m not attending trainings or going to stores. I’m not meeting my sister for hikes or friends for lunch. If all of these things served as the framework that gave my days structure, those boards and bricks are now in rubble heaps all around me.
At the start of all of this social-isolation business I exhausted myself by attempting to scaffold and stack the old structure back together. I wrote a daily schedule on the kitchen chalkboard with familiar wake-up times, meal times, exercise suggestions and family activities. I was going to be the super-heroine who maintained the rhythm of what life was. My girls appreciated that for about zero seconds and as it turns out, I wasn’t into it either.
I need more sleep and I have varied energy and capacity for focused attention. Without the outside structures of work, school, and calendared commitments, we don’t groom our animal bodies in the same way. Instead of walking upright and moving in and out of cars, we modern-dance our way from kitchen table to bedroom to back yard to impromptu dance floor to yoga mat to piano bench. We aren’t making our appearances out in the world so we can show up for ourselves and each other in a different way. And what that looks like changes by the day.
We are starting to see that there are all sorts of ways to be in relationship, to love, and to show love. Work can look a lot of different ways. Education can and does happen outside of classrooms. We might not know what structure these things will take and it might be too soon to try to figure it all out. I think we need to leave all the bricks piled around us for a little longer. Let’s give the feral and untamed parts of our selves time to come out and show us what they want and need. When that happens, when we get to know those parts, when we’ve found the rhythm that pulses underneath the other way we knew how to be in the world, only then should we consider building something with the rubble of what was.
Over the last two weeks, my husband and I constructed garden beds for the backyard. I’ve made meals and baked bread. I’ve organized and cleaned. I washed my hands again and again and I have cleaned some more. At the end of every day, I fall into bed sore and exhausted. The only time I sit still is during meals with my family and my morning yoga practice.
When the stress is high, it’s interesting to watch what I do. I try to stay positive. I definitely try to stay busy and I want to have something to show for my efforts. I tend toward tasks that engage my body and my mind so much that I can’t think about what I’m feeling.
I’d like to say that yoga practice brings me peace these days, but it doesn’t. What it offers is space and time to feel the feelings that come with this strange new landscape. It gives me the ability to be with the experiences that I’m having as a result of this time of unknowns, illness, intimate time with family and a sense of interconnectedness that spans the globe. Practice won’t fix the problems, but somehow breathing slowly and deeply provides the stable ground to be able to look at how lives, mine and others, are being effected. It reminds me of my body and the importance of this breath. And this one. And this one. When I practice, I can feel myself move with a river, centuries old, that flows with the human beings who have related to their precious breath in a sacred way and who sat and allowed themselves to be with what happened during their own difficult times. I’m held by the practice and then I have the presence to feel my fear, and to be with all the uncertainty. When I am not trying so hard to tamp it down and avoid it, I’m with it and there’s some freedom in that.
Looking at what we are going through honestly, compassionately and without judgment is a form of self-empathy. Acknowledging what’s actually happening internally and around us takes courage, but it does provide a comfort perhaps because it is grounded in reality. When we aren’t so busy with the avoidance-shell-game or stubbornly refusing to feel, we have capacity to be with what is. Really seeing can be intense, but at the end of the day, it isn’t as exhausting as trying to make it this pandemic into something it’s not.
Yoga practice isn’t bringing me peace, exactly, but it is encouraging grace and stability so that I can be alive to what is occurring within and around me. Yoga can give us the capacity to be with what is.
I sincerely wish that you and your loved ones are safe and cared for. If I can be of support, I hope you’ll reach out.
Definitions of āsana Part 6: heyam duḥkhamanāgatam Yoga Sūtra II.16Prevent future suffering
My grandmother had painful bunions on both feet. Though she didn’t complain, her red-hot joints and crooked toes caused her lots of suffering. By the time I was old enough to notice, she was wearing soft, padded shoes exclusively. (You might be familiar with the brand, SAS?) My mom has bunions, too. Her feet ache though they haven’t reached the severe stages that my Grandma’s did. My mom does massages the bottoms of her feet with a soft ball and walks around barefoot a lot. She doesn’t wear heels and she keeps these padded floor mats in the kitchen. She’s managing pretty well.
With this genetic evidence, it’s no surprise that in my teenage years, I started to see my big toes take a turn. When I wore any sort of heeled shoe I’d feel a deep ache at that big toe joint for hours. Lucky for me, I’m six feet tall, not so fashion oriented and I saw how bad bunions could get. By college, I quit wearing any shoe that resulted in achy big toe joints. That helped with the pain, but not the traveling toes. With yoga I started to work with my feet to encourage those toes to point North. I want to prevent future bunion-suffering.
In the context of āsana, there are several ways that this definition applies. There can be things in the very near and direct future we are hoping to prevent and things with a longer trajectory. Practice with sthira and sukha, stability and ease (more on this next post) and you have the opportunity to improve aches and pains in the body. Practice yoga in the morning and the body is more comfortable in the afternoon. Do some gentle movement before bed and then sleep is more restful. Move the body with presence and intention and a confusing decision becomes clear.
Attending to the needs of the body now can help the it to function well over time. Asana can help improve postural and movement patterns for a well -functioning body as we age. Practice balance, you’re balance will improve. Breathe deeply and you will support a full breath over time.
Some of the things that occur in life can’t be prevented or avoided. There are other times when there’s a potential problem ahead of us and we can do something about it now to lessen or even remove what’s ahead. This sūtra sets the stage for our asana practice and encourages us to reflect on what we can do to prevent future suffering.
Definitions of āsana Part 5: Vinyāsa krāmaStart where you are and take appropriate and intelligent steps to reach your goal
Vinyāsa krāma is one of the most valuable ideas that I’ve received from yoga. It has taught me how to think, how to make change, how to move from where I am to a place that I want to be. It applies to just about every aim I have set my sights on. I so appreciate times when my teachers have helped and guided me through these appropriate and intelligent steps. The experiences have been so powerful, but it’s so hard to write about. Like all of the entries in this series, I keep getting caught up. The experience of vinyāsa krama is so much more than can be expressed in a few paragraphs. Like all of yoga, the experience is what really matters and the ideas serve best when they are a description of something you already know in your bones. So here we go again with something imperfect but sincere.
Let’s reflect for a moment… if you want to go from where you are to somewhere different, it’s really helpful to know where you want to go. Once you have an idea of where you want to go, it’s also important to know what your starting place is. With this information, it becomes possible to map out the appropriate and intelligent steps to move you in the right direction. Nothing is skipped and there aren’t extreneous things thrown in along the way. This is vinyāsa krāma.
Vi – special nyāsa– placement krāma – steps
This approach seems obvious when you think about going to the store to buy something you need. You know where you are. You know how much time you have. You think about where the store is and the roads that will get you there. Then you make the effort to transport yourself to the store. You don’t make extra stops because you are aiming for an efficient errand-running outing. You head to the store, get what you need, and you accomplish your goal.
This may also be a familiar process if your yoga practice applies principles of vinyāsa krāma (not all do). Say you go to a yoga class, and the teacher has chosen an āsana goal for you to experience. Your teacher guides you through experiences that warm your body, expand your breath, direct your mind and help prepare you for the posture. Throughout class, you work toward this goal in a focused and directed way and then ta-da! you move into the posture with comfort and get to be with that new experience. Vinyāsa krāma, when skillfully applied, invites the system to unfold, open, and move with stability and ease toward a new experience.
These principles, like all of the things we practice in āsana, apply to life, too. Do you want to learn to play the piano? Build a deck in your back yard? Develop a consistent daily yoga practice? Improve your communication patterns with a loved one? Here are three considerations when applying vinyāsa krāma in your life.
Reflect on the aim or goal. Envision it. Imagine it. It’s good practice to consider your motivations, too. Are they coming from the right place?
Understand your starting place. Where are you now? It’s easy to get caught up in evaluating where we are as good/bad, productive/deficient, likable/unlikable. But that’s not the point. When you make an aim to move toward your goal, it is so helpful to know what skills you have and which ones you need to develop. What needs strengthening? Are there things that you do that get in the way of moving toward your goal. Look at yourself with generous honesty and aim for a fair assessment of you in this moment. This will help you to create the intelligent and appropriate steps.
Develop a roadmap to help you get there. When you apply vinyāsa krāma to an aim or goal, you are choosing to have experiences that will help you move toward your goal. These experiences are steps and you take one and then the next, not skipping anything important, and not adding in anything superfluous. If you are building a deck, you develop a plan before cutting the wood. If you are learning to play the piano, a teacher gives you a simple song before something complex. In this way, we gain experience gradually, progressively, intelligently and appropriately as we move toward our goal.
The thing that I most appreciate about this definition of āsana and the experience of vinyāsa krāma is how respectful it is of my human nature. When I think about it, I sigh and relax a little bit. I drop some of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘have to’s’. I’m not expected or required to be anywhere other than where I am right now. After all, where, who and how I am in this moment is the only way I can begin anything. My path is individual. There isn’t a predetermined route to reach a goal, there is a special route that is appropriate to me and the steps I take along that route are personal. The needed steps depend on how I am functioning, what I need, and what will be helpful in my journey. The times that I’m guided by my teachers who are so steeped in these principles, I’m touched by how the thoughtful, how kind, and how good it feels to move through a process towards something I hadn’t been able to do or experience in quite that way before. It’s like magic. Without pushing or forcing, something opens and unlocks and something becomes possible.
Definitions of āsana, Part 4: Sārva Aṅga Sādhana:Āsana is an all parts practice
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you may find it difficult to describe to your non-yoga going friends what it’s doing for you. They can see that you get a lot out of it but can’t wrap their mind around how, exactly, ‘stretching’ can help you feel more peace around a difficult situation. Or how yoga can help can help you to heal – not just physically but emotionally, too. I’ve been in the yoga-game for over a decade and I talk about yoga for a living, but even so, it’s a great challenge to describe why and how yoga works to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I was at a party a few weeks ago and this very thing came up. A casual friend approached me about his injured back. He wants to feel better, and is curious about what I do, but is a great skeptic when it comes to yoga. I asked some questions and described a little of what I’m writing about here, but when it came down to it, he just doesn’t see the back injury as having anything to do with the stress at work and the chronic movement patterns that strain this area. He isn’t yet at a place where he can see all these parts of his life experience as interrelated. That’s okay. Seed is planted. He’ll know I’m right, eventually. 😉
This definition of āsana is known as sārva aṅga sādhana, literally meaning “all parts practice.” To me, this definition is a way of beginning to understand why yoga can help with so many aspects of our lives. When we practice yoga postures, we call on every part of our system to get involved. You might be wondering, what are all these parts we’re talking about? Yoga has a model to help us reflect on this very question.
The pañca maya model comes from the ancient Vedic text, the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, and describes our human system as having five (pañca) interconnected and interdependent veils or layers (maya):
5 Interconnected facets of our
human system * Pañca Maya
Body * Annamaya
Breath and Prāṇa * Prāṇamaya
Mind * Manomaya
Behavior and Personality * Vijñānamaya
Emotions * Ānandamaya
Āsana invites each aspect of our being to the practice. When we are present in this way and all parts of us are activeley involved, then āsana has the potential to facilitate deep change in our lives. We breathe consciously and with technique [expanding the chest with inhales, drawing the abdomen toward spine with exhales]. The dynamic movements into and out of postures coordinate with the length of the breath. All of this requires a lot of attention and presence. Activity that requires attention and presence also reveals aspects of our personality. Some days, āsana might be a welcome practice, other days, not so much. Why? We have different moods and modes. Āsana lets us become aware of and work with these moods and modes. Linked to all of this is an emotional experience. There’s a feeling that comes with everything we do. Āsana is much more than stretching. It involves all parts of our being. If we stick with it, we can be present to what it is to be a person. Difficulties can begin to digest, old patterns begin to change, and we awaken to something within us that is steady and light.
Even with a beautiful description of this multi-dimensional system and how yoga works on all these levels, our attempts to explaining to our curious friend will fall short. Yoga is experiential. It’s something that you do and that does something to you. It’s something your friend will feel when they are in your presence, even if they can’t put words to how and why it works.
Definitions of āsana, Part 3: Nava śarīra saṁskāra
Yoga is full of paradox. In my teaching
lately, I’ve found myself saying one thing about yoga and at the very moment
that it is coming out of my mouth, what feels like it’s opposite is ringing in
my head, ‘Not so fast, little lady…’
Teaching and practicing yoga require a contemplative mind (‘yes, and’) and
humility (there are so many ways to see truth and to know something). Writing about
these definitions of āsana continues to fall short of how amazing and
transformational the experience can be. I guess that’s because āsana isn’t something
that you can get to the bottom of by reading blogs. It’s an experience that you
fully participate in with your entire being. Only when you’ve spent time doing āsana does reading
and writing about it have purpose. Experience
it again and again over time and then these definitions and theory mean
I’m pretty sure that if you’re on this blog about yoga, it’s not all theory for you. You do it. You know what it has done to you. And the teachings and context provides a description and language for something you already know and feel. That’s why I write about it. Writing brings my interior world to the surface. The attempts to express what goes on down there is an opportunity for retasting. It helps make what’s subtle a little more tangible. So here we go. Definition number three.
Like yoga, life is full of paradoxes. One of those centers around our habits and patterns. We need patterns to communicate, to do our jobs, to feel connected to the people in our lives, and to navigate a challenging and vibrant world. And yet, our patterns can become so impenetrable that we get stuck repeating them over-and-over, even when they get in the way of what we most need or desire. Our communication patterns can leave us having the same argument with a partner year after year. The way our shoulders scrunch up when we’re under stress happens out of deep patterning and we may not be aware of it till we’re having that migraine again. When our patterns are limiting us or even determining our behavior, then āsana and the process of developing a nava śarīra saṁskāra, or “new body pattern” can help.
This third definition of āsana, nava śarīra saṁskāra, invites us to work with body patterns that we hold, repeat, and carry with us all the time. It’s funny because the pañca maya model (more on this next post) describes 5 interconnected layers of our human system from the most gross to the most subtle. These layers are: body, prāṇa/breath, mind, personality, and emotions. Body is the first one on the list, suggesting that it is the most gross. We often begin our yoga work with āsana and the body because we can move it and see it move. Yes this is true that the body is accessible, and some of our body patterns are incredibly subtle. We humans develop our personal postural patterns really early. That postural pattern makes it possible to recognize your friend from behind on a crowded street from 200 feet away even if you haven’t seen them in years. We don’t think about walking. We just walk. We don’t try to tighten or clench when we get scared. But we do. So, working with body patterns is accessible and also very deep work.
In order for āsana to help us operate in a new way, we have to be willing to have new experiences. If we’re set on continuing along the same old lines, then we are going to approach āsana in the same way we do (and have done) everything else. This willingness is the key to letting something new come in. And learning how to welcome new experiences can enrich our approach to āsana practice.
I’ve put together a list below of tips that can help you open to new experiences and get the most out of your āsana practice. You might get a feel from reading the list that inspires or maybe one thing jumps out as something you’d like to try on for a while. Nava śarīra saṁskāra, here we come.
10 Keys for developing new body patterns. Nava śarīra saṁskāra !
Invite change! (the old pattern was getting in the way, remember?)
Be willing to do things in a new way
Have a beginner’s mind. Set aside what you think you know and listen again for the first time.
Feel the sensations in your body as they arise
Stay curious and open
Have patience. New patterns take time to develop.
Suspend judgment. You can’t be good or bad at something when it’s a new experience
Defer decisions about liking or not liking the activity. (Most of us like the feeling of not being amazing at something. And when we are doing something new, we’re not going to be amazing.)
If what you’re doing feels awkward and uncomfortable, you are really doing it! Youare exploring something new!
And the #1 most helpful and important key to developing a new body pattern…become someone’s student! You need a teacher who is a keen observer, an honest guide, and who has done the work deeply and sincerely her/him/themself. Without a teacher, our patterns are very hard to see and even harder to change.
We see here
another meaning of ās, meaning ‘seat’ or ‘comfortable seat.’
śarīra – body
aṅga – limb
vinyāsa – a special arrangement
My girls are closing in on the end of the first quarter of their school year and we all seem to have bumped up against the same wall this week. Hazel announced that she hates school (or at least all the school work). Nora expressed her wall-hitting with a seriously grouchy and argumentative attitude. Dave admitted to feeling a little blue. And when I woke up on Monday morning, I thought, “Here we go again…” I caught myself feeling like Monday was something I had to hold my nose to swallow and that this Monday would be stamped out just like all the Mondays before. I was not excited.
I practiced yoga that morning, and I’m glad I did because something changed. It didn’t happen instantly, but over time, as I breathed and moved in a special way, I began to feel present. Āsana practice reminded me of something really important – this day, which happens to be a Monday, is the moment I’m alive. In āsana, we connect with what is happening – I’m breathing…I have a body that moves and feels…I can only feel this now … So much is happening… So much is possible. Yoga is a practice that helps make the wonder of the moment available again. It helps me remember how I would like to show up for my life. If normal and ordinary feel like going through the motions or ‘getting through the day,’ then practicing āsana in a way that is not ordinary helps me reconnect to what is special about being alive. This kind of practice is vital to having a meaningful life.
This definition of āsana tells us that practice looks different from what is regular and ordinary in other ways, too. If we work at a desk job that is highly analytical, āsana practice might focus on standing postures and have a focus that is more relaxing for the mind. If we cut hair for a living, standing much of the day, talking to clients, and squeezing and working the hands and wrists, then a quiet practice, reclined postures, and gentle hand and wrist movements in the opposite direction could provide a break from the ordinary. Live alone? You may enjoy attending a regular group class where you get to enjoy the company and companionship of others. Climb mountains? Drive a bus? Care for small children? Surf? Swim? Work as a cook? Clean houses? There’s a regular or ordinary set of movements that goes along with each of these activities and we look for what is not ordinary when designing an āsana practice.
There’s more to āsana practice than the primary orientation
of the postures. For many of us practice is not normal because it’s one of the
few times we turn our attention away from what is happening outside of us and direct
the attention to something more quiet and subtle within. Attention to the breath, to the quiet communications
of the body and our emotional experience can be a special aspect of āsana practice
and a special way of being.
The root of the word āsana comes
from the sanskrit root, ās. This can mean, “being or becoming.” If āsana is rooted in being and becoming,
what does that tell us about what we are practicing? How does this context and
this definition give us guidance for our practice? This is a big topic to kick
off our series, but this idea is the container in which all of our other
definitions exist, so it is a good place to begin.
When I think about ‘being,’ it feels simple. An apple can be an apple, but it can’t be an orange. Even those weird apples that were at our grocery store a few years ago that had been injected with an artificial grape flavor were still apples. A rotten apple? Still being apple. Apple juice? Still being apple. Being is basic and essential. The things that were true about my being when I was an infant are true about me now. No matter how we dress it up, how it ails, ages, or changes, we are being until the end.
Becoming is happening at every moment. What we do and the experiences we have inform our next ones. If we are doing the same things over and over again, then we are becoming the person who acts and reacts in the same way we always have. If, instead, we have different experiences, then we are becoming a ‘different person’. We can react and respond to things in a fresh way. This is one of the most hopeful ideas in all of yoga. Becoming is continually happening. That means we can help to create who we are becoming by choosing and participating in experiences that generate the kinds of feelings we want more of.
Āsana is one of the experiences where we can practice being who
and how we want to be. Do we want to be more accepting of our struggles? We can
practice acceptance in āsana. Do we want
to have more peace and calm? We can practice āsana in a peaceful and calm way. When
our teacher recognizes a pattern of tension, straining, or distraction is
present in our practice, they might help us to see that and encourage a better
way of practicing.
Daily āsana practice is an experience that can shape the moments that follow, and repeated regularly, it has the potential to shape the way we live out life. With breath and movement (and sometimes sound and intention) as our tools, āsana invites us to become increasingly present and conscious. This definition reminds us that āsana is doing something to us, and it invites us to experience something of our essential nature. You and I are invited to become who we are.